Why Gen. Museveni, Under Law, Bears Legal Responsibility for the Mass Killings in Uganda

Gen. Museveni
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Gen. Museveni. Photo: Facebook.


November and December of 2020 were bloody months, as many Ugandans were tortured, and some murdered, by Gen. Yoweri Museveni’s security forces, militias, and personal army. Two presidential candidates, Mr. Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, of National Unity Platform (NUP), and Mr. Patrick Oboi Amuriat of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and their respective supporters were targeted by Museveni’s gangsters, humiliated, tortured, and some were murdered. These are serious crimes and the perpetrators must be held to account.


In Uganda’s Daily Monitor of January 1, 2021, President Museveni admitted that soldiers under his command, acting on his orders to arrest former national boxing champion Isaac Ssenyange, alias Zebra Mando, for the purposes of interrogation, was killed. Zebra is not the first, and will not be the last civilian to be murdered by Museveni’s goons. Ugandans head for presidential and parliamentary elections on January 14, 2021. Museveni has been using former UPDF combatants who waged wars in the Congo and Somalia to terrorize members of the various political parties in Uganda with focus on NUP and FDC.


In law, Gen. Museveni, Uganda’s dictator of more than 35 years, may defend himself by claiming that he did not give express order to kill Zebra but only directed soldiers to arrest him for the purposes of interrogation. He can even claim that other countless civilians killed by his soldiers over more than three decades committed the crimes without his knowledge or approval. However, Gen. Museveni, in his capacity as a commander or a superior officer, has legal responsibility to protect all Ugandans. He therefore bears criminal responsibility for his failure to prevent or punish members of security services, militias or his boys in “Yellow shirts” (the ruling National Resistance Movement political party’s colors) whenever they commit crimes in his name, organization, or party. Gen. Museveni is also responsible for criminal acts of his security services, including the Uganda Police Force (UPF), militias, and “NRM cadres” who beat, torture, or kill journalists, civilians, women and children, with or without his express knowledge.


Here is how it works: Beyond moral and political responsibility, Gen. Museveni in law is responsible for the criminal acts of his soldiers, security personnel, Local Defense Units (LDC)—the militias created under his watch—and the NRM functionaries, because they are his subordinates and he is their boss. Gen. Museveni is responsible for not only the failure to have acquired sufficient knowledge about the criminal conduct of his subordinates, but ultimately he is responsible for the failure to react appropriately by preventing the commission of the crimes or punishing subordinates for having committed the relevant crimes.


It is the responsibility of leader of a country—in this case Museveni—to prevent the commission of crimes by his subordinates. The duty to prevent the commission of a crime does not permit Gen. Museveni to choose either to prevent the crimes or to await their commission and then deliver punishment. Gen. Museveni’s obligations are consecutive; that is, to prevent and to punish. As a leader, the primary duty of Gen. Museveni to intervene and stop the commission of crimes arises as soon as he becomes aware of crimes to be committed. This knowledge triggers the obligation to prevent the commission of the crime. Thus, Gen. Museveni’s duties and obligations to take measures to punish may only suffice, as a substitute to prevent, if Museveni became aware of these crimes only after their commission of the crimes. But he still has a duty, obligation and responsibility to punish.


In the case of the Kasese massacre of 2016, for example, Gen. Museveni boasted in an Al Jazeera interview that he was the one who gave the order to Gen. Peter Elwelu to attack the palace of Wesley Mumbere, hereditary monarch of the Rwenzururu. No wonder he has ignored multiple requests by Human Rights Watch and other organizations to investigate the killings of over 100 civilians and to bring the criminals to justice. Instead, Gen. Elwelu was promoted. 


The failure by Gen. Museveni to prevent the commission of the crime by a subordinate, where he had the ability to do so, cannot simply be remedied by subsequently punishing the subordinate for the crime. The failure of the superior to prevent or to punish the subordinates constitutes two distinct, but related, aspects of superior criminal responsibility which correlate to the timing of a subordinate’s commission of a crime. Hence, a superior has the duty to prevent future crimes and simultaneously the duty to punish past crimes of subordinates. With respect to the murder of Zebra, Gen. Museveni, as a superior, failed on both counts.


In recent murders of civilians in Uganda, particularly in and around Kampala, Gen. Museveni, as a superior of the soldiers who murder civilians, has a legal duty to take preventive measures when he becomes aware that his subordinates are about to commit such acts. The acts of soldiers for which Museveni is responsible comprise the commission of crimes from its planning and preparation until its execution is completed. Because Museveni is aware of what might occur if not prevented, he must intervene against imminent planning or preparation of such acts. This means, first, that it is not only the execution and full completion of a subordinate’s crimes which a superior must prevent—but the earlier planning or preparation. Second, the superior must intervene as soon as he becomes aware of the planning or preparation of crimes to be committed by his subordinates and as long as he has the effective ability to prevent them from starting or continuing with the preparation and planning of the crime. 


Gen. Museveni was not only aware of the earlier planning and preparation by the security forces, the police, militias, and NRM agents of crimes to be committed against the civilian, he was the instigator, the aider and abettor, and the primary source of orders leading to commission of the crimes. Significantly,  Museveni, as the commander of the security forces, had a duty to undertake all measures which were necessary and reasonable to prevent subordinates from planning, preparing or executing the prospective crime. But since he is the initiator of the crimes, the question whether he took reasonable steps to prevent the commission of the crime does not arise and Museveni therefore has no reasonable defense in law.  


On broader issues, Gen. Museveni bears responsibility for militarizing society, conflating the roles of the military and the police, and by incorporating the government of Uganda as an organ of his political party, the NRM.  In terrorizing his political opponents and those who oppose his obnoxious policies, Gen. Museveni relies on NRM supporters whom he strategically placed as members of the Electoral Commission, the security forces, the police, and the intelligence services. Examined in a holistic manner, it is only reasonable to infer that Gen. Museveni is personally responsible for all crimes committed by men and women under his command. 

In conclusion, and with specific reference to crimes committed in November and December 2020—with reported deaths ranging from 54 to more than 100— Gen. Museveni, Uganda’s dictator since 1986, and the person responsible for recruiting, training and deploying security officials and police personnel in the field, bears individual criminal responsibility for his failure to prevent or punish his subordinates for crimes committed against civilians.

Dr. Obote Odora is a Legal Consultant.

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