June 9 is Heroes’ Day in Uganda. On that day in 1981, a wealthy peasant called Edidian Luttamaguzi was killed at Kikandwa village of Luwero district after undergoing intense torture at the hands of the Uganda army, for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of then rebel leader Yoweri Museveni.
This year's Heroes’ Day was made all the more sombre by the sudden death of the Arua Municipality Member of Parliament on the evening of June 8 near his residence in Kawanda on the outskirts of Kampala.
The honourable Ibrahim Abiriga was shot dead together with his bodyguard as they drove back home before dark. As has been happening with such high-profile assassinations, the killers were reportedly riding a boda boda, shot their victim in the head and took off.
A few hours after the shooting, literally before Abiriga’s body had cooled, a new song, RIP Abiriga, was circulating on WhatsApp, and it is a fairly good song. Such is the power of technology and social media. But with the cruel killing of Abiriga, also died the smile that Uganda’s politics has been lighting on our faces. The most frequently asked question has been “Why Abiriga?”
At 62, Abiriga was still an energetic man, possibly owing to his military background. He joined the Uganda Army as a juvenile of 15 and fled into exile in 1979 when the military government was overthrown.
He operated as a rebel in the Congo and Sudan, fighting to overthrow the government that took office in December 1980 after a disputed election.
When Museveni took power in 1986, Abiriga’s group joined the new government army, from which he retired in 1990 and became a district administrator, finally being elected to parliament in 2016.
Abiriga has mostly been known for his enthusiastic support of President Museveni and the ruling NRM Party, so much that he only wore yellow suits and shoes, the NRM colour. His unique VW Beetle in which he was killed is yellow, as is the entire interior of his house, which the media has featured several times.
But when Abiriga was killed, the whole nation mourned. For much as he was a fanatic supporter of the ruling party, he was easily the most likeable politician at the national level. Accused of lacking academic qualifications, he returned to school and graduated just before his death.
Caught on camera earlier committing the small misdemeanour of easing his bladder at the roadside, he pleaded guilty and asked for mercy, explaining that he was diabetic and humbly paying the demeaning fine of about $10.
Kids in the Kawanda neighbourhood told the press that he used to give them pocket money on a daily basis.
All opposition politicians expressed sincere shock and sadness at Abiriga’s death. Picture this. At the height of the debate to remove the presidential age limit from the Constitution that last year caused so much bitterness and led to an hours-long physical battle on the floor of parliament, Abiriga, who first floated the idea, was not a target of opposition anger.
In fact, on the worst day of the debate, the bitterest critic of Museveni’s NRM, Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze, was caught on camera playfully trying to snatch Abiriga’s yellow cap off his head.
Did Abiriga acquire his humility and thick skin from years as a refugee? Maybe. But with his grim departure, don’t expect much lightheartedness in Uganda’s nasty politics.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]