They came in plainclothes with guns: ‘Abducted’ by Uganda’s army

Security forces have detained hundreds of people as President Yoweri Museveni faces his fiercest opposition in 35 years.

Denis Matovu, main picture, and Richard Sonko, were taken in December 2020 and have not been heard from since [Al Jazeera]
Denis Matovu, main picture, and Richard Sonko, were taken in December 2020 and have not been heard from since [Al Jazeera]

Music was everywhere in Kampala and when Denis Matovu was growing up he loved it all, his family says. The dancehall rhythms. The lilting Afrobeats. The stars, from Mowzey Radio to Eddy Kenzo.

His favourite was Bobi Wine, the self-anointed “ghetto president”, who sang of the hardships and the hustle of daily life. Bobi Wine owned a beach resort close to Matovu’s home in the Ugandan capital, where a dusty road drops to Lake Victoria. There was work there in the school holidays, washing cars or cutting the grass. On Sundays, Matovu would plunge into the waters and swim.

Politics was everywhere too, but Matovu did not think much about that. Even when Bobi Wine became an MP, and then decided to run for president, Matovu was more worried about his own dreams: saving money from his taxi job so that he could go and work in Dubai. He was a man of simple habits, almost “like a child”, says an old friend. He still lived at home at 21. His friends would sometimes leave him out of their hustles, knowing how he feared trouble.

But in Uganda politics had a way of catching you. On December 8, 2020, according to half a dozen witnesses Al Jazeera spoke to, Matovu was sitting at a taxi stop in Lukuli, a suburb of Kampala. Election campaigns were in full swing. A posse of men was putting up posters for the president, Yoweri Museveni. They wore canary yellow shirts, the colour of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.

The locals were not happy. Museveni had ruled for nearly 35 years, longer than four-fifths of Ugandans have been alive. “We are tired of yellow,” someone shouted. “Give us your glue and we will put up a poster of Bobi Wine.”

An argument broke out. A crowd gathered. Swear words were exchanged. Then the men in yellow hitched up their shirts. There were pistols in their waistbands. There was something else too: a minivan, of the type known in Uganda as a “drone”, which pulled up on the other side of the road.

The crowd scattered. In the chaos, armed men grabbed Matovu. His friend, Richard Sonko, tried to intervene; they seized him too. Then they beat them: with fists, say some witnesses, with pistol butts, say others. Matovu and Sonko were bundled into the drone and driven away.

Neither man has been seen since.

*****

The Toyota Hiace is a light commercial van that can be used as a minibus, a taxi, or even an ambulance. But in Uganda, the “drone” has a sinister reputation. Chris Atukwasize, a cartoonist at the Daily Monitor newspaper, dubbed it the #WheelsOfSteal and rendered it as a skull: brake lights dripping blood, its front grille a row of teeth, and hands plastered behind its tinted back windows, pleading for help.

Uganda held presidential and parliamentary elections on January 14. In the months before, armed men in “drones” abducted people from markets, taxi stops, petrol stations, roadsides, and homes. Hundreds of disappearances have been reported in the press and on social media. President Museveni himself, discussing what he described as “so-called disappearances”, said last month that the army had arrested more than 300 people. Most of those taken are young men with links to the National Unity Platform (NUP), the opposition party Bobi Wine leads.

For this story, Al Jazeera spoke to the relatives of 17 people who have allegedly been abducted in central Uganda since November 2020, as well as witnesses, activists, local political leaders and lawyers. We also spoke to 10 more people who say they were taken by security forces and released, after periods of detention ranging from a few hours to two months. Where possible, we cross-checked stories with official documents such as court filings and police bonds. Although the details of individual accounts are difficult to independently verify, they are consistent with other testimonies collected by Ugandan media.

These reports paint a chilling picture of extrajudicial detentions and enforced disappearances by state actors operating outside of Ugandan and international law. Sometimes the kidnappers are in police uniform; in most cases, they wear army fatigues or plainclothes. The number plates on their vehicles are often absent or obscured with tape. They typically target NUP organisers, but they have also swept up others who are only mildly involved in politics. The relatives of the missing do not usually know where their loved ones are being held or if they have been charged with a crime. When abductees reappear, they often report beatings, harassment or torture.

On February 13, in response to public outcry, Museveni gave a televised address on the matter. “The talk of disappearances should be ignored because it can’t happen under the NRM,” he said. “We never cover up, there’s nothing which we do and hide.”

In a photo from November 19, 2020, Ugandan security forces patrol on a street after protests over the arrest of opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine, in Kampala [File: AP Photo]

Yet, in the same speech, the president said that a commando unit, previously deployed as part of the African Union mission in Somalia, had arrested 76 people in Kampala and neighbouring Mukono district during the build-up to elections. He also said that the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) – the army’s own intelligence agency – had arrested 242 suspects, of whom 177 had been granted bail or released. Two weeks later, the security forces have still not released a list of those in detention.

Jeje Odongo, the minister for internal affairs, had previously acknowledged that many of the “alleged kidnaps” were perpetrated by “numberless, tinted vehicles”, adding that “in some instances, it is true that there is overzealousness on the part of the soldiers that are carrying out these acts”.

Museveni says that such measures were necessary to stop “terrorists” and “lawbreakers” who planned to stop the elections and destabilise the country. But in Uganda, arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances stir up memories of past dictatorships. Under the iron-fisted rule of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, political opponents disappeared and the army rounded up civilians in “panda gari” (“get in the truck”) operations.

“Panda gari is back,” says Bobi Wine, the singer and presidential candidate, who was himself held under house arrest for 11 days after the vote. “The regime is in overdrive, kidnapping, abducting people, many of them never to be seen again … The regime is targeting not only those that are close to me but every Ugandan that has ever agitated for change.”

He was speaking to the media on February 17, the same day he delivered a petition about the abductions to the Kampala Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Military police caned journalists covering the event, leaving some reporters bleeding from the head. Seven needed hospital treatment.

Although Bobi Wine has spoken out strongly on the issue, few of the families we spoke to had received much legal or financial support from his party. Most of the top lawyers in Wine’s circle have been preoccupied with a court challenge to the election result, which they have now withdrawn, saying the court system is hopelessly rigged.

*****

Denis Matovu’s mother, Solome Ssemakula Nakibuuka, did not see her son get taken. When a relative told her what had happened, she fell to the floor in a cold sweat. Matovu was her firstborn child. “I was very scared,” she recalls, “because I had already heard that cars were coming and abducting people.” That night, she did not sleep.

In the following week, the family went to all the police stations in the area where Matovu had disappeared. Nobody knew where he was. When the family mentioned the “drone”, many officers were nervous about opening a file. One policeman eventually registered the disappearance but was unable to help much.

So the family searched on their own. They went to Luzira prison. The Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) headquarters in Kibuli. The Special Investigations Unit in Kireka. The army barracks in Mbuya and Makindye. Three times to the new prison in Kitalya, which had only opened that year but was said to be already heaving with political prisoners.

One day they heard about two young men who had been dumped at a hospital in handcuffs. One of Matovu’s relatives, who asks not to be named, rushed to the ward. Could it be Matovu and Sonko?

The young men were too shaken to talk. Their fingernails had been pulled out. It was not Matovu and Sonko.

*****

On January 29, 1986, a slim Yoweri Museveni stood on the steps of Parliament and was sworn in as president of Uganda, promising “a fundamental change in the politics of our country”. He wore polished boots and army fatigues. The rebel leader had spent the last decade-and-a-half either mobilising for a guerrilla war or fighting one.

A picture taken on January 29, 1986 in Kampala shows Yoweri Museveni, right, during his first cabinet meeting after being sworn in as president of Uganda [File: AFP]

And something was indeed changing. A despot like Idi Amin had ruled through open violence. But Museveni would govern with a “new model of autocracy”, says Yusuf Serunkuma, a political theorist at Makerere University in Kampala. For starters, there would be regular elections – just not ones that an opposition candidate would be given any chance of winning. Museveni’s supporters later removed term limits and a presidential age limit from the constitution, so that he could run for office as many times as he liked.

That presented the opposition with a conundrum: How to unseat an elected strongman? The space was closing for armed rebellion, the sort which Museveni himself had waged. “But there is another avenue,” says Serunkuma. “A country rising up and taking on a leader through protests.”

The model was the Arab Spring. In April 2011, a few months after the Egyptian revolution, the Ugandan opposition organised “Walk-to-Work” protests against high inflation. Although the state hit back with lethal force, a precedent for urban protest was set. When Bobi Wine entered politics, winning a seat in Parliament in 2017, this kind of street mobilisation seemed his natural terrain. The young men of the “ghetto” already idolised him. After being nominated for president, he promised a “revolutionary election”, warning that Museveni would either go at the ballot box or be toppled like Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

And then came a moment of shock. On November 18 last year, Bobi Wine was arrested while campaigning, ostensibly for violating COVID-19 rules. Protests erupted across the country and continued until he was released on bail two days later. Young men lit fires in the street and damaged cars; some attacked police officers.

The state’s response was brutal and indiscriminate. By Museveni’s own count, the security forces shot 54 people dead – the true number is probably higher. The victims ranged from a 15-year-old schoolboy to a retired accountant; many had not been protesting at all. The perpetrators included men in plainclothes carrying semi-automatic weapons. “When you want to catch a thief, sometimes you behave like a thief,” explained the security minister afterwards.

Yet something about the protests had ruffled the state. A few weeks later, the leadership of the security forces was shuffled. Museveni’s own son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, was back as the head of Special Forces Command, an elite army unit he had previously led until 2017. The new deputy police chief was Major-General Paul Lokech, who had earned the nickname “the lion of Mogadishu” while battling al-Shabab in Somalia, where Ugandan soldiers are involved in a peacekeeping mission. Another Somalia veteran, Major-General Kayanja Muhanga, was put in charge of security in Kampala. Political protest was now being managed by experts in urban warfare.

Bugolobi market in Kampala, where three people were abducted last year [Al Jazeera]

In the following weeks, armed men raided Kampala markets, seizing prominent opposition organisers like John Ddamulira, a spare parts trader in the Kisekka market, and Silver Kalulu, who sold pineapples in Kasubi. “They came in plainclothes with guns,” says one of Kalulu’s brothers. The family went to report the kidnapping at the police station, but the officers refused to open a file.

On the other side of town, at Bugolobi market, a “drone” pulled up on the afternoon of November 23. Witnesses say the men who got out wore face coverings and helmets, and carried guns. Some were in plainclothes, others in black – a colour usually worn by counterterrorism police. They made for a corner of the market where young men would gather to chat and play games. “They found us playing ludo,” says Brian, a vendor whose name has been changed for his protection.

The armed men ordered Brian and 10 other traders into the “drone”. For the next few hours, they drove around the city. The men were taking orders through a radio receiver: “Take off their shirts… Take away their phones.” The traders’ shirts were tied around their heads so they could not see, says Brian. “If you tried to put up your hand they would beat you.”

Night fell. “It’s time to die,” said one of the armed men. It was a bluff: the “drone” parked and the men untied the shirts from the traders’ heads, one at a time, and ordered them to get out. Brian was kicked and slapped as he scrambled onto the roadside. He and his friends ran for safety. But only 10 of the 11 were released: Martin Lukwago, a fish seller and a vocal follower of Bobi Wine, was nowhere to be seen. A week later, in the same market, armed men snatched Ronald Agaba and Vincent Nalumoso, both NUP supporters. Agaba was recently released; Nalumoso and Lukwago are still missing.

Eron Nanyonga, the wife of Vincent Nalumoso, who went missing from Bugolobi market in December, holds a photograph of her and her husband [Al Jazeera]

Other families were also searching for loved ones. Devis Babigumira says that his brother Daudi Niwabine, a student at Makerere University, went missing on November 19 from Kawempe, in northern Kampala, where he was working part-time as a manual labourer. People on the scene told him that Niwabine had been taken in a “drone” by men in black uniforms and balaclavas. There was a CCTV camera in the area too. Police let Babigumira watch some of the footage, but not the part where his brother was taken.

There was a clue in the video though: a white Toyota Hiace, with a number plate. The tax authority said the registration was held by a car sales company. Staff at the company told Babigumira that they had sold the car in question to the police – except that the vehicle they sold was not a Hiace, suggesting the number plate had been switched.

“[My brother] must be saying ‘who is coming for my rescue?’” said Babigumira in January. “Now I can’t sit unless I know that the person is dead or is alive.”

On December 31, a high court judge ordered the police and army to release Niwabine. Nothing happened. Five weeks later, the minister of internal affairs said “investigations are still ongoing to establish [his] whereabouts”.

It was only when Museveni spoke, two months after Niwabine disappeared, that there was concrete news: Niwabine had been arrested by commandos, the president said. On February 17 he was finally released, charged by police with “inciting violence”.

***** 

On their quest to find Denis Matovu, his family would sometimes meet strangers who would scribble down a number on a sheet of paper. “Call this number,” they would say. “This person can help you find him.”

When the family called, the voice on the other end asked for money to cover their costs: a million shillings, two million, even five million ($1,364). That was more than the family could afford. But they scraped together what they could, and sent it. When they phoned again, there was no reply.

Matovu’s mother, Nakibuuka, traded second-hand clothes in Owino, a downtown market. Now she was spending all her money trying to find her son, and her business had to close. She was too worried to walk on the busy streets anyway, with her mind so full of thoughts.

“I can’t go to work, not knowing where my own flesh and blood is,” she told Al Jazeera in early February. “I don’t know whether my child is alive or if he is dead.”

Ten days after her son disappeared, Nakibuuka got married. Matovu had been excited about driving her to the wedding; he had already ironed his suit. The wedding had been arranged for months and it was too late to cancel.

In the photos from the day, Nakibuuka looks back at the camera, head tilted, lips slightly parted as if to smile. But no smile comes.

*****

As polling day approached, repression intensified. Nicholas Opiyo, one of the country’s top human rights lawyers, was kidnapped with four others from a city restaurant by plainclothes gunmen, and released eight days later on money laundering charges, which the organisation he leads dismissed as fabricated. Isaac “Zebra” Ssenyange, a former national boxing champion, was shot dead by security forces in the street. More than 100 members of Bobi Wine’s entourage were arrested while campaigning; some 36 of them, including his closest friends, remain in military detention.

On January 14, under an internet blackout, Ugandans voted. Two days later Museveni was declared the winner, with 58 percent of the vote against 35 percent for Bobi Wine. From his home on the outskirts of Kampala, Bobi Wine said the vote had been stolen. “We have certainly won this election and we have won it by far,” he told journalists.

Ugandan opposition figure Bobi Wine gestures as he speaks to the media outside his house, in Magere, near Kampala on January 26, 2021 [AP Photo/Nicholas Bamulanzeki]

The battle now was for the Declaration of Results (DR) forms: the paper record of vote counts at individual polling stations, which could help prove if the election had been rigged or not. On the day after results were announced, Andrew Natumanya, Wine’s official photographer, was driving from eastern Uganda with a car boot full of forms. He parked up to meet another activist. Then, he later told journalists, his car was surrounded by armed men in plainclothes. He and his colleague were beaten, forced into a vehicle, and driven to a police station.

That night, said Natumanya, he was taken alone to another location, with a hood over his head. His captors wanted to know what he discussed with Bobi Wine. They looked through his phone contacts, and found that he had saved Wine’s number as “The President”. Then they put something on his arm which felt like an electric shock. Call your president to save you, they said.

Natumanya was released the next morning, but only after police had taken his computer, camera and the all-important DR forms. And his story is not unique. The same day, another NUP activist came down from the north with several hundred DR forms. He tells Al Jazeera that men in plainclothes and police uniforms raided the Kampala hotel where he and two colleagues were staying, then took them for interrogation at a building in the upmarket neighbourhood of Kololo. “They grabbed all we had,” says the activist. “The laptops, the gadgets and even the DR forms.” The activists were released from a police station that night, charged with “falsifying returns and results”.

Others say they were taken to military facilities. Bobi Wine’s adopted brother-in-law Bwanika David Lule, better known by his DJ name of Selector Davie, was pulled from his bed by soldiers on the night of January 12. He tells Al Jazeera he was beaten, held in a series of barracks, and interrogated about NUP’s plans by military intelligence. He was released after 16 days, charged by an army court-martial with “unauthorised wearing of uniform” – a reference to the red “People Power” beret commonly worn by Bobi Wine’s followers. Another activist says he was arrested by plainclothesmen in balaclavas who hooded him, squeezed his testicles, beat him, and kept him for three days in an underground cell at Makindye military barracks, “where you cannot realise whether it is day or night”.

Selector Davie in Bobi Wine’s garden, after his release. He was detained for 16 days [Al Jazeera]

These testimonies suggest a coordinated, targeted attempt to disrupt the NUP and intimidate some of its key activists. But other abductions came in local clusters. A good example is the Mukono North constituency, just outside Kampala, where at least 17 people were abducted. The incumbent member of parliament here was Ronald Kibuule, the minister for water – famous for allegedly bringing a gun to Parliament and for saying that rapists should not be arrested if their victims wear miniskirts. His NUP opponent was Abdallah Kiwanuka, a lawyer. It was set to be a fierce contest.

On December 19, Kiwanuka held a rally in the village of Katoogo. As dusk drew in some of Kibuule’s supporters appeared. There was a confrontation; media reports said that one of Kibuule’s supporters was assaulted. Then, says Kiwanuka, two of his own followers were “kidnapped” by soldiers and taken to Kibuule’s house, where they were “seriously tortured”. One of the men claims that the soldiers harassed and beat him in the minister’s presence. “They beat us seriously,” he tells Al Jazeera. “They wanted us to be part of them, to surrender the works of People Power.” He says he and his friend were then taken to a police station and released – police spokesman Fred Enanga says the matter is under investigation and he cannot give details.

In the following days, “drones” started pulling young men in the constituency off the streets. On the evening of December 21, men in plainclothes seized several people in Kabembe village. “They were just picking [people] randomly,” one witness, who asked not to be named, tells Al Jazeera. “Anyone who was around was put inside and taken.” Among those taken from a taxi stop were a conductor and a tout, neither of them known to be political activists.

On the morning of the 23rd, at 2am, the “drones” came to Katoogo. Witnesses and relatives say armed men, some in dappled blue uniforms like those of the Police Field Force Unit, smashed into houses with hammers and pulled six NUP supporters from their beds. One of them was found the next day in a forest 60km (37 miles) away, beaten but alive. There were raids in other parts of the constituency too: NUP candidate Kiwanuka says his brother was taken from his house by soldiers.

Election officials count ballots after polls closed in Kampala, Uganda on January 14, 2021. Ugandans voted in a presidential election tainted by widespread violence, as security forces tried to stop supporters of Bobi Wine from monitoring polling stations [AP Photo/Jerome Delay]

There was more trouble on the night of the vote. According to Ugandan media reports, soldiers belonging to Kibuule’s security detail invaded a tally centre, held police officers and electoral officials at gunpoint, then stole ballot boxes. The minister of internal affairs later confirmed that four soldiers “associated with Honourable Kibuule” had been arrested. Both Fred Enanga, the police spokesman, and Deo Akiiki, the deputy army spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the case was under investigation.

Speaking by phone to Al Jazeera, Kibuule rejected all the allegations against him, which he described as “propaganda” and “the politics of lies”.

“My soldiers have never been involved in anything to do with arresting people, because they’re not meant to do so,” Kibuule said. “How do I control people I don’t command? I don’t command the army.” He also claimed to be unaware of the alleged interference with ballot boxes. “I don’t know of any soldiers attached to me who were arrested,” he said.

Meanwhile, the army obfuscated. On January 19, a court ordered that four of the missing people in Mukono be released from unlawful detention. Two days later, Joseph Musanyufu, the joint chief of staff of the Ugandan army, wrote to the solicitor-general and said that the four were not in army custody. But on February 13, Museveni said the same individuals were among 17 who had been arrested in Mukono by a commando unit – an admission that the army was responsible all along.

In the days leading up to Museveni’s speech, some of the missing people in Mukono had started reappearing – dropped off in fields, forests and sugar plantations in the middle of the night. They had not been charged with any crime. One man with scars on his back tells Al Jazeera that he was held for more than seven weeks, in two different houses, where he slept on a hard floor with dozens of others. His hands were tied and a hood was over his head the whole time. “The first commandment, it was about the mask – don’t touch the mask,” he says. “We just knew that these people don’t want us to see the place where they have kept us.” Sometimes his captors beat him with batons and cables. They pulled out one of his toenails. “You are rebels,” they said. “What are you planning to do after losing these elections?”

The disappearances in Mukono North show how national tensions played out at the local level. But a final story shows how fear and accusations penetrated even deeper, into the micro-politics of daily life.

The scene is a nondescript roadside in Bwaise, in northern Kampala. There is a small row of lock-up shops, a chapati stall, a cluster of motorbike taxis. In one of the shops, a teenage girl sells charcoal. Next door, a woman runs a bar.

One day, after drinking a bit too much, the bar owner and the charcoal-seller have a fight. Police arrest the charcoal-seller. Some local men, who had seen the incident, go to the police station and explain what happened. The charcoal-seller is later released.

That is the account told to Al Jazeera by the local council chairman, the landlord of the building, several witnesses, and relatives of two of the men. Many of them add that the bar owner was angry. In indignation, she boasted of having a brother in the army.

On the evening of December 18, a few days after the charcoal-seller was freed, a “drone” pulled up on the road. Men with guns got out, some of them in army uniform. Shots were fired in the air. The men grabbed several people, including the charcoal-seller, the man who worked at the chapati stall, and two NUP candidates for the upcoming local council elections.

A “drone” car – here in commercial use – of the type that security forces have allegedly used to abduct people in Uganda [Al Jazeera]

The bar owner said that she could get the men set free – but it would cost a million shillings ($273). Locals mustered up the money. The next day she asked for another 100,000 shillings ($27), which they gave her too. Then she left the bar and stopped answering phone calls.

Soon after, a relative of one of the abductees got a message from a stranger saying that three of the missing men were dead. People held a small protest on the street. It was only then that the families started getting calls from their missing loved ones, saying that they were in Makindye military barracks. Relatives say that two of the men were later brought before the court-martial, one “with a walking stick” and the other “weak and beaten”.

Nearly two months after the abduction, the charcoal-seller was released – Al Jazeera was unable to speak to her. But the state still holds the men: Abubakar Kayemba, Silas Alinaitwe, Christopher Bunjo, Hakim Mumbya and a fifth, who the locals know only as Konge. The prisons spokesman, Frank Baine, says they are now being held in Kitalya prison, charged with “unlawful wearing of uniform” – the familiar “red beret” offence.

*****

On February 10 the prisons’ spokesman told Al Jazeera that Matovu and Sonko – the young men who had been taken during an argument about posters – were in custody in Nkozi prison, a couple of hours drive southwest of Kampala.

The next day the families rushed there in excitement. But just as they were arriving at the prison the spokesman sent another message. He had “misinterpreted”. Matovu was not there.

What about Sonko? There was a man called Richard Sonko in custody, insisted the spokesman. But at the prison, the families were not allowed to see him. Instead, a prison officer brought them a copy of the photo on his file. It was not the Sonko they were looking for.

After visiting the prison, Matovu’s mother Nakibuuka went to her ancestral village. An old woman there gave her the names of three young men – Baker Kawoya, Fred Kijjambu and Emmanuel Bazira – who had also gone missing. There were photos of them too, dressed in long white kanzus (traditional robes), as though they were at a wedding. “Let me know if you hear news of them,” the woman said.

*****

On February 9, Al Jazeera interviewed Flavia Byekwaso, the army spokeswoman.

Were soldiers involved in the abductions? “I’m just a spokesperson, I’m not an operational person, so I don’t know the nature of operations that are going on.” Why are people being arrested? “I don’t know.” Are people detained in barracks? “I’m not very sure.” What about ungazetted detention centres? “They were closed, I think so, but I need to confirm that.” Has the military beaten or tortured people? “I can’t confirm or deny.”

The abductions have been headline news in Uganda for weeks. But state officials have consistently evaded questions about the situation, usually by insisting that “more investigations” are needed.

Security forces patrol the streets of Kampala, Uganda on January 14, 2021 [AP Photo/Jerome Delay]

It does not help that some parts of the security apparatus may not know what other parts are doing. “So many things run parallel to each other as agencies, and sometimes they get mixed up, they run into each other,” explains Gawaya Tegulle, a journalist and lawyer who has worked on cases of ethnic Rwandans kidnapped in Uganda. He says it is often hard to distinguish between the roles of the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence and the Internal Security Organisation, another intelligence agency. Both agencies have networks in the police.

Meanwhile, the lines between military and civilian institutions are blurred. Some of the civilians arrested in recent months have been brought before army courts, even though Uganda’s Constitutional Court ruled that this practice is unconstitutional as far back as 2006. Such trials are also prohibited under international law, a point reiterated in official reports by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Despite those clear rulings and statements, the army continues to rely on a 2005 law that says army courts can try civilians found in unlawful possession of “arms, ammunition or equipment ordinarily being the monopoly of the Defence Forces”. It is perhaps no coincidence that many of those abducted have been charged with “unlawful wearing of military attire”.

In other instances, people have been arrested by the army, interrogated, and then transferred to the civilian justice system. “That is the most common pattern,” says Eron Kiiza, a lawyer who is working on a number of abduction cases. “The military arrests someone. They detain him without authority illegally, beyond 48 hours. They take them to a police station and the police station creates a charge and takes him to court.”

Such practices are not new in Uganda. In 2009, Human Rights Watch documented unlawful detention, torture and enforced disappearances of detainees by the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force and military intelligence. In 2011, it detailed extrajudicial killings, torture, illegal detention, forced confessions and other abuses by the police-led Rapid Response Unit.

But under Museveni, the victims have usually been people on the margins: Rwandans, Muslims, people suspected of violent crime. Others could look away, says David Mpanga, a lawyer and social commentator. “As a society, we need to hold a mirror up to ourselves,” he says. “Our central nervous system has not been developed enough.”

The families of missing people gather during a press conference at the National Unity Platform headquarters [Al Jazeera]

The current wave of abductions is notable for its scale and for the level of public awareness, says Mpanga. That makes it different from anything seen before under Museveni, at least in the southern half of the country. And yet, it is also as though the country is circling back to the past.

“We’ve been here before,” Mpanga says, referring to the dictatorships of Amin and Obote. “Our parents were here. We know what they suffered. Kids would come back to school, sometimes with their hair cut short as they would in mourning. And we were told don’t ask them about their dad, because their dad never came back. And it’s very, very unfortunate that it’s happening again.”

*****

Nakibuuka watched Museveni’s speech on TV. Her children wanted to change the channel, but she needed to hear every word the president said. She used to tell them about the good things Museveni had done, the peace he had brought. In past elections, she had encouraged her friends to vote for him. Now, as he spoke, she clung to a gossamer thread of hope.

The president spoke slowly, with long pauses, the thrum of crickets in the background. He talked about that day, 35 years ago, that his army first marched into Kampala. He talked about assassinations and riots. Then he said that a commando squad had been deployed to defeat “terrorists” in Kampala. “All those [ones arrested], their names are here,” he continued, listing examples.

The final two names he listed were Richard Sonko and Denis Matovu.

Nakibuuka fainted. It was February 13, 67 days after Matovu and Sonko disappeared. For the first time, the state had acknowledged that it had taken them. Nakibuuka was happy to get news of her son but worried about what it meant.

The army has still not said what Matovu and Sonko are accused of, or where they are being held. Neither the police spokesperson nor his army counterpart has responded to Al Jazeera’s requests for information.

Nakibuuka just wants to see her son again. “The government should behave like parents,” she pleads. “If they were in the same situation as us, they would have done everything to get their children.”

In the meantime, she prays. And waits.

Source: Al Jazeera

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