Thursday, June 18, 2015

Return to Plantation

I returned to Plantation in the Fall of 2006 after a two year hiatus during which I completed the Reagan Fascell Fellowship Program in Washington, DC and worked at Women’s Learning Partnership in Bethesda, MD. My hopes of returning to Uganda had been dashed after Uganda’s opposition lost the 2006 election and it became apparent that my external relations efforts would still be required. Frankly, I had no desire of returning to a country where the main opposition leader had campaigned for office while either in jail or on bail. Kizza Besigye had returned from exile in South Africa in 2005 to contest for the presidency in the first elections that followed restoration of multiparty politics in Uganda. When he arrived to a rousing welcome and looked set for electoral victory, the government was faced with a dilemma that they solved the traditional way. The incumbent President could no longer play the HIV/AIDS card because his prediction in 2001 that Besigye had HIV/AIDS and was dying had been trumped by time. KB was alive, well and kicking up a lot of dust. So the government found a new idea of managing his political ambition and humiliating him all at the same time.
The old allegation that KB was linked to terror groups like the Peoples Redemption Army and the Lords Resistance Army was revived and he was summarily charged with terrorism before a military court martial in Kampala and locked up in the maximum-security prison in Luzira. And if that was not enough to keep him and his legal team busy, the government also accused Kizza Besigye of treason and rape spiced up with a tinge of intentional spread of HIV/AIDS. The charges would later be thrown out of court – after the election of course. Following his arrest, KB’s legal team focused on fighting challenges against his nomination for president because of the charges leveled against him. A shameless Attorney General, Khiddu Makhubuya, alleged that even though the courts had not yet found him guilty, the charges leveled against KB were sufficient to block his nomination. The nomination battle was won in the courts of law but when nomination day 2006 arrived, Kizza Besigye was still in the cooler and his wife Winnie Byanyima carried a large portrait of the man to represent him at his own nomination. When the legal team won the battle to bail him out of jail; the court still required KB to appear before it in Kampala weekly. That meant that for the duration of the campaign Besigye spent 24 hours on the road either trying to get to the next campaign rally or rushing to a Kampala court to fulfill the terms of his bail. And still the election was rigged and the Supreme Court threw out KB’s second electoral petition.
On 4 April 2006, one Jennifer Aryemo (JA) of the infamous headgear - whom I cannot recall ever meeting, appeared before the High Court in Kampala as the prosecutor's witness in the treason case against Kizza Besigye and stated under oath: (New Vision 5 April 2006)
‘JA: After Reform Agenda lost elections, one officer called me and told me that Col. Besigye wanted to see me at his office at Crest House.
BM: Who called you?
JA: Maj. Salambwa.
BM: After receiving the message what did you do?
JA: I agreed to meet Dr. Col. Besigye and went to Crest House.
BM: Do you remember the date, month and year?
JA: I do not remember the exact date, month and year but it was after RA lost elections to Museveni that is when I met him.
BM: What time did you get to Crest House?
JA: I do not remember the exact time but it was during the day.
BM: Where did you go exactly while at Crest House?
JA: Col. Besigye's office.
BM: Was anybody present in that office?
JA: Yes there were people.
Kagaba: How many people?
JA: I remember some names.
Kagaba: What was the number?
JA: Around three.
BM: Do you know the names of those who were present?
JA: Three people.
BM: Okay tell us.
JA: Anne Mugisha, Kizza Besigye and another called Byaruhanga.
BM: So those are the three.
JA: I remember those because we entered with Salambwa.
BM: Did you know these people before?
JA: I knew Mugisha, Byaruhanga and Salambwa during campaigns and Opoka is the one who introduced them to me.
BM: Did you know Opoka before.
JA: Yes My Lord, I knew him.
BM: So you and Salambwa get into Besigye’s office and find there other people. What follows?
JA: When we reached Kizza Besigye’s office, Salambwa introduced me and told Besigye that this is the person I told you about.
BM: What were these people doing in office when you went there?
JA: I found them seated and talking.
BM: What about you and Salambwa. Did you sit?
JA: Yes, we were given seats and we did sit.
BM: After you were introduced what followed?
JA: After I was introduced to Besigye, he told me that the election were not free and fair. They were rigged.
BM: Did he talk to you alone or with other people?
JA: He was talking to all of us and he said he would take government to court.
BM: Did he say anything else? (Aryemo pauses and gives a long explanation that Alaka objects to, saying she was not answering the question but giving an explanation.)
BM: Can you answer the question
JA: Col. Besigye said I should help him get connected to LRA.
(The audience bursts into laughter.)'
I was already a green card holder or permanent resident in the USA as I followed the unfolding drama in Uganda and could have easily traveled to Uganda but the manner in which Kizza Besigye was welcomed home by the government made me think hard before taking that decision. I had adequate motivation to go home because life as a single mom was tough in America. The salary I received as a program associate at WLP was barely enough to keep my head over water. The rent, car note and child care bills took up almost my entire monthly pay check and I fell into the infamous American credit trap. While waiting for my immigration status to be resolved, my brother Andrew had encouraged me to return to college and study Business. I enrolled at the University of Florida and started their Online Master of Business Administration course, so between 2003 – 2005, I traveled to Gainesville, Florida every semester to write exams, take some classes and receive the books and software I needed for the next semester. When I was in Plantation I had no car and the first time I took a train from Fort Lauderdale and it took over 10 hours of stopping and starting to get to Gainesville. Afterwards I made friends like Humberto Carlo who were also from South Florida, they kindly gave me a ride on the long 5-hour drive north. From October 2004 – April 2005, I lived in Maryland and when it was time to be a Gator, I took a flight to Orlando, FL, hired a vehicle and drove three hours north to Gainesville.
It was a tough life and that is how I discovered the tempting joy of the education loan. Having no credit history and still unemployed at the time of applying for admission at UF, I needed guarantors for the loan. Dr. Muniini Mulera my uncle through marriage and a fellow democracy activist; and VOA journalist Shaka Ssali were generous enough to guarantee the loan and I went to town, accumulating nearly USD $50,000 in education loans. I eventually built my own credit history and released my guarantors from their obligation but it would take me more than one decade to pay off that loan.
At the time I moved back to Plantation, FL to live near my brother I was working two jobs; at WLP during the day and at Blockbuster, a video rental company in the evening just to pay my bills. So why did I not return to Uganda in 2006? Uncertainty, fear and lack of hope. I knew the stories of harassment of opposition activists and deliberate impoverishing of those that were not harassed, to a point where they went begging the president for forgiveness so that they may get a job, a loan or just be left alone. I was just not prepared for that kind of humiliation and for me it would have been like jumping out of a frying pan into the fire. Years later I would be forced to write a letter to the same president guaranteeing that I was not a security threat before being recruited by an international organization. But that is a story for another day.
At 50 I smiled knowingly when a disgruntled General, our persecutor of yesteryears; revealed in the media in 2015, that Kizza Besigye won the 2006 presidential election at the polls but was unable to convert his win to power.

— feeling shocked.

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