In November 2020 shock engulfed Uganda when security personnel—some sporting plain clothes whilst armed with Kalashnikovs—opened fire and killed more than 50 civilians. Protests had erupted after Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alias Bobi Wine, was arrested while on the presidential campaign trail in Luuka District.
The grip of the shock became tighter after Gen Elly Tumwine, wearing the dark shades that became his trademark after emerging victorious from the Ugandan Bush War, spoke.
“We had information that these groups were trying to acquire guns such that they kill people,” the then Security minister told the media, adding, “The police have a right to shoot you and kill you if you reach a certain level of violence. I can repeat: Police have a right to shoot and you die for nothing.”
Asked by journalists why security personnel clad in plain clothes had also been deployed, Gen Tumwine’s response was instructive. He said: “When you want to catch a thief, sometimes you behave like a thief because all of those are tactics.”
He added: “Security forces are not only organised, but they are the most disciplined. We have invested so much in those two because we can act in a short time than anybody else.”
At the time, Uganda’s Defence budget threatened the Shs4 trillion mark.
“Those who think they can cause disruption even if you take us by surprise as it happened on November 18, we can quickly organise and we shall put you in your place,” he warned.
Back in 2020, two years after he was appointed to head the Security docket in Cabinet, the four-star general—who abandoned teaching art to join the bush struggle—used the art form of music to deliver an ominous message to civilians who harboured hopes of violating pandemic curbs.
“Sisituko tayari adui hakija. Sistuko tayali…,” he sang, which translates to: Whenever the enemy comes, we are ever ready.
At the youthful age of 24, Tumwine was introduced to military life in 1978 when he paused his teaching career to join President Museveni’s Front for National Salvation (Fronasa) at Moduli in Tanzania. While there, he did military training as the outfit made plans to oust Idi Amin regime.
Bush war bloopers
When Museveni declared armed rebellion in 1980, having been trounced in the Mbarara North parliamentary elections, Tumwine followed him. Consequently, he was part of the 27 men that met at Mathew Rukikaire’s abode to plot guerrilla warfare. Others were Gen Museveni, Brig Julius Kihande, Col Fred Mwesigye, Brig Andrew Lutaaya, Jack Mucunguzi, Paul Kagame, Col George Mwesigwa, and Col Charles Tusiime Rutarago.
The fighters needed guns and ammunition and so they decided to announce the bush war that would last for five years by attacking Kabamba Military Training School on February 6, 1981. Gen Tumwine, a Second Lieutenant at the time, was in charge of the quarter guard hit squad, but bungled up the operation.
Writing in his Sowing the Mustard Seed memoir, Museveni revealed that the rebels failed to access the armoury because Tumwine went against his orders. Tumwine shot a soldier at the quarter guard instead of wrestling him down. This alerted a Tanzanian guard near the armoury, necessitating a quick withdrawal where the nearby town of Kiboga offered refuge.
Museveni also revealed in his memoir that he ordered Gen Tumwine to attack Kabamba in September of 1983, but this operation flopped once again. Along the way, it’s said the guerrillas under Gen Tumwine met a relatively insignificant force of Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) soldiers and they exchanged fire.
Gen Tumwine, perhaps fearing that the plot had been exposed, pulled a plug on the entire operation. Despite making mistakes, Museveni went ahead to appoint Tumwine among the first NRA commanders. Others were Hannington Mugabi, Jack Mucunguzi, and Sam Magara.
Even when the rebel outfit was reorganised into six units, named after Museveni’s adored African leaders, Tumwine was named the commander of Kabelega. The unit operated out of Kapeeka in present-day Nakaseke District.
Other commanders were Jack Mucunguzi, who commanded Gamal Abdel Nasser (along Gulu Road); Col. Fred Mwesigye, who commanded Nkrumah (Singo); Mondlane under Fred Rwigyema (Kalasa/Mukulubita); Mwanga under Matayo Kyaligonza (Mukono); and Luttamaguzi under Hannington Mugabi (Kikandwa).
Wounds of war
During the fighting between the rebels and the government forces, Gen Tumwine claimed that he sustained facial injuries that led to the loss of sight in one eye. He needed little invitation to recall the outcome of the incident whenever questioned about his military credentials or actions.
“You know how much we have sacrificed. Yes, it’s not disputable that it’s us that brought this free air of discussion,” Gen Tumwine told a parliamentary committee on rules, discipline, and privileges that were probing him following an accusation of assaulting Dokolo District Woman MP Cecilia Ogwal in 2018. “I have one eye. What was it for?” Gen Tumwine, a former army representative in Parliament, asked the lawmakers.
“So, anybody who accuses or talks about our sacrifices as an accusation should withdraw it.”
It wasn’t the first time Tumwine was charged with misbehaving within the precincts of Parliament. On May 9, 2002, when the Bill on Political Parties and Organisation Act was being hotly contested, Jacob Oulanyah—who was chairing the parliamentary and Legal Affairs Committee—alleged that the general—then representing the army in Parliament—had jostled and humiliated him.
It’s said that the Luweero Bush War veteran thought Oulanyah—then a Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) stalwart—was carrying a gun. The Committee on Rules, Privileges, and Discipline headed by Hope Mwesigye, then Kabale Woman MP, had decided to take up the matter, but couldn’t go far as Oulanyah decided to drop the charges. This followed the intervention of First Lady Janet Museveni.
Sixteen years before that squabble, Tumwine had been named by Museveni the first Army commander of the NRA when the ragtag outfit emerged from the Luweero bushes victorious. Even when he was succeeded by Museveni’s brother Gen Salim Saleh, Tumwine remained a member of the historical high command until his death.
Going after Besigye
In 1999, the establishment was rocked by a crisis when Luweero Bush War veteran Dr Kizza Besigye, then a senior military advisor to the Minister of State for Defence, wrote a dossier critical of the National Resistance Movement (NRM)—the political wing of the NRA now known as the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF).
Dr Besigye wrote: “I have taken a keen interest and participated in the political activities on the Ugandan scene since the late 1970s. This was during a period of intense jostling to topple and later succeed the Idi Amin regime. I am, therefore, fully aware of the euphoria, excitement, and hope with which Ugandans received the Uganda National Liberation Front/Army (UNLF/A).”
He added: “Ugandans supported the UNLF’s stated approach of ‘politics of consensus’ through the common front. It was hoped that the new approach to politics would be maintained and Uganda rebuilt from the ruins left by the Amin regime. Unfortunately, instead of nurturing the structures, and regulations which bound the front together, we witnessed a primitive power struggle that resulted in ripping the front apart to the chagrin of the population.”
In the aftermath of the publication of the dossier, Gen Tumwine, it’s said, was among the members of the army’s high command who pushed for Museveni’s former physician to be tried at the court martial. But following intense pressure from elders from Rukungiri, Besigye’s home district, Museveni, who initially had bought into it, dropped the idea.
“Museveni agreed to the pardon, reluctantly allowing Besigye to resign from the army, a decision he was to later regret. Indeed, just as Museveni had feared, as soon as Besigye secured his letter of discharge, he announced that he was going to run against Museveni in the forthcoming 2001 election,” Prof Joe Oloka-Onyango writes in his book titled When courts do politics: Public Interest Law and Litigation in East Africa.
When Besigye announced his presidential bid in which he promised to pledge democratic reforms and to stamp out the rampant corruption that he said had eaten up the soul of Museveni’s government, one army officer who remained critical of him was Gen Tumwine. The four-star general described the retired colonel as “an indiscipline officer” who was “guilty of his actions.”
“We asked him to write his ideas and he chose to write to the press instead of bringing it to the right forum,”
Gen Tumwine said, dismissing Besigye’s allegation that Museveni was sectarian. “If the President was sectarian, Besigye would not be what he is now. Go and ask him where he would be now.”
After the elections that were punctuated by state-sponsored violence, Besigye beat a security ring around his house and fled to exile in South Africa.
In 2005, Gen Tumwine seemed to have clinched his dream of chairing a military court that would hold Besigye accountable for ‘’crimes’’ committed. Besigye returned from exile to contest in the 2006 presidential elections under the auspices of the newly formed Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), but he was arrested.
Besigye was first charged with rape at the High Court. He was also separately charged at the same court with treason together with 22 other men, with the state claiming that they had formed a rebel outfit they called PRA or People’s Redemption Army.
When Besigye and his co-accused were granted bail by the High Court, a security outfit—that came to be known as Black Mamba—stormed the court in a movie-like style. They re-arrested the suspects who were processing their bail papers and compelled them to appear before Gen Tumwine’s court martial where they were charged with treason.
Besigye’s lawyers filed a habeas corpus application and Justice John Bosco Katutsi ruled that the “continued detention of Besigye on a purported warrant of commitment from the GCM (General Court Martial) was illegal, unlawful, and in contempt of the High Court order to release the applicant on bail.” Justice Katutsi consequently ordered Besigye’s immediate release.
Gen Tumwine did not officially challenge the High Court rulings that had stayed the proceedings in his court and released Besigye. He nevertheless asserted the military court’s independence from and concurrent jurisdiction with the High Court.
In defiance of the High Court order, Gen Tumwine continued the trial of the accused even when the Constitutional Court subsequently pronounced itself on the matter, declaring that the military court did not have the jurisdiction to try the accused. The four-star general did not take heed, but insisted on proceeding with the trial up to its conclusion. He assured court goers and the accused that not even the Chief Justice has powers to stop him.
In a rather strange turn of events, Gen Tumwine announced that he would not proceed with the trial of the accused until the Supreme Court had pronounced itself on the matter. This announcement came as no big surprise to many because at around the same period, President Museveni was quoted in the newspapers assuring ambassadors of the European Union (EU) and the representative of the ambassador of the United States of America (USA) to Uganda that Besigye would not be tried by the military court.
The President was further quoted to have said the 22 suspects co-accused with Besigye would remain in custody. The President’s assurances raised a number of questions regarding the independence of the GCM, particularly with regard to where the President got the authority to make these pronouncements since he was not a court of law.
“The general impression left by his actions was that the President could dictate the direction the GCM should take on the matter, which (as a matter of fact and law) is not supposed to be the case,” Ronald Naluwairo, a lecturer at Makerere University’s Law School, wrote in a paper titled Critical Evaluation of the Role of the General Court Martial in the Administration of Justice in Uganda.
Gen Tumwine didn’t get off the Besigye case easily. He one time arrested, tried, and convicted Besigye’s lawyers Erias Lukwago and Caleb Alaka on contempt charges. The general sentenced the duo to a fine of Shs1,000 in default of which they were to be imprisoned for two weeks. They both paid the fine.