Is there any point in setting up the Uganda Commission of Inquiry into Violation of Human Rights 1962-1986, and then just ignoring its report?
By the time Uganda’s so-called Bush War, which had raged between the end of 1980 and 26 January 1986, came to an end, with the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and its National Resistance Army (NRA) victorious, the country was on its knees. The notorious Idi Amin Dada, self-appointed Field Marshall, and “Life President”, had taken to his heels, with his ramshackle army fleeing as best it could northwards, whence most of it had come. How easily such words fly off the tongue, and what pain and suffering are inevitably contained within them! We should never forget how much of our great continent was moulded and remoulded by such flashes and roars of war, and before that the tearing and the goring of arrow and spear!
And in a way, the War ended (or appeared to) but sporadically continued. Even after its official conclusion, in parts of Uganda it meandered along its course like the river which grows its belly by the act of rain and loses it when that manna from heaven disappears. Alice Lakwena, witch or prophetess, gathered her “fighters” who perished by the hundreds when the oils smeared on their bodies meant for, but failed, to withstand the force of bullets. It did not stop committees at the Kampala Golf Club preparing for her entrance into the city, especially when it was reported that she was nearing the crossing of the River Nile by the bridge at the Jinja water dam!
Afterwards, in her wake, came the infinitely more sinister and more powerful Joseph Kony, with his ironically named Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), although whether it was for resisting the Lord (and what Lord) or on the side of the Lord God of Heaven resisting the government of Uganda, which itself had seized power by the bullet, was never satisfactorily explained. Its begetter, a lanky youth with an unmarked village face, who had attended a Catholic seminary, was to prove far more troublesome and longstanding. Now, a quarter century on, sequestered in an area far away in the Central African Republic (CAR), he barely continues to be heard: from time to time he is, like weak thunder from a storm that has passed.
Although it should be remembered that recently American President Barack H. Obama has offered and then sent a special force of American advisers to help bring this terrorist LRA organisation the more swiftly to justice. “Scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is the order of the day, with Uganda helping out the Americans in Somalia, where years previously they were forced to lay down their burden and go home. Kony continues to be elusive.
But the subject of my column this month is the Uganda Human Rights Commission, or to give it its full title: the Uganda Commission of Inquiry into Violation of Human Rights Commission 1962-1986; the second such in the world. Uganda enacted it after Idi Amin, and his creator, President Milton Obote, and others, had come and gone. It is a subject very close to my heart, for I sat on it, for close to a decade, starting in 1986, the very year the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took over power, under Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who remains president to this day.
The timing seemed to promise that the Commission’s work was of the utmost importance, but how it ended belied this! Its remit was to look at the period from 1962, when Uganda gained independence, to 1986, when the NRM came to power. During that period, starting with the two reigns of President Obote (once before, and once after, Amin) and Idi Amin, and what followed, Uganda had gone through extremely turbulent times. The worst times were during Amin’s nine-year reign, when 300,000 people were said to have lost their lives.
The Commission was comprised of six commissioners, one a woman, under High Court judge Arthur Oder. From the beginning, it was financially bedevilled (for example at the start each commissioner was paid the equivalent of a bottle of soda daily) and also by the travelling on terrible roads, for it needed to sit in every district. In the event, most of the 46 districts were visited – but the great bulk of the work was done in the capital, Kampala. Financial worries were somewhat eased by a grant of around $90,000 from the Ford Foundation, but remained critical to the end.
The Commission Report, finally signed off in October 1994, was 629 pages long, with 14 volumes of Verbatim Records of Proceedings consisting of over 14,000 pages, an Index of 120 pages, and a List of Proceedings volume comprising 193 pages. It had been hoped that a number of summaries in the various Ugandan languages and dialects would be published, suitable for schools, universities and colleges, as well as ordinary citizens. Unfortunately it did not happen, for lack of funds; or, as some suspected, for lack of governmental interest.
For a big problem was the increasing detachment of the government to the Commission’s work. Much as the sittings were invariably well attended by an enthusiastic public, and covered widely by all media, it soon became clear that the government did not know what to do with the Commission’s Report when it came out. In the event, the Report, almost like a fractious child, was completely ignored by the government, which did not even officially acknowledge it. Nothing from that day to this has shown that the government cares!
It is true that some people associated with the Commission were elevated. Two commissioners were made senior presidential advisers, one of whom, me, received a Hero’s Medal. Another commissioner was made minister of education, and, later, attorney general. Our legal counsel became the speaker of parliament, and a year ago was appointed vice president of the republic. Was this because of the Commission? If so, what about the others? The appointing minister, of justice, has died, as has the chairman of the Commission, who had meanwhile been advanced to the Supreme Court.
President Museveni himself wanted to be called before the Commission. When advised this was unconstitutional, he invited it to State House for a day and spared no effort to answer and explain everything asked. But was that enough? It had been hoped, by the Commission and ordinary citizens, especially those who had been so grievously affected, that court cases would follow where the Commission felt there was strong evidence.
Perhaps the government considered that leaving the report well alone was the safest policy, for fear of inflaming the populace. This was unsound, and left those who had bothered to appear before the Commission in complete disappointment, with a sense of betrayal. Why had they bothered? To this day I feel a personal smear of shame at our Commission’s ineffectualness. Had we merely been a public relations sop for the public? If the government were a spoilt child, you would fear it had tired of the game and thrown the toys out of its pram! But more likely it had not worked out the way ahead, and since there were so many things to be done, so many mistakes to be corrected, too many programmes to plan, perhaps our Commission simply slipped through the net? And anyway, since there were indeed too few judges to go round, how would they be spread to cover crimes which had happened up to 20 years before? It also appeared to me that the chairman, Justice Oder, sympathised with Obote, whose UPC party was at the forefront of those accused, especially in his second reign. He was lukewarm in demanding for courts to try those who had been mentioned adversely at the Commission: the result being that its 9 years’ work was swept under the carpet. But far more than that! We sold short those whose lives had been destroyed forever. Even when perpetrators were known by name, they escaped justice.
Is it too late to go back, to between 50 and 30 years ago, and find some solace for those who courageously came forward knowing, as they entreated us, that their torturers were still around? The Movement government, in power to this day, and which has transformed Uganda by its policies, should apologise to these citizens whom it let down, and at the very least recompense them for their sufferings. It should also officially recognise the Commission and its Report. It is the minimum it can do.
For me, another path seemed to open when our Commission faded away (like old soldiers!) after publishing its Report. In South Africa a Commission, of Truth and Reconciliation, opened, perhaps a decade after ours closed. I was left in total shock at hearing that anybody giving evidence, even if it was self-incriminatory, would by that action receive automatic immunity from prosecution! Soon afterwards I was offered a kind of involvement with the Commission.
I asked whether it was true that, for example, Steve Biko’s torturers and killers would get off scot-free by giving evidence, under the Commission’s arrangement. Yes, I was told. I thanked them and said goodbye, my ire rising. I should have added: “Over my dead body!” Better still, that of brother Steve Biko!