Monday, June 8, 2015

HIV/AIDS on Trial

The days after the 2001 presidential elections in Uganda were interesting.  After the rush of anger at a rigged election, there was no bitterness but a new sense of achievement at what we had done.  The world had witnessed first hand the mockery of an election that had just ended, and we had opened through the thin veneer of that mock exercise to show the country and the world the deception that lay underneath the image of 'emerging democracy.'  A small number of activists had driven a process that caused the ruling party to expose its true self, calling out the military and using all manner of brutality to keep itself in power.  Wherever we went in Kampala city we were received like celebrities by fans who praised our courage and Kizza Besigye became a household name associated with valor and heroism.  We had not lost after all!  We had simply started a process of change.  And we still had a chance to appear before the Supreme Court and produce evidence to prove just how badly the election had been stolen.

The regulations for filing election petitions after a presidential race in Uganda are very stringent.  The petitioner had just over one week to file a petition before the Supreme Court and evidence had to be gathered from nearly 20,000 polling stations country wide.  Witnesses of violence and election rigging had to swear affidavits before an authorized notary or magistrate and have them delivered to the Supreme Court in Kampala within ten days.  While we worked round the clock collecting evidence and transporting witnesses to Kampala, our detractors were not resting on their laurels.  They followed in our footsteps, bribing and threatening witnesses, especially soldiers who had witnessed election malpractices in barracks.  Finally, Election Petition No. 1 of 2001;  Col. Dr. Besigye Kizza vs. Museveni Yoweri, The Electoral Commission was filed on 23 March 2001.  

The hearing was presided over by Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki. The other judges were Arthur Oder, Alfred Karokora, Wilson Tsekooko and Joseph Mulenga.  Joseph Balikuddembe led a team of lawyers for the petitioner, Besigye. Solicitor General Peter Kabatsi led the defence of the Electoral Commission while Dr. Joseph Byamugisha led the team defending President Museveni.  Each day of the hearing I sat next to the petitioner in court and observed a parody like my eyes had never witnessed.  One would be forgiven for thinking that this was not a serious hearing with far reaching implications for Ugandan democracy.  It could have been a stage production for a popular soap opera, after all the court was wired up with electronic transmission gadgets so that the first respondent, Yoweri Museveni, could follow the proceedings from the comfort of State House.  If anyone thought the president-elect was about to stoop to appearing before the highest court in the nation’s judiciary, they were wrong.  The Daily Monitor and New Vision chronicled the proceeding:

And so it begun: Balikuddembe: 'My lords, we are ready to start. We begin with the background statement leading to this petition. With the coming into force of the 1995 Constitution of Uganda, the people of Uganda put to an end the political instability and decided to establish the new political order based on democracy and fundamental rights. No one should try to violate them. Article one of the Constitution of Uganda stated, I quote, "All power belongs to the people who shall exercise their sovereignty in accordance to this constitution...'All power and authority of government and its organs deriving from this constitution which in turn derived its authority from the people who consent to be governed...the people shall express their consent on who should govern them and how they should be governed...through regular free and fair elections of their representatives or referenda...'   It is the petitioners case that the 2nd respondent and all its servants and agents committed a lot of malpractices in contravention of the law and there was a lot of non-compliance with the provisions of the Presidential Elections Act 2000 and that there was also non- compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Commission Act of 1997.'

'We shall be pointing out in our submission the evidence showing and proving that the... second respondent purposely failed to display the voters rolls as required by law for 21 days and purposely shortened that period which is mandatory...and the result was that the voters register and rolls were not cleaned of ghost voters, people who had died, people who were not supposed to vote under the Ugandan laws. And we shall point out evidence... to show that the voters register was never completed by the second respondent and it was in fact inflated and that it contained two million ghost voters. This evidence will be brought out in detail. Secondly, we shall be pointing out that the second respondent organised the presidential elections on March 12th 2001 using a number of polling stations which were never gazetted as required by law and that they were brought to the notice of the petitioner on March 11th, a matter of hours before polling started the following day. These polling stations are over 1,000 and that is not a small number.  And....we shall be pointing out later, the petitioner was unable to appoint his polling agents to supervise all those new polling stations and safeguard his interests. We shall also be pointing out that he filed the evidence to support the petitioners contention that the ballot papers and voters cards were printed in excess and were not securely kept by the second respondent and as a result, these voters cards ended in hands which should not have them and ...ballot papers were being stuffed in ballot boxes by agents and supporters of the first respondent. The fourth area we shall be pointing out is that the first respondent purposely deployed the PPU, which in Rukungiri especially, terrorised voters and particularly the petitioner's supporters and agents. We shall, my lords, be pointing out evidence to show that the first respondent deployed the military all over the country purposely to facilitate his election as president and undermine your petitioner's chances for election as president... and undermine my client's chances for being elected president of Uganda. His evidence will show that many voters were harassed and intimidated and did not exercise their right to vote in the way they wanted as provided by the Constitution. We shall be pointing out many other things but the substance... is that the results of the presidential elections held on the 12th March 2001 were substantially affected. And that what was termed as the elections of the president was in fact a sham. I will be pointing out that there was a systematic rigging of these elections. We shall be pointing out another particle of evidence to support the petitioner's contention that the first respondent committed illegal practices and offences under the Act and that the electoral offences were committed, by evidence, with his consent or approval, and that this by itself is a ground by your lordships to nullify the presidential elections 2001..." 

In a twist of events the highlights of the court hearing for me would not be the electoral malpractice and there was overwhelming evidence of that; instead it was the continuation of the Movement's ugly practices that would take a hold on my memory forever.  HIV/AIDS was put on trial and Joseph Balikuddembe continued...

'Dr. Kizza Besigye states that, "...the 1st respondent maliciously made false statements that I was a victim of AIDS without any reasonable grounds, to believing that that was true and this false and malicious allegations against me, had the effect of promoting the 1st respondent unfairly in preference of me alleged victim of AIDS as the voters were scared of voting for me who by necessary implication was destined to fail to carry out the functions of the demanding office of the president and to serve the statutory term." He attached a copy of the Monitor of March 8 2001 where the false incident was reported. Museveni is quoted as saying, "The statement of AIDS was not made by me publicly or maliciously for the purpose of procuring an election for myself and that I have known the petitioner for a long time and I made the statement honestly believing it to be true and I said so because of a woman named Judith Bitwire with whom the petitioner cohabited and the petitioners child died of AIDS in addition to his bodily appearance that bears a strong resemblance to that of AIDS victims I have observed in the past...,"

"My lords, it is important to note that the 1st respondent does not deny making that statement. He is only saying he did not make it publically or maliciously, but he admits making it. I would like now to bring to your notice the petitioner's affidavit in reply of the 1st respondent. It was filed yesterday. The petitioner says it is true his companion Judith Bitwire died but he did not know the cause of the death and that he had a child with the late Judith Bitwire but this child did not die of AIDS.  "I hereby state that the statement admitted by the 1st respondent as having been made that the petitioner is a victim of AIDS was meant to stigmatise me and undermine my candidature before the electorate through demoralising my supporters and voters in general and promote his own candidature against me. "The 1st respondent has never tested or diagnosed me and found me as an AIDS victim and has never spoken to me about my health status. My appearance, which is natural just like any other person, cannot be used to know or make one believe that I am a victim of AIDS. "There are no obvious resemblance of AIDS victims for knowing or believing that a person is an AIDS victim. During the presidential campaigns, I traversed the country without breaking down or feeling particularly fatigued. The statement was made publicly and the journalist of the Time Magazine and the Website in there...this magazine is sold all over the world including in Uganda. "The 1st respondent said in a press conference that State House is not a place for an invalid or of the invalid. That the place is for someone who is in control of all his faculties both mental and physical and by referring to me as an invalid, without all my faculties and incapable of being a president, the 1st respondent undermined my candidature before the voters while promoting his own candidature to my prejudice at the election... "I know the meaning of an invalid and I am not an invalid as suggested by the 1st respondent in his March 11 2001 press conference." 

The Museveni defence team then called a witness to prove the hitherto little known concept of 'community diagnosis of HIV/AIDS,' to prove that the president was right and it was the norm in Uganda to identify an AIDS victim by observation.  Prof. John Rwomushana, a Medical Doctor, with post graduate training in Medicine and Clinical Pathology, involving studies in virology, genetics and immunology, was also the Director of Research and Policy Development at the Uganda AIDS Commission.  In his affidavit  he stated that: 'I am very conversant with the research results pertaining to both medical and social aspects of AIDS and on the basis of such research and information state ...that research in Uganda has established that there is a concept of "Community Diagnosis" of AIDS based on Community perceptions, beliefs and observations concerning HIV/AIDS ...and that the said concept is a useful research tool that enables research into the community awareness as to the risk and dangers of the spread of HIV/AIDS.'
I sat next to KB through the proceeding but could not even turn to look at him as these words were being spoken.  He sat in silence and looked on like all the other people present in court that day and the hearing continued.

At 50 I know that whoever coined the phrase, 'Politics is a dirty game,' knew what they were talking about.

— feeling blah.

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