Exhuming army atrocities in northern Uganda could bury many a reputation

Saturday February 8 2014

An empty grave will demand an occupant. So, it is prudent to convert it into something that holds life, before it looks for more death. Illustration/John Nyagah

An empty grave will demand an occupant. So, it is prudent to convert it into something that holds life, before it looks for more death. Illustration/John Nyagah 

By Kalundi Serumaga

There is a superstition among some Ugandans regarding graves. If one is dug, but then not used as intended, then a young banana plant is placed in it. The same applies to a grave dug up and the occupant removed.

The belief is that an empty grave will demand an occupant. So, it is prudent to convert it into something that holds life, before it looks for more death.

With President Yoweri Museveni’s late January announcement that the Uganda armed forces’ human-rights record while fighting the insurgencies in north and northeastern Uganda over 20 years ago, is going to be unearthed by his government, one wonders if we will have enough figurative banana shoots to be planted, to prevent such an investigation swallowing up all concerned.

Already, there have been reactions that can only complicate matters for the government. Olara Otunnu, an opposition leader who has long used the term “genocide” to describe the army’s conduct, has stated that only an independent wholesale review of all post-independence political violence will help.

Some northern community leaders only see value if any such inquiry is independent of the government. Worse still, there are calls for an official apology (which naturally could lead to legal liabilities).

This issue has always been a grave for truth and integrity in Uganda’s politics. A key feature to its long and tortured history was the initial phase of mass denial by many of the intellectuals and fellow travellers, who acted as apologists and propagandists for the regime in its first triumphant decade.

The trend seems to continue still, with even President Museveni adding this rider to his announcement:  “Apart from the Mukura railway wagon incident and the Burcoro pit incident, which were reported, there were other incidents that are coming to light now, I do not know why the people did not report those incidents.”

Perhaps if the late Lance Seera Muwanga, a human rights activist, had not been detained without trial in 1986 for an entire year just for giving one interview on exactly these issues, and President Museveni had not himself threatened to detain journalists “if they continued to malign the good name of the army,” at the press conference on February 18, 1987, he would be able to credibly make such a claim.

Nevertheless, there were many valiant efforts to bring the matter into the public domain. Many activists, journalists and media houses of the era can relate how they were slowly squeezed into near silence, not just by the regime, but by its numerous apologists too.

Therefore, a broader accounting is needed. Many gender activists would have to account for their passionate support of the government even as it was inflicting severe damage on the bodies and property of women of the north.

Likewise, many of the assorted pan-Africanists and assorted black and African revolutionaries all over the continent and beyond would have a lot of reflecting to do as to how such behaviour advanced the upliftment of the African people.

The rich donor countries —especially Britain, and some of its particularly partisan ministers for overseas development at the time — would also not escape accusations of collusion.

Let us be clear: There was the usual rounding up and shooting of young men suspected of rebel activity, that accompanies virtually every African anti-government insurgency.  But there was more.

Apart from setting fire to granaries ostensibly to deny food to the rebels, the soldiers would often knock them over and then relieve themselves in them.

Apart from the all too common rape of defenceless women and girls, the soldiers would reportedly rape many of the men folk too, so much so that there was apparently even a battalion that the locals referred to as “gung” (“bend over for me”) according to a report of the Justice and Reconciliation Project.

Unpleasant as they are, these details are important, because they bring out the gravity of the matter and the attendant depths of feeling. Given the intellectual dishonesty and mendacity that has long swamped the discussion of these transgressions, it is important they be itemised.

Therefore, the attempted framing of the investigation — should it ever actually take place — as a matter of individual, as opposed to also institutional culpability, may be seen as a way for “senior management” to get itself off the hook, since all previous explanations for the Uganda army’s  “success” in the battlefield have been explained as a result of its infallibly acting as a cohesive unit.

What is more, a number of key individuals, once prominent in the armed forces of that time, have since become senior figures in Uganda’s beleaguered opposition. Already one opposition party has described this turnabout as a government plot for them to all face legal difficulties at the time of the next election.

Clearly, this is not going to be a straightforward matter. If the stories of the victims are finally properly exhumed, then those graves in which they were hidden.

Kalundi Serumaga is a culture and political analyst based in Kampala.