My Torture at the Hands of America’s Favorite African Strongman

Ugandan police detaining the academic Stella Nyanzi for protesting against the way that government distributes the relief food and the lockdown situation to control the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kampala, Uganda, in May. Credit Reuters
Ugandan police detaining the academic Stella Nyanzi for protesting against the way that government distributes the relief food and the lockdown situation to control the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Kampala, Uganda, in May. Credit Reuters

Brutal policing is a global crisis, but America’s favorite African strongman, Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s president since 1986, has deployed his own security forces to a particularly malign end: assaulting opposition parliamentary lawmakers to crush the democratic challenge he is facing.

I speak from experience. I am a member of Uganda’s Parliament and also a musician, activist and founder of the opposition People Power movement. For the past three years, we have been seeking social, economic and political change with the support of Uganda’s youth — 80 percent of the population — who face dire poverty.

On April 19, my colleague Francis Zaake, a 29-year-old member of Parliament, was arrested and tortured. Previously strapping and healthy, he now walks with a cane from the beatings he received there.

Why torture an elected member of Parliament?

On March 31, the Ugandan government imposed a strict coronavirus lockdown without notice, leaving many citizens unable to work. When some parliamentarians began passing out relief food to constituents, Mr. Museveni threatened to arrest them. In theory, the ban was universal; in practice, politicians from Mr. Museveni’s ruling party continued passing out food. The message was clear: Support the regime or starve.

Mr. Zaake’s crime was delivering food to the hungry while being an opposition member.

Assaulting elected members of Parliament and their supporters is an assault on the very idea of democracy. Ugandans have lived under Mr. Museveni’s tyranny for 34 years. We have had elections, but their legitimacy has been marred by rigging and the killing and torture of opposition supporters.

Twice, Uganda’s Supreme Court seemed on the verge of overturning Mr. Museveni’s election. After the 2016 election, Mr. Museveni placed his main challenger, Kizza Besigye, under house arrest so that he couldn’t petition the court within the constitutionally mandated time period.

As support for our People Power movement has grown in recent years, Mr. Museveni has increased the frequency and brutality of attacks on lawmakers.

On Aug. 13, 2018, I was with colleagues in Arua, a town in northern Uganda, after a long day of campaigning. We were there to support an opposition colleague who was running for Parliament in a special election. All of a sudden, Uganda’s Special Forces Command besieged our hotel. They shot and killed my driver, Yasin Kawuma, who was sitting in the passenger seat of my vehicle. The bullets seemed to have been intended for me. Thirty-four of us, including three other lawmakers and the candidate Kassiano Wadri, who eventually won the Arua special election, were arrested.

We were held for more than a week. I and several others were tortured and couldn’t walk unaided when released. I traveled on crutches to the United States for medical treatment.

We aren’t the only legislators to have suffered at the hands of Uganda’s security forces. In September 2017, opposition lawmakers filibustered to block a parliamentary bill to remove the age limit for the presidency, set by the 1995 Constitution at 75 years. The change would allow Mr. Museveni, who says he was born in 1944, to run in 2021. An Afrobarometer poll in September 2017 suggested that 75 percent of the population opposed lifting the age limit.

On Sept. 19, 2017, when the bill was to be introduced, Mr. Museveni deployed armored vehicles and heavily armed police around Parliament to prevent protests. Our filibuster managed to delay the bill’s introduction for a week, but on Sept. 27 dozens of plainclothes operatives appeared on the floor of the Parliament.

About 30 lawmakers were arrested, including me. During the mayhem, six operatives escorted a parliamentarian, Betty Nambooze, into a room without security cameras. They pressed her against the wall while one of them shoved a knee into her back, severely injuring her spine. She was flown to India for surgery, enabling her to walk again, but was tortured again in June 2018 and now walks with a cane.

Fearful and despondent, we dropped the filibuster campaign, and the age limit on the president was removed in December 2017. The attacks on our People Power movement have continued, and we have lost dozens of activists and supporters to violence on the part of the security forces. Yet support for our movement has increased.

I grew up in poverty and was fortunate to have a successful career as a musician. I soon found myself singing about corruption, poverty and oppression. Music galvanizes people but they can be empowered only through politics, so I decided to run for the Parliament.

Last week, my colleagues and I formed the National Unity Platform, a political party to challenge Mr. Museveni and his party in Uganda’s next election, expected in early 2021.

We stand for democratic rule; depoliticizing the security forces, judiciary and other institutions; peace in our region; and fighting Uganda’s rampant corruption. We maintain that this will help create the conditions for Uganda’s economy to thrive.

We regret to say that we might not have suffered for so long had Washington not chosen to ignore Mr. Museveni’s abuses. He is among the Pentagon’s closest African security allies, with troops in Somalia and guards under U.S. command in Iraq. However, he has also stoked conflict both within Uganda and in neighboring countries, while hoodwinking Washington into trusting him on security matters.

The international community needs to rethink its financial, moral and military assistance to our tormentors in Uganda and stand up for democracy.

Bobi Wine is a musician and a member of the Parliament in Uganda.

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