“Back to Ugandans, the elections are over,” Museveni said, concluding a 50 minutes speech after swearing-in on May 12, 2021, for another five-year term of office. “Akalulu kaggwa banange, let’s get down to work.”
But such a message doesn’t resonate with the plight of Solome Nakibuuka, 44, a resident of Busabaala, Wakiso district, whose two sons; 23-year-old Denis Matovu and 25-year-old Richard Sonko, have been in detention since December 8, 2020, when they were kidnapped from her home which is less than One Love Beach Busaabala, owned by former presidential candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu alias Bobi Wine.
Her sons and Bobi Wine knew each other. “Because we are neighbours of Bobi’s beach, when he was opening the beach many years ago, Bobi would give them some work to do,” she says.
Their arrest came three weeks after the bloody November 18 – 19 riots that were triggered by Bobi Wine’s arrest from the eastern Uganda district of Luuka while on a presidential campaign trail. Nakibuuka is not sure whether her sons’ arrest is connected to the riots.
While many families have established the whereabouts of their kidnapped relatives, and others have had theirs released, Nakibuuka has never heard about her sons.
Visiting her at home, Nakibuuka wore a broad smile as she welcomed a URN reporter, but her sense of joy waned quickly after she sat on her house’s veranda to narrate the agony of her nearly six months search for her missing sons.
When she left her home on the morning of December 9, 2020, to begin the search, she hoped that it would be an easy task and that perhaps, she would find them at a police station and get them released on bond or the government would release them after weeks, or a court order would force the government to produce them in court. But the reality has proved to be the antithesis of her hope.
The search took her to tens of police stations, prisons, courts, and meetings with several soldiers who took her money promising to help. By March, Nakibuuka had spent more than Shs 8 million on paying people who promised to secure her sons’ freedom. She had been promised that her sons released but this was never to be the case, and Museveni’s inauguration speech ended all hope.
“The president said, politics is over, we should go and work. If you’re in my situation, what do you do? How do you return to work and forget politics when you have never heard of your son?” she asked despondently. “Politics indeed is over. No one seems to bother about us. No one is talking about us.” Optimism that they are alive has faded, Nakibuuka says. She thinks the government would have produced them in court if they are alive.
When she filed a case in court at the start of this year, the state attorney who represented the government at first said, the government had them, she recounts. “The judge said, okay, bring them, he came back three weeks later and said he had failed to find them.” She applied for habeas corpus and served documents to all security agencies but received no response.
Highly discreet mission
Though she is frustrated that some soldiers took her money and have not been helpful, her story seems to tell that drone kidnaps were a highly discreet operation sanctioned from the top.
“Soldiers have eaten my money. At first, I did not know, they were not going to be of help,” she says. Many soldiers she has approached tell her to pray and console her that if her children are alive, they will one time come back home. “They tell me if they are seen following my issue, they can lose their jobs. When you tell them drones, they say, no, no because it’s very high ranking officers who know where those people could be,” she says.
One day, a soldier got her an appointment with a Major General. When she met the general at his home on a Sunday morning, the general picked his phone and telephoned juniors at Mbuya CMI, gave them the name of Nakibuuka’s sons to check if they are detained in CMI cells. The answer was no; they were not in CMI cells.
In Nakibuuka’s endless search, she has fallen into the traps of fraudsters. People would come and ask her to give them money in the range of Shs 200,000 and Shs 500,000 for transport, which she would easily raise and pay. Then Nakibuuka was approached by someone who asked for Shs 5 million and another who was asking for Shs 3 million which she refused to pay. But as a parent, Nakibuuka says she can’t give up searching.
Anxiety, Nakibuuka goes up whenever she is told stories like, “some people were killed and thrown in Lake Victoria or some people were killed and dumped in forests, and maybe your sons were among them.” Such tales, she says trigger sleepless nights. Nakibbuka appeals to the government, if her sons are alive, to produce them in court where they can be sentenced to a gazetted prison.
“Prison doesn’t kill,” she says. When in prison, Nakibuuka says she would know they are in a prison to serve a stipulated sentence. “You can be firm knowing, they will come back from prison,” she says.
The pain of the endless search has taught Nakibuuka that “when the government is in power, it has power.” And it can do anything. It’s also over for her participating in elections. “I tell my children that if they ever see me going to vote again, they know that I am mad,” she says.
Museveni in previous speeches about election-related arrests said the government would account for all missing people. But it hasn’t. Internal Affairs Minister Jeje Odonog tabled in parliament a list of suspects they had in various detention facilities. Nakibbuuka’s sons weren’t on it. And the army spokesperson Flavia Byekwaso has nothing to tell Nakibuuka because her sons were not on the government list. Museveni also revealed in February that his SFC guards were holding 51 suspects.
Since the president’s revelation, SFC has on numerous occasions refused to be drawn into questions about the suspects they could be holding. “The president meant that security organs, not SFC were holding 51 people,” SFC spokesperson Jimmy Omara said. “As SFC, we are not holding anyone honestly; we don’t even have facilities to hold people.” But he took record of Nakibbuuka’s name and those of her missing sons.
And at an Inter-Party Organization for Dialogue (IPOD) summit in March, Museveni promised unconditional release of 51 suspects arrested after the November 2020 riots. IPOD executive secretary Frank Rusa says there has not been a formal follow-up on the president’s promise.