Will torture ever end in Uganda

Police Brutality

At the height of the presidency of Idi Amin, one of the most terrifying experiences to happen to anyone was being summoned to the “public safety unit” at Naguru. There on arrival, you would be welcomed with a cup of some strange tea- chai!

Chai involved stripping you naked. Soon after an officer on shift with a broken old beer bottle would start shaving your head till it was soaked with dark beads of blood. After you would be thrust into a rusting tyre rim and the flogging would follow till the officer would tire of your helpless screams.

You were then thrown in a packed cell, filled with inmates locked up on spurious politically motivated charges. Somewhere at night, as your family swept everywhere for your whereabouts, names from a list would be called. If you heard yours it was the end. Those that remained behind would soon hear the screams of bullets unleashed from a magazine in the adjoining room being emptied all in your flesh.

Dr Colin Sentongo, an official with the Ministry of Education, who narrowly survived execution, in his memoirs, “The unique story of an African education economist (2020),” recalls while there a prominent Masaka based lawyer called Mr Mawagi being brought over and greeted with chai. He was a strong man and even after combing his head with a broken bottle and flogging him with his head stuck in a rim he didn’t utter a sound. The chief torturer gave up; he feared this new inmate to withstand all that pain without flinching had “juju” powers.

Left on a verandah, all soaked in blood, Mr Mawagi spotted Colin. Weakly, he called him, “This country is in big trouble. There is no law and order. What right do these people have to torture me like this? Have they charged me?” That night Mawagi was picked from his cell and executed.

In 1979 Ugandans were liberated of this terror by the soldiers of Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLA) with help of Tanzania. But the country would soon be plunged into another bloody orgy with political factions jostling for power. This would culminate in a guerrilla war perched in the Luwero Triangle of central Uganda.

It is there that one first heard of a new form of torture- kandoya! This one involved flattening you with your arms ringed at the back and then with your rib cages extended and bursting the flogging would commence. Meanwhile the basement floor of one of Uganda’s best hotel, then, Nile Mansions, was turned into a torture chamber, that once dropped there, you would flood in a sea of blood and be consumed by a din of woes.

In 1986 the National Resistance Movement (NRM) took over the reigns of government ready to turn a new leaf. A commission of Inquiry into violation of Human Rights was set up where every victim of torture was encouraged to come forth and share their past ordeal since 1962. One of the Commissioners was Mr. John Nagenda, the writer. I met and talked to him last year about its work. He expressed regret that given the nature of atrocities committed no one was put on trial. In the spirit of being magnanimous and extending an olive branch, President Yoweri Museveni ruled against pressing charges, no matter the crimes committeed.

If Uganda had any hopes of an end to torture these hopes would quickly evaporate once the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) army came on scene to wage a war against NRM government. I once had a survivor drop in my office, a student who somehow had made it to university. She could never recover from the nightmare; but who would! As a young girl she had been treated to seeing her parents thrown in a pot of cooking oil on fire by rebels accusing her family of loyalty to government troops. Victims would be mutilated, eyes gauged, ears cut, legs burnt, and noses scissored, raped and left with maimed bodies.

Come today. Many had thought we had heard and seen it all, only to be jerked with yet new gory tales. A headline story that run in the government-owned Luganda daily, Bukedde, early this week, February 9, 2021 had a young man called Ronald Ssegawa. After being abducted his captors started by plucking out his nails before flogging him with electric wires. Thinking he was dead they dumped his lifeless body at the Mulago hospital mortuary, where he was found. He is fighting for his life.

In 2012 Uganda aware of this macabre history passed the Prevention and Prohibition of Torture Act. One of the main sponsors was African Center for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (ACTV). The story behind is that in 1983 Dr Samuel Nsamba having survived death from torture decided to start this human rights advocacy organisation to spare Ugandans from suffering the same ordeal.

For over a decade I have had a proud association with ACTV as a consultant. I have interfaced with its work in sensitizing state actors against torture. But in spite of all this torture with all its sadism and wanton meanness continues to elude this nation. “What are the courts for? Why are they still paying judges and the rest of court workers?” the Late Mawagi asked as he bled from his wounds. It is now 44 years since this galllant Ugandan querried and many in the country are still asking the same questions.

Only time knows if this nation will ever outgrow this scourge of torture going on behind dark walls. The writer is an academic and works with Uganda Christian University, Mukono

Leave A Reply