Uganda’s security came for Rwandans, then for lawyers

By Grace Kamugisha

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a
trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for Rwandans
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Rwandan

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

This is the modified cautionary tale made in 1946 by the German Pastor, Martin Niemöller, about the silence of people who would otherwise be expected to speak up against abuse and how the silence emboldens the abusers to undertake even more brutality. Pastor Martin Niemöller was of the view that the silence of Germany’s elites, including business people, the churches, and the professionals was needed for the purging of almost six million Jews to be possible and the moral of his story is that when those you see as “others” are abused and you remain silent, sooner rather than later the abuse comes calling on your own front door. In other words, it’s better to fight injustice while it is still targetted at the “other”, while you still can as, when it is extended to you, it may already be too late to save yourself. 

The Uganda Law Society is living this cautionary tale. For almost two years, Uganda’s security agencies, principally, CMI and ISO, have been in clear violation of Uganda’s constitutional protections by illegally abducting Rwandan citizens in Uganda, incarcerating them in illegal ungazetted detention centres, torturing and sometimes killing them, or deporting those who can count themselves lucky.

For all this time, Ugandans have generally been silent, not because they are people who don’t mind abuse but simply because they were not Rwandans, the target of the violations. Those who dared to say something often uttered veiled justifications for the abuses, the kind that ostensibly served to embolden the Nazis in Germany to greater degrees of abuse of the targetted “other”. The moral equivalence they pushed placed the burden of stopping the abuses on the victims, the leadership in their country. In so doing, they were feeding the monster.

Like Pastor Niemöller warned, the monster they have been feeding is baying for more blood. This time it is the blood of their own, and the way things are quickly evolving, even they themselves may not be spared.

On Wednesday, 31 July 2019, armed men picked up Patrick Mugisha, a partner at Mwesige Mugisha & Co. Advocates, from his chambers in Muyenga, a Kampala suburb. Mugisha was reported missing and a victim of abduction. It turned out that for almost a week he had been held without charge at one of ISO’s notorious illegal ungazetted detention centres in Kyengera, another Kampala suburb.

The Uganda Law Society immediately went to battle for its colleague. On 3 August 2019, its president, Mr Simon Peter Kinobe, wrote a strongly-worded letter and appeared on different television channels to denounce ISO, reminding its director-general Col Kaka Bagyenda of the constitutional violation against abductions, and even of the fact ISO has no arresting powers:

“As Uganda Law Society, we cannot continue to look on as a few individuals descend our country into chaos without reprisal. We cannot be observers in the perpetration of impunity with no call to action. We accordingly call upon all lawyers to action, to prosecute both criminally and in civil court the director of ISO Col Frank Kaka Bagyenda for these acts of impunity and, to demand the immediate unconditional release of our advocates illegally arrested and detained by the said ISO. Should ISO fail to comply with our demands to unconditionally release the detained citizens by Wednesday the 7th Day of August 2019, we shall have no choice but to further escalate the matter,” he wrote.

Mr Kinobe accused Col Kaka of “acting with impunity by kidnapping, intimidating, harassing and arresting lawyers without any reason,” Mr Kinobe warned, as he denounced the illegal holding of the lawyer, “beyond the statutory period of 48 hours,” before giving Col Kaka “up to August 7th to release the lawyer or they prosecute him!”

Uganda’s security organs, ISO and CMI, have consistently, routinely, been holding Rwandans for more than the statutory 48 hours; not even just 48 days. Some Rwandans remain under illegal detention for almost two years; some for more than 700 days.

Now that the Uganda Law Society is a target, perhaps it’s high time it makes the same demands for the innocent Rwandans as it has for its lawyer member: “Release or prosecute them!”

Rwandans were used as practice rounds; the silence from the Ugandan legal community on these clear violations of constitutional protections against illegal abduction and detentions then emboldened the abusers to scale up and extend the abuse to Ugandans. Mr Kinobe had better heed Pastor Martin Niemöller cautionary tale rather than treat Mr Mugisha’s abuse as an exception and in so doing end up feeding and emboldening the Ugandan security state monster. In speaking up for the Rwandans whose human rights are being violated by Ugandan security agencies routinely and with impunity, the Uganda legal fraternity will be ensuring practicing enlightened self-interest, preventing the erosion of Uganda’s constitutional protections against abusive arrests snd detentions. They will be ensuring the abuses are not extended to them tomorrow.

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