When it comes to the death of public figures, Ugandans rarely let the facts stand in the way of a good conspiracy theory.
Therefore, news of the passing on of Internal Affairs Minister and former Chief of Defence Forces General Aronda Nyakairima last week was, not surprisingly, met with speculation about the cause of death.
As soon as news broke that Gen Nyakairima had died on Emirates Airlines flight EK323 from South Korea to Dubai, the New Vision newspaper, quoting government spokesman Ofwono Opondo, tweeted the cause of death as cardiac arrest.
The first official statement from Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda the following day noted that the cause of death was not yet known and that a team of doctors and pathologists had been dispatched to the United Arab Emirates to help with the post-mortem and repatriation of the body.
Yet, this communication from the government did not stop the whispering campaign about what — but mostly who — killed Gen Nyakairima, and about his enemies, real and imagined. At least one post mortem report managed to attain velocity in the forward-first, think-later world of social media, claiming he was poisoned by a South Korean passport holder.
Another claim, seen on Twitter, suggested that two other people travelling with the minister had also died.
Social media is part of the problem. While it can be a source of authentic, first-hand user-generated content, the lack of rigorous check-before-you-publish gatekeeping common on most mainstream platforms, and its network effect means that inaccurate information can spread rapidly, especially if it is “retweeted” or “liked” by usually credible outlets or accounts.
But in Uganda, social media only gives velocity to conspiracy theory and established views about mortality.
“In most Ugandan cultures, every death causes relatives and friends to speculate on where the evil hand came from,” opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who served and trained with Gen Nyakairima, wrote in a eulogy in the Daily Monitor. Every dead person was bewitched, he noted of a saying common in many tribes across the country.
Yet if the need for closure explains the traditional need to attribute blame, post Independence politics in Uganda has served up enough plots to turn post-mortem speculation into a modern pastime.
When Kabaka Muteesa II, the king of Buganda Kingdom and first president of Uganda, died in his flat in East London in 1969, where he was living in exile, the official cause of death was given as alcohol poisoning. Yet to this day many believe that agents working on behalf of Milton Obote, who had deposed him in a republican coup three years earlier, poisoned him.
Assassinations were more overt in the Idi Amin regime that followed Obote’s first exit in 1971 and attempted cover-ups, such as that of the murder of Archbishop Janan Luwum, were incompetently done.
Yet it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine that some deaths attributed to Amin’s henchmen were down to other aggrieved parties, including the many armed groups that were working to destabilise and overthrow his dictatorship.
From its early days, the NRM government has been dogged by the deaths of serving army officers and the subsequent speculation over motive and masterminds.
It all started in March 1987 when Andrew Kayiira, leader of the Uganda Freedom Movement guerilla group who had just been cleared of treason charges after falling out with the NRA, was shot dead in Kampala.
Three decades later, the murder remains unresolved and Scotland Yard refuses to make public the findings of its investigations.
That unresolved murder has only helped fuel the conspiracy theories around subsequent deaths of serving army officers. Who or what really killed Colonel Jet Mwebaze, who was among passengers on a light aircraft that crashed in the Rwenzori Mountains in September 1998 but whose body was later found with what some claimed was a gunshot wound? And what were they carrying to or from the Congo?
What about his brother Maj-Gen James Kazini, who was army commander between 2001 and 2003 (before being replaced by Gen Nyakairima) and was murdered in a girlfriend’s house in a Kampala suburb in 2009 while appealing against a three-year jail sentence over fraud in the army? The girlfriend, Lydia Draru, confessed to the murder and is serving a 14-year jail term but in 2013 his widow Phoebe called for fresh investigations into the murder, opening the door to yet more speculation.
A few days before Maj-Gen Kazini’s murder, a pick-up car with a driver and five young army cadets overturned just outside Kampala. All survived except one, Brian Bukenya, who also happened to be the son of then vice-president Gilbert Bukenya.
At a memorial last year, Dr Bukenya, who has since fallen out with the government, said the accident was a cover-up for his son’s murder.
“What surprises me is that these people [the killers] are in our capital city moving freely and if police do not arrest them, I will name their identities in a few days to come,” Mr Bukenya said. The former vice president has not publicly named any names and was unavailable for comment.
The biggest conspiracies of all rotate around Brig Noble Mayombo, a key ally and former aide de camp of President Museveni and, at the time of his death in May 2007, the permanent secretary in the Defence Ministry.
The official cause of death was given as acute pancreatitis but such was the interest and concern that President Museveni ordered a separate investigation led by the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, which handed over a report that November.
However, five years later, Mayombo’s brother said the family had not received the findings of the investigation and remained suspicious about the cause of death.
“… Whatever the cause, whether it was natural or whatever, it would have been good manners to inform the next of kin about what caused the death of such an important person,” Major Okwir Rabwoni told the Daily Monitor newspaper in 2012.
“Silence breeds conspiracy theories and although I don’t believe in such theories, I feel that at least some of us who were very close to him should have been called aside and informed about what actually happened assuming the investigation was conclusive and thorough.”
Speculation about causes of death often taps into the politics of the day. In December 2012, Cerinah Nebanda, a 24-year-old first-term MP from eastern Uganda, died at a small hospital in Kampala, where she was rushed unconscious by her boyfriend.
Although she had been in parliament for just over a year, Ms Nebanda had quickly emerged as a passionate debater and ferocious critic of government plans for stronger executive authority over the country’s new oil wealth, and officials were accused of taking bribes to favour oil companies.
It did not take long for the inferences to emerge. When it emerged that police chief Gen Kale Kayihura had been one of the first people to arrive at the health facility, the narrative wasn’t about police efficiency but how he knew where to go so quickly.
When the police said she had died of a suspected drug overdose, many asked how they knew without a post-mortem being carried out. An official post-mortem found traces of alcohol and recreational drugs in her body but this was soon forgotten when a pathologist hired by parliament to conduct a separate post-mortem was arrested as he attempted to fly to South Africa and the samples he was taking away destroyed.
After the Speaker of parliament and MPs publicly rejected the official post-mortem results, President Museveni called a press conference to distance his government from the matter.
“I have contempt for those who are peddling lies that NRM killed Honourable Nebanda,” he said. “Why kill Nebanda? Those making such allegations are being manipulated by crooks. Why kill such poor children like Nebanda? I know what to do to bring NRM rebellious cadre to terms. In fact, some of them are now serving in government because we talk to them,” said President Museveni.
A few days later Nebanda’s boyfriend Adam Karungi was arrested in Kenya, extradited to Uganda, and charged in connection with her death and handling prohibited narcotics. He was acquitted last year, only adding to speculation about whether he had been a fall guy all along.
The break down of Ugandan society under Idi Amin gave greater prominence to informal communication channels — popularly known as Radio Katwe after a bustling suburb of the capital Kampala — as a form of bypassing the self-censoring mainstream media and state informers who seemed to lurk everywhere.
Four decades later, Ugandan society continues to bear the scars of its violent history. Many Ugandans continue to drink at speakeasy bars (commonly called bufunda), which sprang up in neighbourhoods as people avoided the insecurity of larger pubs and the risk of running into Amin’s murderous goons.
Similarly, official versions of events are incomplete without a parallel inquest in unofficial social communication channels, such as Radio Katwe.
Historian Eridadi Mulira noted in 1990 that Radio Katwe had become synonymous with wild speculation and a way of talking or spreading information without accountability for its provenance. Social media had nothing on Uganda’s practised gossip.
In the middle of the last decade a website, Radio Katwe, sprang up on the Internet and became instantly popular for its salacious tales of murder, intrigue and treachery in the corridors of power. Almost as quickly as it emerged, the website went quiet, but the emergence of social media has given wider space and a platform for speculation and an alternative take on topical events.
On Thursday afternoon last week, Col Shaban Bantariza oversaw a press conference at the Uganda Media Centre in Kampala. Flanked by pathologists and Health Ministry officials, the officials revealed the post-mortem findings. Gen Nyakairima died of “acute heart failure due to extensive and irreversible blockade of the heart blood vessels,” they noted.
Gen Nyakairima had the slight midriff bulge of middle age but cut the figure of a fit soldier. It is not clear whether he had a history of chronic illness or a genetic predisposition but according to the post-mortem report, his heart had an abnormal layer of fat around the blood vessels and there were “many old small areas of damaged heart muscle due to interruption of blood supply to the heart.”
It is not clear what happened. However, some time after flight EK323 took off from Seoul headed for Dubai, Gen Nyakairima reclined his seat and lay down to sleep. As he slept, his body went to war and somehow, for whatever reason, and due to whatever cause, blood stopped flowing back to his heart.
By the time the air stewardess tried to wake him up for breakfast he was dead.
To many in Uganda watching the developments closely, there was one major problem with the findings of the post-mortem report: It was the same cause of death Col Bantariza’s boss, Mr Opondo, had given several days earlier.
On Facebook, Tom Voltaire Okwalinga (TVO), a mysterious figure that sometimes posts tantalising bits of political and security gossip that turn out to be true, posted the post-mortem findings. Within seconds it was drawing comments.
“But Dr (sic) Ofwono Opondo released the cause of the death before even the pathologists did their work; don’t you think it was planned before the guy left Uganda?” Asked one commentator. “Maybe those pathologists are not qualified,” said another.
And on and on the comments went. Within minutes the status had been shared 12 times and drawn almost a hundred comments. On the Uganda Media Centre Facebook page a status announcing the press conference had a dozen comments, most of them cynical.
The Media Centre Facebook page has just over 6,000 likes. TVO has over 30,000. When it comes to death of a prominent person in Uganda, there is no theory without a conspiracy.