“In the United States I confronted similar isolation as that which I had experienced in Uganda. A group of Ugandan’s appalled at the violence and injustices of the 2001 elections had formed a non-profit organization, RESPOND Uganda and shopped for an Executive Director to run it to create awareness amongst the Ugandan Diaspora and the US government of the democratic deficit that was now apparent in the country. I was identified to head the organization and this is how I obtained a visa to travel to the United States from South Africa where I was living with my paternal Uncle, John Iraka.
Within three months of my arrival in June 2002; the organization was appalled by my ‘in-your-face-activism,’ and they had also run out of funds so I was given notice of termination of my contract. The United States had been attacked by Al Qaeda terrorists in September 2001 and all focus on foreign policy was directed at fighting terrorism. Uganda jumped on the band wagon and passed its anti-terrorism law, identifying exiled opposition activists with terrorism. It became increasingly difficult to find organizations and people willing to fund a cause which was now associated with a group known as the People’s Redemption Army (PRA.)
Ugandan security agencies led by David Pulkol and Noble Mayombo appeared on radio talk shows and gave interviews linking Kizza Besigye and his erstwhile supporters to the PRA. Many activists were detained illegally and tortured to give evidence that would link Reform Agenda activists to the PRA. When James Opoka, Besigye’s political assistant on the EKBTF was killed by Kony in Northern Uganda, the rumor that Besigye (now exiled in South Africa) and anyone who supported his candidature was a terrorist linked with the infamous Lords Resistance Army; gained credence.
On 26 July 2003, my parents who chose to live a quiet religious life got thrust into the drama of my political activism. The government had launched an operation (Operation Wembley) purportedly to arrest thugs who were committing violent acts of robbery and many were shot down extrajudicially in this military operation that swept through Kampala. On that day the operatives found their way to my parent’s home in Bugolobi to arrest my father who they alleged was recruiting PRA rebels. They found my parents at home and ordered my father who was sitting in the living room with my mother to get up and follow them to their vehicle. My mother being the more outspoken of the two told them to wait because there was no way they were taking him in his slippers. She insisted that he goes upstairs and puts on his shoes so that he would leave the house presentably! She must have got their attention because indeed they allowed him to go upstairs and put on his shoes. Then they threw him in the back of their vehicle and took him to a ‘go-down’ in Kireka, an un-gazatted place of detention where they proceeded to ask him to remove his shoes and locked him up with several other people in a dark holding place.
My mother went to work. She called church leaders and relatives that she knew in government. Miria Matembe, then Minister of Ethics and a relative through marriage, was outraged when she heard the story. She called State House and told them that they had just committed a big blunder. My father is a respected figure in the Church of Uganda and his arrest was about to cause the government great embarrassment. Within two hours of his arrest, he was called out of the packed dark hole where he had been thrown by someone who asked: Are you Anne’s father? He told me that when he heard those words he thought he was dead but he could not deny who he was so he identified himself as my father. They took him to an office where a gentleman who released him chatted with him and said he had been to school with me. My father told me that when they brought him his shoes and socks, he could barely tie the laces because his hands were trembling. Once he had his shoes on they told him he could leave and opened the doors to the street. He jumped onto public transportation and made his way back to Bugolobi. My mother spoke to the press, probably for the first time in her life; and told them that the family should not be penalized for my political activities and they should be left alone.
I followed the saga from the USA and started to understand the impact of my activism on those who loved me.The US State Department Human Rights Country Report of 2003, published on 25 February 2004; reported the incident under the section on Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence. ‘The Government at times punished family members of suspected criminals and political opposition members. For example, on July 26, George Mugisha, father of RA activist Anne Mugisha, was arrested and temporarily detained for alleged links with a rebel group. He was released after 2 hours due to the lack of evidence, but he claimed the arrest was a form of mistreatment due to his daughter’s political activities.’
When President Museveni’s office announced that he would be attending the Uganda North America Convention in Seattle in September 2004, I knew I had finally got my opportunity to say some of the things that needed to be said in the safety of the US jurisdiction. I had been invited to speak on a political panel at the event but the government started to advocate for my removal from the panel. A Ugandan newspaper wrote that I intended to abuse the President and pelt rotten eggs at him during his visit to Seattle. A former President of Uganda Law Society, Andrew Kasirye (also one of Museveni’s numerous private lawyers); wrote an email to the Convention organizers inciting them to throw me out because I had decided to organize a peaceful demonstration to coincide with the presence of Mr. Museveni at the Convention. The government was taking measures to silence a single opposition voice.
At first I was told that they were throwing me off the panel because the organizers were funding my participation and did not want to be said to be funding a demonstration against the President. I agreed with them and immediately paid for my registration and reserved my accommodation. But this was not enough to assuage the detractors. I informed the City of Seattle and the Police Department and they responded saying they had no objection to a peaceful demonstration. I appealed to UNAA members who believed in the right to associate, the freedom of expression and right to be heard; to join me outside the Convention Center (Seattle Sheraton Towers) on 4th September 2004, to hold placards that would send our message to the Ugandan and American public. My placards (which were mistaken for rotten eggs;) were about Museveni’s move to amend the constitution to run for a 5th term in office, HIV/AIDS and the return of peace to northern Uganda. Eventually, folks like Dr. Muniini Mulera and a few other UNAA elders prevailed on the Convention organizers and I got my demonstration and an opportunity to speak on the panel.
The demonstration attracted at least 25 Ugandans and some Seattle residents many of whom stopped, participated or listened and then moved on. It took place outside the Seattle Sheraton Towers where the President was due to speak to participants in the Uganda North American Association Convention. Some of the participants included FDC activists Peter Otika, Moses Sebunya and Rukia Tezikuba. It also included members of the Acholi Community in Seattle and California as well as DP-USA Secretary-General Lawrence Kiwanuka. Several members of the international community, including Amnesty International members, brought along pictures of the war and destruction in northern Uganda and joined the demonstration while a volunteer group called Peacemakers, brought people to make a ring around the demonstrators in case of any threats. As it turned out, they were not needed. There were a dozen policemen on bikes who were happy to stand around and enjoy the day with us. Members of the Presidential Guard Brigade, the erstwhile Presidential Protection Unit (PPU,) which had tortured KB’s supporters in southwestern Uganda; tried to stare us down and one said to me in my native Runyankore that what our small group lacked was a thorough beating. I thanked God that we were not demonstrating in Kampala.
At 50 I know that it does not take many people to shake a government into realizing that it derives it’s power from the very people it purports to represent. The hard part is finding the people to stand up and confront the government with this truth.”—-Anne Mugisha