It’s not clear what the British architect of Uganda’s Parliament envisioned when he designed the building shortly before independence in 1962. Sitting askew on a hill in downtown Kampala, with its angular white columns it could be a modernist African Parthenon. But inside, it’s a warren of hallways and balconies with AK-47-toting security guards lurking everywhere. On the wall outside the visitors’ gallery looms a row of painted portraits of the thugs and generals—Idi Amin, Milton Obote, and others—who have ruled this country during the past fifty years, alternating with a professor and a lawyer who were ousted from power within months. “This one toppled that one, and that one toppled this one…,” a tour guide explained as he showed me around.
I teach and write about public health and have been coming to Uganda for twenty years. In August 2013, I spent a few days watching videos of old debates in the basement archives of Parliament. In 2012, Uganda passed an important public health bill, and I wanted to find out more about one of the MPs who had worked on it. It was a quiet Saturday morning when I found the tapes I was looking for. As I watched the scratchyVHS recordings, the technician who had kindly agreed to open the studio for me on a weekend sat in the adjoining anteroom working at a computer. Most of the politicians in the videos were men in dark suits, some with spectacles creeping down their noses. Some spoke with passion and clarity, pounding the air with their fists; others—the scoundrels, mainly—droned on and on.
After a few hours, the Speaker of Parliament, a formidable Ugandan woman in a British-style judicial wig, called on a twenty-four-year-old MP named Cerinah Nebanda, the person I was interested in. Before I knew it, the technician was standing beside me, his eyes glued to her as she spoke. Nebanda was beautiful, in the zaftig African way, with a warm face, a powerful voice, extraordinary charisma, and, it would turn out, unusual courage. As she shook her finger and leaned over to emphasize a point, it was impossible not to watch her.
Nebanda died in December 2012, poisoned, some of her parliamentary colleagues maintain, by Ugandan government operatives. Then, in August 2013, an online magazine published an interview with General David Sejusa, the former coordinator of Ugandan intelligence services, who had fled into exile in the UK in May 2013. The general claimed that Nebanda, and many other prominent Ugandans who also died from mysterious illnesses or in sudden accidents, had been deliberately killed on “orders from on high”—meaning at the direction of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled this country for twenty-eight years.1
During the year following Nebanda’s death, I conducted scores of interviews and read through hundreds of news articles, reports, and parliamentary transcripts to try to find out whether this was true, and, if so, why the government would want this young politician dead. I found that around the time of the Arab Spring in 2011, a movement demanding democratic reforms emerged in Uganda too, but it was systematically quashed by Uganda’s leaders. Those who claim that Nebanda was assassinated maintain that these leaders wanted to intimidate anyone considering a challenge to their grip on power. Meanwhile, with the assistance of extremist American evangelicals, Museveni’s family has been secretly funding pastors throughout Uganda to frighten people into believing their problems are due to an international conspiracy of homosexuals bent on sodomizing their children. Thus, Museveni has been using gays the way past tyrants have sometimes used Jews: to divert popular attention from their crimes.2
One of the issues with which Nebanda was most engaged was improving public health. Uganda has some of the worst health statistics in the world, despite having received billions of dollars in foreign aid for health services, and having been host to thousands of advisers—including me—on everything from malaria control to hospital construction.
This wasn’t always the case. I was originally drawn to Uganda because of its remarkable medical history. Long before colonial times, the people of this region had their own gods to distinguish plague from tuberculosis, and performed successful Caesarian sections—a rare operation even in Europe before the twentieth century. The natives were in turn fascinated by missionary medicine. When Albert Cook, the doctor who founded Uganda’s first hospital in 1897, restored the sight of a man with cataracts, the ecstatic patient declared that Cook must be God himself. The first medical school opened in British colonial Uganda in the 1920s and competition for a place was so tough that “to get in you had to be a genius,” according to one young aspirant. By the 1970s, it was almost as safe for a woman to deliver a baby at Mulago Hospital in Kampala, the nation’s largest, as at some American hospitals at the time.3 Ugandan scientists helped pioneer treatment for childhood cancers and malnutrition and the mass immunization campaigns that UNICEF would later promote throughout the developing world. When Singapore was looking to reform its own health care system in the 1960s, it sent a delegation to Uganda.
Today, this system is a shambles. Bats, snakes, and other wildlife have taken up residence in once-functioning rural clinics. I have seen fecal material rain down from the crumbling ceilings of operating theaters. Power cuts and water shortages in hospitals kill thousands of patients each year, and emergency operations on pregnant women are sometimes carried out by the light of torches made from burning grass. A decade ago, the UK government funded the construction of scores of new hospitals, but the Ugandan government neglected to staff them, and some are now hideouts for thieves.
In 2012, women were seven times more likely to die in childbirth at Mulago Hospital than when Idi Amin was president forty years earlier.4 Uganda loses one child to malaria every seven minutes, the highest death rate from that disease in the world, and in 2013, scores of people died of famine in this lush, fertile country for the first time in living memory, not because of food shortages, but because the government failed to provide the resources to send food where it was needed. The notorious Ebola virus, which spreads to human beings from monkeys and causes massive internal bleeding, kills scores of people every year or two. The outbreaks could be prevented with simple surveillance of animal populations, but the government doesn’t bother to maintain such a system. “Villages can be strewn with dead monkeys for months,” Margaret Mungherera, head of the Uganda Medical Association, told me. “No one does anything.”
The cause of this mess is no mystery. Ever since Uganda began receiving generous amounts of foreign aid two decades ago, senior Ugandan politicians and civil servants have been stealing virtually every shilling they can get their hands on. In 1995, the World Bank recapitalized the defunct Uganda Commercial Bank with a loan of $72 million. Museveni then sold it to a consortium that included his own brother for $11 million. The remaining $61 million has never been accounted for.5 A year later, the World Bank provided Uganda with a multimillion-dollar loan to construct fifteen irrigation dams. Museveni’s agriculture minister reported to Parliament that the dams were nearly complete, but a few weeks later, an investigative team confirmed that they did not exist. A Nigerian contractor was blamed for having stolen the money, but most Ugandans believe their own leaders took it. Nevertheless, despite these and other scandals, the World Bank lent Uganda ever more money, and even praised it as a model of development from which other poor countries could learn.6
The US, Japan, and Europe also poured in aid, and as they did, ever more outrageous scandals ensued. Money intended for children’s vaccines ended up in the First Lady’s office; millions intended for forestry projects, AIDS and malaria sufferers, road building, and assistance to victims of the notorious warlord Joseph Kony turned up under ministers’ beds, in flower pots in the prime minister’s office, in Las Vegas casinos, in personal bank accounts, and in heaps on the floor in President Museveni’s official residence.7 Millions more disappeared into the accounts of nonexistent schools and hospitals, “ghost” soldiers and pensioners, and such initiatives as the “Rabbit Multiplication” project that perform no activities at all.
Cerinah Nebanda was one of a group of MPs trying to do something about this mess. She spoke out against corruption and joined a parliamentary movement to shift money from various ministries, including the lavishly funded Defense Ministry, to increase the salaries of government doctors. Uganda pays government doctors only $350 per month, far less than their counterparts earn in much poorer neighboring countries. Even in Africa, it’s impossible to support a family on this salary. As a result, thousands of Ugandan doctors have emigrated and some of those who remain live in slums. Only half of Uganda’s health workers show up to work on any given day, and nearly half of those are so ill-qualified they can’t diagnose pneumonia.8 Some have stolen donated medicines from public pharmacies and refused to treat patients without a bribe, even in emergencies. Court testimony and newspaper reports describe doctors standing around chatting and watching soccer games while women under their care died in childbirth, screaming for help.
The MPs behind the bill understood that raising doctors’ salaries alone would not save Uganda’s health system, but it was a crucial first step. President Museveni was firmly against the move—his prime minister claimed that cutting the defense budget would endanger national security—but popular support was overwhelming and the bill passed in September 2012.
Nebanda was still a university student when she was introduced to her MP, Emmanuel Dombo, in 2009, but he immediately recognized her political gifts. Uganda’s Parliament has special seats reserved for women. Every county has an ordinary MP, who may be either male or female, usually the former, and a woman MP.
Dorothy Hhuya, then the woman MP from Butaleja, the district Dombo represented and where Nebanda spent most of her childhood, was a friend of Museveni’s and an officer in his National Resistance Movement party, but she had lost touch with her constituents. For years she had been promising to bring development projects to Butaleja—once an active trading center on a railway line that brought in imports from the Kenyan coast, now a wasteland of dilapidated factories and roads all but impassable in the rainy season. Most people survived by growing their own food on small plots of flood-prone land. When they managed to grow cash crops, well-connected traders manipulated the prices so they earned almost nothing. Hhuya’s message—that since she was close to the president, people should vote for her if they wanted development—sounded increasingly hollow. “We felt we were being conquered, not governed,” a local from the area told me.
Elections were scheduled for early 2011, little more than a year away, and Dombo, who was also a member of Museveni’s NRM party, was looking for a candidate to run against Hhuya in the primary. When he met Nebanda, he knew he had found her.
Politics in Uganda is not for the faint-hearted. For years, opposition supporters have been beaten, robbed, murdered, imprisoned in secret police cells, tortured, and charged with treason. Ruling party supporters have shut down the generators of radio stations and even destroyed bridges to prevent opposition candidates from campaigning in some areas. The supposedly impartial Electoral Commission has used donor-funded “civic education” programs to campaign for the ruling party. Cell phone companies and radio stations had been intimidated into refusing to carry opposition advertisements and even text messages. On polling days, ruling party agents routinely pass out coins, small bags of salt, and bars of soap to desperately poor, illiterate villagers, telling them that “the computer in the ballot box will see how you vote.” Ballot stuffing, multiple voting, and ghost voting are routine. Opposition Internet communications and phone calls are tapped. Cooks, drivers, and baby-sitters are paid to spy on opposition leaders.9
Nebanda was running as a ruling party candidate, and may have thought she’d be spared such treatment, but she was trying to unseat a powerful opponent. During the primary campaigns, Hhuya’s supporters fought Nebanda’s with sticks, and at one point, the president himself tried to persuade Nebanda to quit the race. “Let the voters decide,” she told him. On primary day, turnout was huge. “People felt empowered, they were dancing around her home,” a local from the area told me.
That evening, as the ballot boxes in Nebanda’s district were about to be opened for counting, workers in the uniform of the national electricity company suddenly turned up in Butaleja town, the main trading center, and began turning off the electricity supply. They told a group of highly suspicious locals that they were there to do necessary repairs. At 6:30 PM? The villagers suspected that the workers’ intention was to plunge the entire area in darkness, so that in the confusion the real ballot boxes could be exchanged with fake ones, stuffed with votes for Nebanda’s opponent. An angry crowd chased them away and Nebanda won the primary, and the election five months later, in landslide victories.
In the twenty-two months she spent in Parliament after her election in February 2011, Nebanda was indefatigable. She joined several committees, sometimes showing up more often than the chairmen. She sent text messages to colleagues after midnight with ideas for electrification and road projects and programs for the disabled. She built three secondary schools in her constituency, bought a boat for people stranded in their villages during the rainy season, and helped out countless villagers with school fees and medicine.
She was also sassy. She told the interior minister that the local police station in her hometown was “like a poultry house,” and reported to a parliamentary delegation that she couldn’t fit in the shoddy latrines constructed under one of the donor programs that had been looted.10 But her natural brazenness sometimes led her to take serious risks. She walked out of President Museveni’s speeches, talked back to the First Lady, and called his cabinet ministers thieves. When the ministers balked at moving funds for entertainment from the defense budget to the Health Ministry to pay doctors’ salaries, she accused them of caring more for sausages than for people’s lives.
The day before she died, Nebanda challenged her president one last time. Museveni had come to Parliament that day to address the MPs about Uganda’s nascent oil industry. The video of this event was one of the ones I’d been looking for in the archives that Saturday. Since 2006, British, French, and Chinese companies had been preparing to extract some $400 billion worth of oil in western Uganda. No sooner did they arrive than rumors began circulating that some of them were paying huge bribes to senior government officials. Nebanda and other members of Parliament were drafting legislation to promote transparency and prevent such abuses. In his speech, Museveni accused them of working in the service of “parasitic” foreign interests bent on crippling Uganda’s development. He assured Parliament that he had already created a special Petroleum Authority staffed with trained technocrats, so there was no need for them to worry about the details of oil contracts.
Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi, a sharply dressed man with snowy hair and a neatly groomed mustache, was in Parliament during Museveni’s speech. He’d been in government since Museveni’s takeover in 1986, and some of Uganda’s most flamboyant corruption scandals had occurred in ministries he was heading at the time. An intelligence agent had claimed to me and other reporters that an Italian company had offered Mbabazi a bribe of millions of dollars for permission to exploit one of Uganda’s oil fields. Mbabazi denied the allegations, but he looked up when the president said he had recently signed a contract with the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation for the very concession Mbabazi had allegedly tried to arrange for the Italians.
“So even if Mbabazi ate that bribe,” the president said beaming and waving his glasses in the air, “He ate it for nothing!” Parliament erupted in shouts.
“I’m not saying that he did!” the president called out.
“You don’t seem so sure!” shouted Nebanda.
The president sighed, rolled his eyes, and twirled his index finger around his temple. “You see, my daughter, Honorable Cerinah Nebanda—that young girl, has got bad ideas in her head. She is saying that I seem not to be sure. I am sure that Right Honorable Mbabazi did not take that bribe.”
Then the president turned to the subject of Uganda’s beleaguered health care system. He boasted that his party cadres had stopped the theft of drugs from health clinics—something that had been much in the news.
“You go back to your districts and find out what is happening in the health centers,” he said to the MPs. “Are the drugs there or not there?”
“They are not there!” Nebanda called out.
“No, you go there,” Museveni said tenderly. “I will go with Nebanda and we pay a surprise visit to one of them.”
Nebanda and the president never made that trip. The following day, she drove her SUVinto town to run some errands, according to witnesses who saw her, and then to the house of a man named Adam Kalungi in a Kampala suburb. At about 8:00 that evening, she was pronounced dead on arrival at a private hospital in Kampala.
As news of Nebanda’s death spread by cell phone across the country, Uganda fell into mourning. The farms of Butaleja were abandoned as the people she represented gathered in small groups to talk about her. Newspapers and television covered the story for weeks, and in Parliament the tributes went on for two days.
Rumors of assassination and other crimes by the government soon began circulating. More than a dozen of Museveni’s critics had perished in mysterious car crashes or after sudden unexplained illnesses in recent years. They included senior army officers whom he suspected of plotting a coup, opposition party agents, and an attorney general who was trying to block Museveni’s campaign to eliminate presidential term limits. In Kampala, terrified MPs told me that they avoided driving after dark and establishing routines like going to a certain bar after work. In restaurants, they ate only from buffets, and never ordered from the kitchen.
Although precisely what happened to Nebanda remains unknown, the behavior of Museveni and the police in the weeks after her death was suspicious. Even before a postmortem had been carried out, Kale Kayihura, the head of Uganda’s police, told reporters that the most likely cause of her death was a drug overdose. She’d been dropped off at the hospital, he said, by Adam Kalungi, whom he identified as her boyfriend and a known drug dealer.
When Nebanda’s family and colleagues in Parliament saw these newspaper reports, they immediately suspected foul play. Several of Nebanda’s parliamentary colleagues who had traveled with her to workshop retreats and even gone dancing with her told me that Nebanda didn’t drink, much less use drugs as far as they knew. According to her family, Nebanda had been introduced to Kalungi by David Bahati, head of the ruling party caucus, and the sponsor of Uganda’s notorious anti-homosexuality bill calling for gay people to be imprisoned for life. Bahati denies having ever met Kalungi, or introducing him to Nebanda, but he and others did caution her that she was going too far in her criticism of Museveni, and that her life was in danger. Others had also cautioned her repeatedly to tone down her criticism of the president and his ministers. She dismissed these warnings. “I will leave my mark before I die,” she told another MP.11
The nature of Nebanda’s relationship with Kalungi is so far unknown, but her MPcolleagues told me that in the past, Museveni had frequently used attractive young people to seduce his political enemies and spy on them. They recounted several specific cases, although none involved murder.
Nebanda’s postmortem was carried out the morning after she died, and the results were inconclusive. Her pancreas was inflamed and her lungs, which would normally have been spongy, had congealed into a stiff mass. Two pathologists, one a police surgeon, the other an academic named Sylvester Onzivua who had been retained by Parliament to conduct an independent investigation, both concluded that she must have consumed something toxic. But they couldn’t determine what it was without further tests. Since Uganda didn’t have a lab capable of such tests, the police arranged to take one set of Nebanda’s tissue samples to a lab in the UK, and Onzivua arranged to deliver another set to a lab in South Africa.
As Onzivua’s plane to Johannesburg was about to depart a few days later, security agents rushed onboard, arrested him, and confiscated Nebanda’s tissue samples. Immediately, enraged MPs began speculating in speeches and on TV that the government might have had a hand in her death. Why else would the police have prevented an independent autopsy? The president called a hasty press conference. The MPs spreading such rumors were “fools” and “idiots,” he told reporters, and ordered their arrest. Four of them spent a week in jail.
When the deputy prime minister turned up at Nebanda’s funeral in Butaleja to offer condolences on behalf of the president, Nebanda’s mother grabbed the papers he was reading right out of his hands and tore them to pieces. As angry mourners chased him to his car, she threw the bits of paper after him. Later, police swooped in on the town and arrested several people for what the locals called “over-talking.”
Two toxicology reports on Nebanda’s tissue samples were eventually released, one on the police surgeon’s samples that had been sent to England, and another said to have been conducted on the samples confiscated from Onzivua at the airport and then sent to Israel. The results made no sense. The two labs had attempted to measure the amount of cocaine, heroin, and alcohol in Nebanda’s blood and in a sample of urine that the police said had been found in a basin in the apartment of Kalungi, Nebanda’s supposed boyfriend, and which the police insisted was hers. The findings of the two labs should have been identical, but the levels of the various substances differed by a factor of ten in some cases. According to the Israeli lab, the concentration of alcohol in Nebanda’s urine—or whomever it belonged to—was nearly four times higher than any previously detected in the history of toxicology, suggesting that alcohol had been poured directly into it.12
Shortly after Nebanda died, Kalungi was arrested and charged with manslaughter for causing her death from overdose. There’s a video of his confession on YouTube, in which this young Denzel Washington look-alike tells reporters that on the evening she died, he’d come home to find her snorting some lines of heroin he had around the house. She thought it was cocaine, he claimed, which he said she habitually used to boost her self-confidence and lose weight. As he spoke, his eyes darted around the room and his mouth twitched. It seemed to me like a poorly arranged piece of theater intended to persuade the public that this idealistic young woman was just a degenerate.
During his trial, Kalungi recanted his confession. In October 2013, he testified that the police had forced him to confess and had offered him a large sum of money to do so. He then claimed he was neither a drug user nor a drug addict, but an IT specialist who worked with international organizations. In January 2014, he was sentenced to four years in prison for delaying taking Nebanda to the hospital when she, allegedly, became ill at his house. The drug charges against him were dropped.
Who is Kalungi really? Several people I spoke to, including two politicians and two army officers, told me that Kalungi was neither a drug dealer nor a drug user nor an IT specialist. He was a spy, employed by an informal parallel intelligence unit under police chief Kale Kayihura and Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who had been assigned to report on Nebanda. One of the people who told me this was General David Sejusa, Uganda’s official intelligence chief who fled Uganda last spring. If Kalungi is a spy, it’s possible he’s being kept behind bars because the authorities fear he will speak about Nebanda’s case if he’s released.
Though much remains unknown about Nebanda’s death, the story so far suggests to me a very clumsy cover-up. But why would Museveni, a powerful ruler with a fleet of fighter jets and the support, at that time, of Western leaders, have wanted to kill one noisy young MP?
—This is the first of two articles.