Has NUP done enough to get Ugandan political prisoners freed?

Bobi Wine arrested over protests in Kampala, driven back to Magere
Bobi Wine, Uganda's opposition leader was on March 15, 2021 arrested in downtown Kampala over protests against abduction, arrest and alleged killing of opposition supporters

Kampala, Uganda | URN | “For activism, you get a point of contact. You can’t have a T-shirt that has hundreds of prisoners. It’s impractical,” Joel Ssenyonyi, the National Unity Platform (NUP) spokesperson and Nakawa West legislator, argued in an interview with this publication.

Ssenyonyi’s argument is in defence of what ostensibly has been the party’s strategy of highlighting known figures in detention in their campaign to get all political prisoners freed. The thrust of Ssenyonyi’s argument is that activism must have a face and that face has to be a known figure.

The party started with T-shirts of the likes of Ali Buken aka Nubian Lee, Oyerwot Brenny Daniel aka Dan Magic and Eddy Ssebufu aka Eddie Mutwe. These can fit the description of a focal point and can be used as a rallying call for freeing others, Ssenyonyi said.

“When you mention Nubian Lee, even someone in Kabong knows Nubian Lee, when he hears that Nubian Lee has been arrested with a dozens of other political prisoners, it makes sense,” Ssenyonyi said. But with this argument, the campaign to release political prisoners would have become faceless given that the Eddie Mutwe’s group was released from jail in June.

Ssenyonyi explains that currently, the face of the campaign to free political prisoners are Makindye West Member of Parliament Allan Ssewanyana and Kawempe North legislator Muhammad Ssegirinya, who have been in detention since early September.

Hundreds of T-shirts calling for their release have been printed and are donned by several NUP officials during party functions. They were first donned by NUP legislators on September 29th 2021, when they walked out of parliament in protest of re-arrest of the two legislators after they had been given bail. Sssenyonyi says whenever they talk about Ssewanyana and Ssegrinya, they are talking about political prisoners.

When asked who will be the face of the campaign for release of political prisoners when Ssewanyana and Ssegiriinya are freed, Ssenyonyi said, “I don’t know.” Seconds later, he added, “The face we currently have is Kyagulanyi Robert.”

Two days after an interview with Ssenyonyi, Bobi Wine accompanied by NUP Secretary General Lewis Rubongoya on October 17th 2021 visited the family of John Damulira, a Kisekka Market trader who was arrested days after the November 18th riots. They donned T-shirts of Damulira calling for his release. It was perhaps the first T-shirt printed of detained people who were not part of NUP’s inner circle or prominent like Ssewanyana and Sseggiriinya.

Anger in families of detained people 

NUP’s strategy has left some families of people still in prison distraught. Relatives of three Bobi Wine supporters still detained at Kitalya said they were upset with NUP because its officials went quiet and resumed their normal business after the release of the Nubian Lee group in June.

Seething with anger, Naluuzo Christine, wife of Kigozi Isma who is detained at Kitalya said in an interview with URN, “I would like to request the NUP president who is Robert Kyagulanyi, please sir, we would like you to use a stronger voice to talk about prisoners who are in Kitalya. After the Eddie Mutwe’s were released, nothing is happening, you are just quiet, holding, making weddings now.” She could have been referring to Nubian Lee’s wedding that took place on 10th October 2021.

Following release of the Nubian Lee group, Maria Namatovu, wife of Ivan Bisaso who is detained at Kitalya said in an interview that NUP stopped holding press conferences chiefly to rally for demand of release of other political prisoners. And the responsibility to push for release of all political prisoners that the party had showed prior to the release of Eddie Mutwe’s group waned immediately after their release.

Bobi Wine supporters denied bail
Bobi Wine supporters in court on January 4, 2021. COURTESY PHOTO/ ABUBAKER LUBOWA

Namatovu claims that NUP officials told them that when they continue demanding release of the remaining group, government will advertently keep them in jail longer. She also accuses NUP officials of telling her husband that they are looking after his family yet they don’t give them anything.

Told of families that think the party hasn’t done enough, Ssenyonyi said their anger is understandable. Its natural, he says that families have directed their frustration at Bobi Wine and the party not Museveni, who ordered the arrest of the detained political prisoners.

Ssenyonyi also seemed to suggest that many people who are furious at Bobi Wine have not pushed an inch to get their husbands and sons out of jail. “It’s understandable to think that now these people were arrested because of you -NUP, you have not done much. And some of them will not push the state to release their people who are innocent,” he said. “The guns then point at us. Its natural. We understand their circumstances.”

Who is missing or in prison?  

Though NUP continues to claim that hundreds of party supporters are still in prison, the party doesn’t have a list showing those hundreds or even people whose whereabouts are still unknown. As of now, 78 known people arrested in the aftermath of November 18th riots are known to be in prison.

A NUP list of party supporters whose whereabouts isn’t known has 10 people, but missing the name of John Ddamulira whose family was visited by Bobi Wine and NUP Secretary General Lewis Rubongoya on October 27th 2021. And of the ten people on NUP’s list, there are only three contacts of relatives, meaning the party itself doesn’t know anything about them.

Read Also: Ugandan army arrests 3 Bobi Wine supporters over dancing to his music

Tabulation to get the exact population of missing people who were ‘disappeared’ by the state operatives hasn’t been successful, Ssenyonyi says, because the party didn’t get details of all its supporters who went missing or are in detention. “The challenge has been unavailability of information for some of those (missing) people,” he says.

The party’s conservative estimate of hundreds of people languishing in jail is based on hearsay of their supporters who have been detained in prisons like Kitalya and Kigo.

“Kitalya itself is like a prison for NUP,” the NUP spokesman changed.

When our reporter contacted Uganda Prisons Spokesperson Frank Baine, inquiring about the number of the November 18th riots suspects detained at Kitalya, he said such information can only be availed if there is a court order.

Baine said NUP should substantiate its claim that hundreds of its supporters are languishing in prisons.