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Arrest of officers, deportation of MTN executives, and “espionage” in Uganda

On July 5, 2020 Uganda’s The New Vision published a story titled “Army pilot, policeman held over spying” in which it listed six officers of the army and police. The arrested officers are accused of having “shared classified information regarding their operations” with a certain “neighboring country.” Lt Phllip Ankunda, an officer in the Ugandan army, UPDF, has been singled out for being “married to a Rwandan national and security was also investigating claims that he might have passed secret information to her,” The New Vision writes, confirming Rwanda as the neighboring country the officers are alleged to have been spying for. 

A follow-up story by the same paper changes the story. “A key suspect identified as Samuel Ndwane, a chemical engineer in the UPDF AirForce, was found with a Rwandan national identity card, which has raised suspicion.” Ndwane, the paper writes, is “of Rwandese descent but is from Kiruhura district,” meaning he is a Ugandan of Rwandan origin. In the first story it was enough that Lt Ankunda was married to a Rwandan woman for him to be arrested, with automatic suspicions being raised that as a Rwandan she must be gathering intelligence information from her husband; in the second, he was arrested for his friendship with Ndwane. In neither article is any evidence provided regarding the kind of spying the two were supposedly involved in, or how they were passing it over to Rwanda. However, the story fits the pattern of harassment and detention of Rwandans or Ugandans of Rwandan descent on flimsy accusations of espionage on Rwanda’s behalf. 


Since 2017, Ugandan authorities have made persistent accusations of espionage that they have never been able to prove in court. The arrests coincide with the intensified campaign to mobilize support in Uganda for Kayumba Nyamwasa’s Rwanda National Congress and villifying any Rwandan who refuses to join the armed terrorist organisation that is a proxy in Museveni's longstanding Rwanda-destabilization project.


The current phase in the harassment of Rwandans can be dated from August 2017 when Rene Rutagungira was picked up at a Kampala bar, detained incommunicado for more than two years and released only in January this year after undergoing continuous serious torture. In December 2017, Fidele Gatsinzi was picked up at a shopping mall in Ntinda on the eastern outskirts of Kampala where he had gone to shop for his son’s visiting day at Mukono Christian university. The operation to arrest Gatsinzi was led by Rugema Kayumba - an RNC operative and nephew of Kayumba Nyamwasa - who was at the time actively operating in Uganda before relocating to Norway. Gatsinzi was severely tortured for weeks before getting dumped at the Gatuna border, seriously maimed and unable to walk on his own, without having ever been charged on any offence. Emmanuel Mageza’s body is yet to be repatriated to his family following his death at Butabika Hospital early this year in February, after undergoing a year of sustained torture while in detention at the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI) headquaters in Mbuya, Kampala. Ugandans of Rwandan descent have not been spared the flimsy but extremely dangerous accusations of spying for Rwanda that are never brought to courts to allow them to defend themselves. Nunu Johnson, a Ugandan of Rwandan origin was picked up from his home in Ntungamo on the orders of “RNC-Uganda Province” executive committee head, Pastor Deo Nyirigira. For months he was tortured and denied medicine for prostate cancer; he died in August 2019, only months after his release.  


In November 2019, close to 200 Rwandans were rounded up and detained in Kisoro district, accused of being “Kigali’s spies.” 

Even senior business executives have not been spared. A year ago, between January and February 2019, a security sweep of top  MTN Uganda executives led to the deportation of its CEO, Wim Vanhelleputte, a Belgian national (ironically with dual Ugandan citizenship, but such a small matter of legality is immaterial where the Ugandan regime is concerned); the chief marketing officer, Olivier Prentout, a French citizen; the head of mobile money, Elsa Mussolini, an Italian national; and the general manager for sales and distribution, Annie Tabura, a Rwandan national. Prentout and Tabura were intercepted on arrival at the airport in Entebbe, while the others were picked up at their offices, all on charges of espionage for a “neighboring country.” They were swiftly deported. An amazing tour-de-force as, in a normal country, such serious accusations should have been followed up with prosecution of the accused.

It soon emerged that MTN’s 10-year license to operate in Uganda had just expired on January 20, 2019 and was due for renewal at $58 million, according to a previous agreement between the company and the government. President Museveni had, however, determined that the amount wasn’t enough and was raising the price MTN must to pay $100 million, which the company was resisting. It was out of vengeance and to exert pressure on the company in this charged negotiating atmosphere that the officials were deportated on flimsy charges of espionage. Shortly after, a deal was reached and the company's previously deported Ugandan subsidiary CEO, Ugandan-Belgian Wim Vanhelleputte, was allowed to return to work in Kampala and join his Ugandan wife and children. Nothing was ever mentioned again regarding the "espionage" charges. 

Pte Samuel Ndwane’s and Lt Ankunda’s story is eerily similar to those noted above, underscoring the continued harassment of persons of Rwandan origins without any evidence implicating them. The two are accused of treason on flimsy basis, such as marriage to a Rwandan wife or a Facebook picture. 

Rwanda has continuously urged Uganda to bring all such accused persons to court if it really has any evidence of espionage, and that its consistent failure to do so is itself evidence it lacks such evidence and the arrests and accusations are part of Kampala's anti-Rwanda campaign. However, this has not stopped the authorities in Uganda from continuing to harass Rwandans and Ugandans of Rwanda origins, even when it claims goodwill for the peace process under the Luanda Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the two countries in Luanda in July 2019 under the mediation of Angola and DRC presidents.

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