Saturday, 20 September 2008

I saw Amin’s firing squads

New Vision Online

I saw Amin’s firing squads
Saturday, 11th September, 2010
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Amin often displayed arms to frame his opponents before conviction and execution
Amin often displayed arms to frame his opponents before conviction and execution
IT is 33 years since the last public execution in Uganda. Ivan Lukanda looks back to the 1970s to see how Idi Amin eliminated his enemies

On September 7, 1977, President Idi Amin signed death sentences for 12 men who pleaded guilty to treason.

Lt. Col. Au Juma, the Chairman of the Military Tribunal, which tried the convicts and Francis Ayume the Director of Public Prosecution, witnessed.

Maj. Farouk Habib, the head of Military Police, also attended. The ceremony took place at State House Entebbe. Ayume was later to become Solicitor General, Attorney General and Speaker of Parliament in the later governments of Obote II and Yoweri Museveni.

On September 9, 1977, Voice of Uganda carried a screaming headline: “Fifteen to face Firing Squad today” [sic].

On this day, Amin ignored a plea from President William Tolbert of Liberia to spare the lives of the 15, preferring to follow the decision of the Military Tribunal.

Tolbert, ever dressed in white robes, was a friend of Amin and one of the few African leaders the Uganda president respected. He had earlier been in Uganda to open the Uganda Commercial Bank building on Kampala Road.

The military government invited the public to witness the executions, but only the government cameraman was allowed to take pictures.
Amin paraded weapons at Nile Mansions (now Serena Hotel), called the diplomatic corps, clergy and others to demonstrate there was a plot to overthrow his government.

Some of the men on charges of treason were Lt. Ben Ongom, Ben Ogwang, Okidi Meya, Nsereko, Nyuru and Kabandize. They were accused of importing fire arms. They were 16 in total.

Two of the victims, Ongom and Nyuru, were forced to read a document saying the arms were from Milton Obote, who was then in exile in Tanzania.

“It is alleged that Jumba Masagazi and Lt. Col. Francis Itabuka drafted the document,” Ssemwanga Kisolo, a historian, said. “That day, Archbishop Jonan Luwum was arrested and killed.” The 16 were convicted and sentenced to death by firing squad. This was the second and last wave of firing squads in Uganda. It was the second time in Kisolo’s life to witness public executions. The first was in 1973.

Kisolo’s 1970s Account
At about 11:00am on September 9, soldiers brought iron drums filled with sand to the Pan African Square on Queensway, Entebbe Road.

The victims were fastened onto the drums to prevent their bodies from movement and possible disintegration resulting from the force of the bullet.

The drums were also aimed at preventing bullets from hurting the people witnessing the execution.

By 2:00pm, the crowd had increased in size. At 3:00pm, armed men were brought to the square on a military lorry. Amin passed Queensway at about 4:00pm driving a Volkswagen.

He was wearing a Muslim cap. It was Ramadhan, the fasting period for Muslims. People thought Amin would seek popularity by coming to the square and publicly pardon the convicts, but he did not even wave. The crowd looked on as he drove past, indifferent to the small crowd.

At about 4:30pm, a Military Police pick-up truck and a lorry belonging to Uganda Prisons drove into the square. The lorry was covered with a tarpaulin. Prisoners came out one by one — handcuffed. Doctors examined them and religious leaders prayed for each in their respective religion.

After that, the soldiers who were wearing masks took their positions, cocked their guns and stood at attention.

Lt. Col. Juma Mi Lokony (commonly known as Wazimu Butabika in reference to his often insane actions) the commanding officer of Malire regiment and the chairman of the tribunal, ordered the soldiers to fire at the prisoners in front of them.

But Ben Ogwang, who was an intelligence officer at Malire, did not die after the first round. He vertically shook his head. Lt. Col. Butabika and a doctor reached out to him and confirmed he was not yet dead. Butabika ordered one of the soldiers to shoot Ogwang again.

The medical examiner checked Ongom’s pulse on both sides of his neck and confirmed he was no more.

Another victim, Nsereko, a former police officer, refused to wear a hood. He wanted to die while seeing. The hood prevents the executioner from seeing the victim, a scenario that may cause them (executioner) nightmares after the exercise.

At about 6:00pm, a cloud of fear covered Kampala. The crowd that had witnessed the execution left the square without talking to one another. The prisoners who removed the bodies from the iron drums and put them in coffins were released on the orders of Amin.

This public execution pushed guerrillas underground, to the extent that Amin’s ousters had to be exiles backed by the Tanzanian army.

Four years earlier Kisolo had witnessed a public execution which, like the second, sent shivers down the spines of many Ugandans.

January 23, 1973, started as a beautiful sunny day in Kampala. On its eve, Radio Uganda had announced that guerrillas and armed robbers would be shot dead in different regions “to serve as an example to the people”.

“Indeed the day ended as Amin and his henchmen had wished,” Semwanga Kisolo, an eye witness, now a radio historian on Super FM, recalls.

Kisolo was 15 and in Senior Three then.

“That day, I left school (Old Kampala SS) early and headed for the Pan African Square in Katwe where the execution was to be conducted”.

Badru Semakula, who had been arrested in armed robbery, was put on firing squad that day. Although no one questioned whether Semakula was innocent or not, “the act of seeing him die was disturbing.” A tree stump still stands at the point where Semakula was executed.

This was probably the first execution by firing squad in Uganda. Semakula’s arrest coincided with the arrest of Front for National Salvation (FRONASA) rebels. Amin then ordered the public execution of 13 people he felt were not desired in the country he was leading.

His other victims were Tom Masaba, an ex-captain in the army, William Nkoko from Busoga, Joseph Bitwari and James Karambi from Kigezi and Phares Kasoro, an ex-policeman from Toro. These were believed to be the co-ordinators of FRONASA, a guerrilla outfit led by Raiti Omongin and Yoweri Museveni who had fled to Tanzania and had started their own resistance against Amin’s government.

On January 22, a tribunal chaired by Lt. Col. Ozo decided that the five men be executed by firing squad. On January 24, the government newspaper, Voice of Uganda, reported that the sitting was a directive from the Defence Council chaired by Idi Amin earlier in the day at Makindye Lodge.

Before the tribunal, Masaba and Nkoko who were together at the time of arrest made contradictory statements when accused of harbouring guerillas composed of elements from of the Uganda Army in Lugala Forest near Busoga District Farm Institute (now Mayuge District). Most of the recruits were from Kigezi.

On escaping from the training camps, the recruits were arrested by Amin’s soldiers. The recruits led the soldiers to Kabale, where they identified Joseph Bitwari and James Karambi as the people who enlisted them into the rebel ranks. Kasoro was accused of breaking into an abandoned house and stealing seven short guns and a pistol with ammunition. Kasoro allegedly hid the pistol and ammunition in the house of his girlfriend.

Kasoro told the tribunal that as a former policeman, he knew it was unlawful to keep arms and ammunition which did not belong to him and which had no certificate.

Col. Ozo released a statement in which he stated: “Now these subversive elements have found a direct confrontation impossible so they are operating in small bands. They disguise as soldiers and try to disgrace the government by hijacking high officials.” (sic) “Now as a result of this, these people must be punished in public in their districts as an example to the people. The tribunal decided that the five accused be executed by firing squad.”

The members of the tribunal included Lt. Col. Hussein Malela, Maj Gabriel; Capt. Sengendo, Capt. Yasin, Capt. Amin and the secretary, Lt. Awuzu.

Bishop Kivengere Protests
Before the executions, Bishop Festo Kivengere of Kigezi Diocese met Idi Amin and protested to the killing in 1973 of three men from his diocese by firing squad on the alleged charges.

In his article published by African Saints — Saints, Martyrs and Holy People from the Continent of Africa in 2002, Frederick Quinn quotes Kivengere: February 10 began as a sad day for us in Kabale. People were commanded to come to the stadium and witness the execution. Death permeated the atmosphere. A silent crowd of about 3,000 was there ready to watch. I had permission from the authorities to speak to the men before they died, and two of my fellow ministers were with me. They brought the men on a truck and unloaded them. They were handcuffed and their feet were chained. The firing squad stood at attention. As we walked into the centre of the stadium, I was wondering what to say. How do you give the Gospel to doomed men who are probably seething with rage?

We approached them from behind, and as they turned to look at us, what a sight! Their faces were all alight with an unmistakable glow and radiance. Before we could say anything, one of them burst out: “Bishop, thank you for coming! I wanted to tell you. The day I was arrested, in my prison cell, I asked the Lord Jesus to come into my heart. He came in and forgave me all my sins! Heaven is now open, and there is nothing between me and my God! Please tell my wife and children that I am going to meet with Jesus. Ask them to accept him into their lives as I did.” The other two men told similar stories, excitedly raising their hands, which rattled their handcuffs. [It is not clear who the third victim was. But like in the Nkoko case, this victim could have been a friend of Bitwari and Karambi that security operatives concluded he must have been involved in subversive activities]

I felt that what I needed to do was to talk to the soldiers, not to the condemned. So I translated what the men had said into a language the soldiers understood. The military men were standing there with guns cocked and bewilderment on their faces. They were so dumbfounded that they forgot to put the hoods over the men’s faces! The three faced the firing squad standing close together. They looked toward the people and began to wave, handcuffs and all. The people waved back. Then shots were fired, and the three were with Jesus.

Nkoko was publicly executed in Bugembe Stadium on the outskirts of Jinja town with his presumed to be innocent friend Rashid Ntale, while Masaba was stripped naked before execution in Mbale town.

Shortly after the 1971 coup, Amin had forgiven and released all political prisoners, including Obote’s rebellious ministers who had been sent to Luzira on the orders of their boss. The ministers included Grace Ibingira, Abu Baker Mayanja, Grace Bataringaya, Wilberforce Nadiope and Benedicto Kiwanuka. It appears Amin thought that such an act sent a sympathy note to some people who expected similar treatment when arrested.

In justifying his action (public execution), on January 25, 1973, Amin told a visiting businessman from Bugisu, Natolo Masaba, “If anyone involves himself in subversive activities, whether he is a minister or not, he can be arrested and put before the military tribunal and be executed.”

Amin reasoned that his government was responsible for protecting the lives and the property of all people in Uganda and would not allow anybody to bring confusion because that would lead to suffering of innocent people.

On January 30, 1973, a guerrilla identified as Yusuf (or Joseph) Malibo Abwooli from Wesenene, Mwenge, in Toro, was arrested at the Uganda Bookshop tea room in Kampala by the Public Safety Unit (PSU).

He had a pistol and three magazines.

The PSU had been set up to curb the rampant armed robberies and murder of prominent Ugandans in the early days of Amin’s government.

On interrogation, the Voice of Uganda on January 31, 1973 reported that, Malibo said, he “was sent from Tanzania with several others to assassinate and kidnap certain important people in Uganda.”

Malibo’s targets were reportedly the Foreign Minister, Wanume Kibedi; the Minister of Education, Edward Rugumayo; the Minister of Culture and Community Development, Yekosofati Engur; the acting Commander of the Army, Col. Francis Nyangweso; and a Kampala sportsman, Ali Bablo in that order of priority. Malibo was carrying with him a group photograph of the five men.

On February 4, Yoweri Museveni told the British newspaper, The Observer, that the guerrilla camp found by the Ugandan security forces near Mbale town in eastern Uganda on January 15, 1973 belonged to his force.

In August, 2009, Nkoko’s remains were exhumed from a public cemetery two kilometres on Jinja-Iganga road and reburied at Kityerera, Mayuge District.

President Yoweri Museveni told mourners that Nkoko was part of FRONASA.

“Nkoko was a hero. It is sad that we lost him and others, but they never lost their lives in vain as the peace we wanted to attain for our country has been achieved,” he said.

FRONASA’s alleged aim of kidnapping the prominent people was to arouse public anger against Amin and his government who had become very popular.

The Amin era marked a period unprecedented in Uganda’s history. Public execution came to symbolise the reign of terror. Those forced to attend the brutal ceremony were scared and live to remember the day.

But many Ugandan’s were murdered in torture chambers run by the dreaded PSU and State Research Bureau. When the Amin regime fell in 1979, many thought the past would be interred in the past. But this was never the case.

Soon the Uganda National Liberation Army and National Security Agency under the Uganda People’s Congress government continued with the brutality of Amin’s regime.

Though there were no public executions — Amin style — torture chambers, including Nile Mansions, NASA head office, Argentina House in Mbuya and Naguru police barracks were butcher houses where hundreds were killed in an extra-judicial way.

See related stories in Sunday Magazine

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