- Published by Faith Barbara Namagembe at 0941 EAT on Wednesday 20th April 2022.
For many high-profile politicians, the threat or fear of ingesting poison in public spaces remains an ever-present threat to their lives and livelihoods.
And in the immediate aftermath of the death of Jacob Oulanyah, the government has struggled to calm the chaotic churn around the former parliament speaker’s death linked to poisoning by his father Nathan Okori.
Through interviews with high-ranking government and military officials, we have gained useful insight into why the fear of poisoning is so pervasive and is now an in- delible part of the political landscape. It’s never a good sign when politicians carry packed food or drinks to public events to insulate themselves against the threat of poisoning.
Others carry microphones if they are to speak, chairs, tables, and clothes to touch surfaces with. In an April 2015 video, Uganda’s former coordinator of Intelligence Services Gen David Sejusa claimed that cabinet members, parliament, and the military were gripped by an ever-present fear of being poisoned.
In the video, Sejusa said, “…is it okay when every member of the High Command when we are going to meet packs a chapatti, samosa in the pocket? It means there’s a serious problem in the country, which we need to resolve but people do not understand that. If we who are inside the army, cabinet, parliament cannot trust each other, you cannot serve me tea and
I take it. Forget about other things. How can you build a country now?” Sejusa wondered.
Interviewed last week for comment about Sejusa’s poison claims, a brigadier general who was promoted in 2017 and is a member of the UPDF high command said, “As my senior colleague [Sejusa] said, poison is very real in the army and it is present in all other sectors of government. Every time you get a promotion, your level of cautiousness heightens since your chances of getting poisoned also grow. Everybody will smile for you but very few wish you well. There’s a lot of competition that pushes people to extremes. They just want to occupy your position even if it means taking your life.”
He added, “To protect myself, I have antidote tablets that were recommended by a friend in Nairobi. The friend in Nairobi said the antidote can neutralize any type of poison that I may interact with unknowingly.”
He said poison is administered in various forms. “Someone can shake your hand and you move away with it. It can also be put in food or even in an envelope sent to you or sprayed on your body as a sanitizer. When I attend large gatherings like seminars and parties, I take the first dose (two tablets) of the antidote before I reach the venue. When I move out of my car, I know that I shall be less harmed in case I interact with poison. We have seen our brothers get assassinated most likely because the poison failed to work on them. We who are alive now have to find all the most possible means of avoiding any form of attacks aimed at ending our lives,” he said.
On March 28, 2022, a bullish President Museveni ordered police to arrest anyone who claimed the deceased former Parliament Speaker Jacob Oulanyah was poisoned.
He said, “I would like to warn people who are in the habit of taking advantage of problems to make cheap politics and we shall go for them because I have heard some people saying that Oulanyah was killed. The police are going to come and say; okay tell us, you seem to have some information because Oulanyah did not die in a private home. He died in a highly reputable hospital, and before that, he was in another big hospital in Dubai, and before that he was in our big hospitals here including the Cancer Institute.” Museveni said shortly after Anita Among was elected to replace Oulanyah as speaker of the 11th Parliament.
In his Easter homily delivered at Lubaga cathedral, Archbishop Paul Ssemogerere of Kampala archdiocese urged the government to stop silencing conversations about poison.
“There’s a lot of tension and fear in the country over poison. Some people are saying we should not talk about poison. I don’t see why someone is silenced for talking about an insect that is going to sting them…If people want to talk about poison, let them be. While they are silencing the debate on poison, some people come to functions with their microphones. This is the issue that I see,” he said.
“Now that I am the archbishop, the precautions are too many. I am heavily protected. I am not allowed to either do or eat some things. Ladies and gentlemen, there’s tension in the country. I think you also feel it. Why don’t we talk about the poison so that those in charge of maintaining calm take the poison away before it reaches us? Instead, anyone who talks about poison is silenced. We shall instead grow stronger amidst the heightened tension. Calm down and let people talk about this poison so that the matter also rests. If the poison is there, work upon it. If it is not there, you shall die a natural death. Those concerned, I hope you heard me loud and clear…” Ssemogerere said drawing wild cheers from the audience.
In parliament, there’s an unwritten rule for parliamentarians and cabinet ministers to cushion themselves against poisoning. They are advised to be cautious with their eats and who they shake hands with. Interviewed for this story, an outspoken youthful female cabinet minister from eastern Uganda said the poison scare is real in parliament and cabinet.
“Immediately I joined the cabinet, I was briefed by a colleague who told me that ministers and MPs were targets for poisoning. I cannot allow anyone, not even my friends, to touch my snack case or my water bottle because I do not trust them. If I am going to have a long day at work or make upcountry trips, I prepare my food, which I carry with me. If not, I buy snacks at a random roadside stopover. I am sure these cannot be compromised by those after me,” the minister said.
The once vibrant Parliamentary canteen is a shell of its glorious past. Interviewed for this story, one canteen attendant said most MPs and ministers have stopped eating there. The canteen attendant said apart from the junior parliamentary staff, no high-ranking officials (ministers and MPs) frequent the canteen for meals.
The minister of state for National Guidance Godfrey Kabbyanga said, “ Why should there be fear in the country over poison? People are talking as if there is a drum of poison somewhere, where it is harvested and served to people. It is okay for people to fear for their lives but the government is saying they should calm down and enjoy freedom in the country.”
Speaking to The Observer, Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze lambasted MPs who are downplaying the poison threat at parliament.
“Any MP who dismisses allegations of poison is very dishonest. Most MPs will go to the canteen for food only when they serve a buffet. You will not see any MP request for other meals on the canteen menu,” she said.
“To save government funds, I requested the canteen to stop serving tea and snacks to our Government Assurances Committee. These eats are served but no parliamentarian eats them. They are afraid of being poisoned. When I am going to any function or media interview, I carry my cup of tea since I have been poisoned before and I am still suffering from the after-effects. When my voters see me on TV taking water, they get furious. They fear for my life..,” she added.
Nambooze linked her poison incident to a 2007 disagreement with then Captain Juma Seiko. Nambooze said she had mobilized residents in Kitega village in Mukono district to reject any forceful eviction from their land because she (Nambooze) and members of the community believed the magistrate had erred in giving Seiko an eviction order that emboldened him to raze people’s homes and schools.
She alleges that Seiko sent Captain Sseguja now Major in the UPDF with Shs 10 million to buy her silence. She added, “Sseguja told me to take the 10 million shillings and leave the contested Kitega land alone. Since I had rejected the money, I was kidnapped. I was then detained at Mukono police station.”
When the crowd demanded her release, police transferred Nambooze to CPS, Kampala. At CPS, Nambooze said she was re-leased from detention at 3 am in the night.
“I pleaded with the police officers to allow me to spend the night at the police reception. These men threw me out. At the exit, I found another waiting car. They carried and threw me in the back of the car and drove off towards Jinja road. The men in the back were sitting on top of me. They were injecting my entire body with unknown substances. I was driven and detained at the defunct Wembley detention facility in Kireka (now Special Investigations Unit) where I was held for some hours. My entire body was hurting. I pleaded with these men to allow me to go home and have my two-week-old baby Mulungi (Now aged 14 in Senior 1).
“My captors instead took me to Lugazi police station where I was held till the next day. In the detention room, I overheard my captors plan my transfer to Tororo police station. I was only rescued by Erias Lukwago, my lawyer, who forced my captors to take me to Mukono Chief Magistrate’s court.”
On July 25, 2007, Nambooze was remanded to Kawuga prison in Mukono for failing to raise her bail money. On the same day, she was transferred to Luzira Maximum Security prison where she stayed until her release on July 26, 2007. Due to her failing health, Nambooze was flown to Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in South Africa, which is famed for the treatment
of acute organophosphate poisoning in Africa.
She added, “I went to South Africa for specialized medical treatment with as- distance from the Kabaka of Buganda and Dr. Kizza Besigye. At the hospital, I was diagnosed with the presence of a hard metal (mercury-an organophosphate poison) in my blood. Since I breastfed my daughter when I was under detention, she now has difficulty breathing. The disease is also linked to the poison injected into my body when I was under detention”.
In a May 2014 interview with the Daily Monitor, then Makindye West legislator Hussein Kyanjo shocked the nation when he linked his failing speech to poisoning.