Skip to comments.Regime of tyranny and torture back to haunt Uganda
Posted on 03/19/2005 10:43:59 AM PST by propertius
Suspected dissidents disappear after midnight visits to their homes; chilling screams can again be heard from Idi Amin's infamous torture chambers, reopened after a quarter of a century of disuse. From the few that escape come tales of punishment beatings and even mass executions.
Welcome to President Yoweri Museveni's Uganda. One of Britain's favourite African states in recent years has, almost unnoticed in the West, become a sinister land where a corrupt regime uses its secret police to rule through fear.
The reasons for this transition are not hard to fathom. Mr Museveni has ruled Uganda since 1986, when his rebels marched triumphantly into the capital Kampala. Many of his countrymen believe he now wants to recast himself as that most African of leaders: a president for life.
Signalling his intent to jettison the vestigial trappings of democracy his government still professes, Mr Museveni has set out to remove a constitutional provision that prevents him from standing in elections next year.
Not all Ugandans are keen on the idea, but the government has ways of making them change their mind.
Last year, Yasin, a taxi driver who occasionally chauffeured a senior opposition official around the countryside, was woken by a loud rapping at his door a few hours before dawn. The men who had come to arrest him were not policemen, but members of the widely feared Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI).
Yasin knew that the CMI, a shadowy spy agency directly answerable to the president, had no powers to arrest anybody. But he also knew better than to question his captors.
He was taken to Makindye barracks, where some of the worst atrocities of Amin's infamous State Research Bureau, which used to force inmates to beat each other to death with sledgehammers, took place in the 1970s.
"Every day for a week, they would hang me upside down and beat me with clubs," Yasin said. "They wanted to know names of people working for the opposition. I kept saying I didn't know any, but they wouldn't believe me." On his third day, Yasin watched as a fellow inmate, an elderly man accused of recruiting for the main opposition alliance, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was killed using a method known as "Liverpool". The victim's head was placed in a bag that was repeatedly filled with water. To breathe, he had to drink it all, but the more he drank, the more bloated his belly became until his innards ruptured and he died in a pool of his own urine.
The official existence of political parties was only allowed last year, under considerable western pressure. Until then Mr Museveni operated what he called a no-party system, in which every Ugandan belonged to an entity known as The Movement, which was headed by the president.
In theory, the philosophy was supposed to rid Uganda of the ethnic and political divisions that helped cause the civil wars and dictatorships that characterised much of the country's history since independence from Britain in 1962. In practice it has allowed Mr Museveni to exert total control over most of his people.
The leader of the FDC, Kizza Besigye, in exile in South Africa, has instructed his campaigners to dole out copies of Animal Farm during party rallies.
But most people are too frightened to attend. Secret police infiltrate the rallies, noting down those who attend. It is usually supporters and low ranking FDC members who are taken to Makindye.
As a means of spreading fear, it is an extremely effective method.
Philip and his wife Juliet were picked up in January, accused of renting out their hall south of the capital for an opposition meeting.
Like many fellow suspects, they were accused of supporting the People's Redemption Army (PRA), a shadowy rebel outfit the government links to the FDC. The Foreign Office Minister, Chris Mullin, says that it is likely the PRA does not exist.
"Every night I was hung upside down over a pit of snakes while my wife was raped by army officers," said Philip, who was held in Room 21 of Mbale Police Station, another Amin torture chamber. "One time we had to move five dead bodies into a truck. Another time I was made to dig my own grave." Like Yasin, Philip and Juliet were released. Their captors told them to report what had happened to fellow villagers, but threatened them with death if they told anyone else.
Certainly things are not as bad as they were under Amin, who killed half-a-million people in eight years of bloodshed. Mr Museveni remains popular in many quarters for bringing stability to the country.
The president was long seen as an African role model in the West for his willingness to introduce economic reforms demanded by the World Bank.
But many donors are now disgusted both by the repression and by the corruption in Mr Museveni's cabinet, many of whom are relatives of the president. "Museveni hoodwinked many donors for a long time and people wanted to see the glass as half full," a diplomat said. "We are now learning our lesson." But that lesson may have come too late. A gang of young thugs, known as the Kalangala Action Plan (KAP), is allegedly preparing to disrupt the elections. Styled on the youth wing of President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party in Zimbabwe, the KAP was an effective tool of intimidation during flawed 2001 elections won by Mr Museveni.
With an even greater risk of defeat if elections are free and fair, diplomats fear that the KAP could be responsible for serious violence and compound Uganda's human rights reputation still further.
What is truly sobering is that Museveni may be the lesser of the evils in Uganda.
Africa needs a lot of just about everything. Like education, civilization....
Africa needs to be ignored by the rest of the world.
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