Saturday, June 6, 2015

2001 Election Campaigns - The arrest of Okwir Rabwoni

On 20 February 2001, Major Okwir Rabwoni was abducted by the military at Entebbe Airport in full view of the media and members of the diplomatic corps.  His brutal capture and abduction was one of the lowest points of the 2001 presidential election campaign.  

The conflicting stories which appeared in the two dailies, New Vision and Monitor about Major Rabwoni’s defection from the EKBTF infuriated the incumbent’s campaign team and government’s coercion machinery was unleashed to make an example of him.  Among those who led the efforts to punish Major Okwir was none other than his own brother, Major Noble Mayombo who at the time was Chief of Military intelligence.  

The night before, it had been decided that Okwir remain with Besigye on the campaign trail because it was inconceivable that anyone would try to arrest or molest him publicly, right?  Wrong!  The next morning the candidate and his entourage headed to Entebbe International Airport to catch a flight to northwestern Uganda where rallies had been scheduled.  I was working at my desk when I received a call from Kizza Besigye.  He sounded out of breath and he asked me to call the press and tell them to hurry up to the V.I.P Lounge at Entebbe Airport where a small battle was underway.  I immediately called Andrew Mwenda who managed to get to the lounge in Entebbe and capture part of the ugly scene before it ended.  Soldiers under the command of an army officer, Moses Rwakitarate, had appeared at the lounge and asked Okwir to follow them out of the lounge.  He refused and they decided to physically manhandle him but the EKBTF members who were at the airport including the candidate were not about to let their campaigner go without a fight.

When he called me, Kizza Besigye (KB) was physically battling soldiers. He had a couple of men and three tough women on his side and they were grabbing at any item and throwing it at the soldiers.  Phones became flying projectiles as did some high heels and purses.  The soldiers retreated possibly in shock at the determination of this small group which had surrounded Okwir to stop his arbitrary arrest.  I heard the fracas over the phone and begged KB not to participate in the fight as my mind played out the publicity angle and how it would damage him as a candidate.  He said "If I was not participating they would have taken him already."  The call ended mid sentence and I wondered if that phone too had become a flying missile. 

At some point during this drama the Norwegian Ambassador and the Secretary General of the East African Community Francis Muthaura, arrived at the V.I.P lounge on their way to catch a flight and they were shocked at what they encountered.  Kizza Besigye spotted them and shouted, "Come and see how we are consolidating our democracy!"  After some aborted attempts to forcibly capture Okwir, the soldiers were reinforced with higher command when Col. Kasirye Ggwanga appeared on the scene asking, "Whodunnit?"  They moved in for the final assault, Kizza Besigye was thrown on his back and a soldier held him down with his knee pressed in the candidate’s belly.  Okwir was pulled away and taken forcibly from the team.  

The flight to Adjumani did not happen.

This is how the rights advocacy organization Human Rights Watch, reported the incident back then in their report;  'UGANDA: Not a Level Playing field:'

'Maj. Rabwoni Okwir, the head of Dr. Besigye's youth desk was violently detained without charge at Entebbe Airport on February 20. Military police and armed men made the arrest in civilian clothes after a four-and-a-half-hour stand-off between Okwir's supporters and security agents in the VIP lounge. Okwir was beaten and carried away by soldiers who threw him into the back of a pick-up truck, hit him with rifle butts, and sat on him as they drove away. He sustained injuries to his ribs.  The security personnel said they had strict orders to take Okwir to Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) headquarters.  Okwir was taken to CMI, where he was stripped to his trousers and then interrogated by seven military intelligence officers for six hours, among other things about the political opposition's internal dynamics as well as its funding sources. They threatened him, but did not physically abuse him. The following day he was released on condition that he wrote a statement disavowing the opposition.  He read a statement to the press at parliament that night saying that he had withdrawn from Dr. Besigye's task force. He said he had not been tortured or in any way intimidated. No questions were allowed at the press conference which only plain-clothed security personnel and a few MPs attended. As he left Mr. Okwir told a journalist from the Monitor newspaper that he was feeling ill and was going home to rest. "I am going home, I have pain all over my body.”  Okwir was never charged, although the army subsequently claimed that he was detained in his own interest to protect him from a plot by Dr. Besigye to kill him and blame it on the government. He has since left Uganda for medical treatment.'

I sat in James Musinguzi’s living room in Mbuya, with a few members of the Task Force.  There was anger, rage and disbelief in the air but no one seemed to be able to find the words to express it so we sat quietly and fumed inside as we waited for a much publicized television statement that was to be made by the Head of State on the arrest of Okwir Rabwoni.  By and by the President appeared on the screen and James Musinguzi got out of his chair and moved to sit behind the television.  We looked at him curiously and he said, "I will listen to him but I do not have to look at him.”  I kind of understood how he felt.  The President made a statement in which he basically said Okwir Rabwoni had been arrested to save him from the opposition which was planning to abduct him and harm him.  I did not need to hear or remember any more than that so I grabbed my car keys and returned to my apartment.

Okwir was never charged with any offence in any court of law. He was sent off to exile in the United Kingdom where he remained for many years.  He returned quietly to the country and is still an activist but he keeps a low profile away from the glare of unwarranted publicity.   

At 50 I know not to mess around with an authoritarian regime.

— feeling aggravated.

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