On the 19th day of February 2001, I sat staring at my computer monitor wondering whether I had heard right or whether Radio Simba journalist was playing tricks on my exhausted mind. I thought I heard that Major Okwir Rwaboni a star campaigner on the Elect Kizza Besigye Task Force (EKBTF) had crossed to the Museveni camp.
I gathered my wits about me and called Okwir’s cell phone. He responded but sounded distant and tense as he told me to hold on. When he returned to the line he was still whispering and he told me that he was at the Nile Hotel where he was conferring with General David Tinyefuza but he also said that I should not worry and he would soon come and explain everything that had happened. I wondered what he would say because by that time there were radio announcements calling on youth from different parts of Uganda to go for a meeting at Ranch-on-the -Lake where Maj. Okwir Rabwoni was scheduled to address them on the merits of Museveni’s candidacy.
I turned off the radio and sat there unwilling to believe what I was hearing and then there was a knock on my kitchen door but it was only Grace, one of our more active fund raisers. One look at her distressed face told me that the news I just heard on Radio Simba was true. She was beside herself at Okwir for abandoning ship when we needed all hands on board. We stared at each other in disbelief and then spontaneously started cursing Okwir for being such a turn coat. Then came another knock on the kitchen door, I opened it expecting to see another campaigner coming to share the same disheartening news but lo and behold, there stood Maj. Okwir Rabwoni and his beautiful wife Solange.
Okwir was clearly in a panic. He explained that he had been coerced into making the statements that had been aired on radio and he had used the first opportunity to escape from the close watch of Gen. David Tinyefuza to come and explain what was happening. He said the meeting at Ranch-on-the-Lake was arranged by Amelia Kyambadde the President’s Assistant but he had no intention of addressing it. He was frightened for his life and kept saying ‘You have no idea, what these people are capable of.’ He had attempted to call the US Embassy but as luck would have it they were closed for a holiday, it must have been Martin Luther King Day in the US. Okwir was so insecure that he wanted to hand himself over to the Americans so that they might assist him to leave the country. This was clearly not a case of paranoia, he was visibly shaken, so we decided to drive to the US Ambassador’s residence, which was handily close in Kololo.
We were there in minutes, Okwir kept ducking his head afraid to be recognized by anyone. We arrived safely at the Ambassador’s residence and rang the bell at the gate but they would not let us in. We were told to wait for a US security officer outside the gate while Okwir kept his head low in the vehicle. After what seemed like forever a US security vehicle arrived at the gate and we explained Okwir’s predicament. They whisked Okwir to another residence nearby and took him inside for an interview which lasted well over two hours. Grace, Solange and I sat in the car outside waiting impatiently.
When he returned from the interview, a crest-fallen Okwir informed us that the US Embassy could not assist him to leave Uganda and his best option was to find his way across the border into Kenya and hand himself over to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. We went back to my apartment and pondered the meaning of these developments. What were we to do with Okwir, he was now a fugitive and his fear was so tangible and contagious.
We called Kizza Besigye who was on his way returning from rallies in Western Uganda. He advised us to proceed to his residence and wait for him there. The level of fear, suspicion and paranoia at this time of the campaign was so high we were not sure whom to believe anymore. We listened to news on the radio as commentators reacted to Rabwoni’s decision to return to the Movement and there he was seated in the car headed to the home of the opposition candidate. At Kizza Beigye’s residence in Luzira, Okwir pulled out a pistol and handed it to a soldier at the gate. Now we knew that Okwir had previously been stripped of his pistol by the military at a rally in Kabale so the fact that he had his pistol again made us nervous.
In the evening we were joined by the candidate and his entourage, I had tipped Andrew Mwenda at the Monitor newspaper that Okwir had not crossed to the Movement and asked him to come to Luzira to take pictures of Kizza Besigye with Okwir Rabwoni to disprove the ‘rumor’ of his returning to the Movement. The impact the following day was a dramatic victory for us as the New Vision, a government run newspaper, published a lead story of Okwir’s desertion while the independent daily Monitor run a front page story accompanied by a photo of Okwir and Besigye in which Okwir denied that he had abandoned the EKBTF. The repercussions would be far reaching, especially for Maj. Okwir Rabwoni.
At 50 I know that there are times when the character of a person is tested by the circumstances of the day and it becomes difficult to estimate their commitment to a cause. Time alone will sieve out those who had a calling and belief in the mission from those who were flirting with it.
The Author Anne Mugisha is the Former FDC special Envoy and now works for the UN in Somalia