GEORGE OKURAPA is now a social
worker in Toronto, Canada. Years ago, he was a popular Makerere
University guild president (1985-86) who took over from
an equally popular student leader, Ogenga Otunnu. Otunnu
later became a Foreign Affairs Minister in the short-lived
Gen. Tito Okello Lutwa government (1985-86).
Okurapa went to exile in Kenya first and later to Canada
in 1989, after escaping from Republic House (now Bulange)
where he had been detained on the orders of the then Director
of Military Intelligence [now FDC Organising Secretary],
Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu.
Writing about his life in exile, Okurapa among other things
says he forgave those who tortured and humiliated him.
When the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) government
was overthrown by soldiers led by Gen. Tito Okello on July
27, 1985, I was 25 years old and I was Guild President at
At the time of the coup, I was in Moscow attending the
World Youth Festival. After the festival, some of my colleagues
stayed in exile but I decided to return to Uganda to complete
my studies at Makerere University.
| George Okurapa and his wife,
My decision to return to Uganda received a lot of criticism
from my colleagues and party (UPC) leadership. They believed
that it was not wise for me as a guild president who was
elected during the Obote regime to return to Uganda after
the UPC government had been overthrown.
I disagreed with this view because I was a popularly elected
at Makerere and I had no reason to flee the country before
completing my studies.
On the other hand, I believed that being a supporter of
UPC and being the guild president at Makerere was not sufficient
for one to flee the country when the government is overthrown.
As a result, I returned home, completed my term as guild
president, organised guild elections and completed my studies
at Makerere University in 1986.
After completing my studies, I was making arrangements to
travel to Europe in pursuit of an employment opportunity
that a friend had arranged for me. When I went to the Passport
Office to collect my renewed passport, I was with my fiancée,
Edidah Kebirungi [now my wife].
As we left the Passport Office, I was approached by two
plain clothe security officers who told me that they had
been sent by President Museveni to pick me up to meet with
I asked them why President Museveni would send security
officers to take me by force to meet him but they told me
that this was the way he meets people for security reasons.
When I noticed that they were armed with pistols with another
pick-up truck beside theirs with soldiers, I knew that my
life was in danger. Having been an open critic of Museveni’s
government, I knew that there was no way Museveni would
have wanted to meet with me.
I asked the officers for their permission to speak to my
fiancée, who was then standing helplessly as I pleaded
my case. They allowed me to talk to her in private and this
gave me the opportunity to tell her that I was being arrested
and my life was in danger.
I asked her to let my family and friends know of my arrest.
This was the beginning of an ordeal that has shaped my life
I was driven away in a double cabin pick-up truck sandwiched
between the two officers and driven around Kampala for two
hours witnessing a display of dictatorial arrogance and
pomp from the two security officers.
At the end of the two-hour ordeal, I was told that the President
had to attend to other urgent matters and was not going
to meet with me.
I was then dumped at Mbuya Military Barracks where I witnessed
the most inhumane treatment a human being can be subjected
to. I was locked up under horrible conditions for two weeks
with no visitors allowed to see me and with instructions
that I must never see the sun.
After the two-week ordeal at Mbuya, a colleague, Capt.
Kagata Namiti, who was then Director of Legal Services at
Republic House, found out that I had been arrested and taken
to an unknown destination.
He personally went from one military barracks to another
searching for me. It was not easy for him because when I
was dumped at Mbuya, the officers who took me there gave
instructions that my name must not be entered in the inmate
Being the Director of Legal Services, Capt. Namiti had
access to the cells. He walked into Mbuya Military Barracks
and when he saw the condition I was in, tears rolled down
He drove me to Republic House [now Bulange in Mengo] where
he told me that the government had absolutely no case against
me and wondered who was behind my arrest. This was the first
time I was seeing the sun in two weeks!
Capt. Namiti then told me that in his capacity as Director
of Legal Services, he had the authority to order my release
from military detention.
He then released me but as I was walking out of Republic
House, I was re-arrested and locked up at the military cells
of the Republic House quarter guard. Later on, Capt. Namiti
himself was arrested and unfortunately he never survived
to tell his story. May his soul rest in peace!
The torture I was subjected to at Republic House quarter
guard cells was the beginning of phase two of the inhumane
treatment that a dictatorial administration can subject
to its citizens.
At Republic House, I was told that there were strict instructions
from “above” that I must be locked up without
seeing the sun.
I was told that Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, the then Director
of Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), had ordered
that I must be kept under strict watch and that it was only
him and his deputy who could interrogate me.
After another week of inhumane conditions at Republic House,
I finally got the opportunity to meet face-to-face with
my tormentors: Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu and his deputy popularly
known as Afande Byemaro.
In our first meeting at the DMI headquarters in Mengo,
I found myself sitting in front of two men who displayed
maximum arrogance and contempt and one would have been hard
pressed to believe that these two commanders had ever heard
of the words ‘individual human rights’.
Mugisha Muntu and Byemaro spoke to me with such arrogance
and contempt that it was difficult to believe that we were
both human beings with the right to life on earth. They
lectured to me how Museveni and his government was the best
thing that ever happened to Uganda and that anybody who
opposes their government was wasting time and would face
It was during this meeting that I was finally told by my
tormentors that I was arrested for plotting to overthrow
Museveni’s government while I was guild president
at Makerere. When I challenged the two to produce evidence,
I will always remember how both Mugisha Muntu and Byemaro
laughed at me and told me that if I did not confess, they
would make sure that I rot in jail.
I was locked up at the quarter guard for six months with
intermittent sessions of interrogation by Mugisha Muntu
and Byemaro. Today, when I hear Mugisha Muntu speaking up
against dictatorship in Uganda, I am left in disbelief as
to whether this is the same man who oversaw my ordeal with
pride in 1986.
I used to think that I would never see eye-to-eye with
Mugisha Muntu and his deputy, but recently when he came
to Toronto, Canada, we met, hugged each other and I forgave
him for the ordeal I was subjected to for six months in
military detention under his watch.
I have put aside my bitterness because I am sure he has
realised that in me, they tortured an innocent man. The
truth is that I never plotted to overthrow their government
as they alleged when they arrested me.
After suffering for six months in military detention, I
realised that my life was in danger. I had no choice but
to get creative to save myself because there was no indication
that Mugisha Muntu was going to release me or charge me
in a court of law. It was time for me to plan my escape
from Republic House.
The challenge was how I would beat the 24 hour watch imposed
on me by Mugisha Muntu. Fortunately, there were many who
knew my innocence and were sympathetic. I will not go into
the details of how my escape was planned but I should mention
that I left Republic House at midnight on January 22, 1987
under very tight security in a convoy of armed men and women.
I enjoyed beating the 24-hour watch that Mugisha Muntu
and his deputy had imposed on me and by early morning the
next day, when they realised that I had escaped from their
torture, I was already across the border in Kenya. My escape
will remain the most spectacular thing I have ever put together.
It gave me a new lease of life.
My exile life started immediately I crossed the border,
following my escape. I asked for asylum in Kenya which was
granted without difficulty.
I got a job and led a modest life in Kenya.
My wife joined me and we started to plan our future in
exile together. Following my escape, I had a lot of bitterness
towards Museveni and anybody associated with his regime.
I was bitter because of the torture I was subjected to by
people who claimed to be liberators and freedom fighters.
I spent sleepless nights thinking of how I could revenge
against a dictatorial administration that had subjected
me to the most degrading and humiliating torture that has
changed my life forever.
But during this time, two things happened in my life. The
first was the phone conversation I had with my former president,
Dr. Apollo Milton Obote (RIP). After narrating my ordeal
to him he had this to say:
“My son, I am happy that you escaped successfully
from [National Resistance Army (NRA] captivity.
I was very worried about you. You are lucky to be alive
today. Thank God for that. Now, I want you to study. If
you get a chance to go abroad to study, that will be good.
Kenya is not safe for you right now. You should be careful
of NRA’s agents. They are there with you. Look for
an opportunity to go abroad and read as many books as you
can. You are our leaders of tomorrow. I want you to take
good care of yourself. Exile life is not easy. You have
to make sure you make the right choices.”
These were words from a true father to a son. Instead of
encouraging me to pursue revenge, he advised me to look
for opportunities for further education abroad.
The second thing that happened to me was when I went to
pray in a church in Nairobi. During the service, the preacher
spoke on the topic of revenge and reconciliation. After
I sat and listened attentively, I suddenly realised that
the majority of problems that Uganda has faced over the
years were due to revenge against our perceived enemies.
I began to ask myself what I would achieve through revenge.
Would it erase the torture I had innocently been subjected
to? Would it erase the feeling of loneliness that I was
facing after being forced to flee the country and abandon
my family and all the family love?
After considering all these, I decided that revenge was
not a solution. I decided to focus on myself and my future
and forgive Museveni and his agents. I put my bitterness
behind me and today, I look at my ordeal in military detention
and torture as a necessary experience in life.
As Dr. Obote had predicted, life in Kenya became unpredictable
for many Ugandan refugees. Time and again, the Kenyan security
would round up Ugandan refugees and some got deported to
Uganda. The NRA agents that Obote had spoken about were
also many in Nairobi and it was no longer safe for many
At the same time, Museveni was putting pressure on the
Kenyan government to have some of us deported. Kenya was
increasingly becoming unsafe and it was time to look elsewhere
for refuge. With the help of the United Nations High Commission
for Refugees (UNHCR), I relocated to Canada on March 1,
Bitter sweet exile
It took us awhile to adjust to life in Canada. The winters
are very cold and the summers are very hot and humid. Despite
all this, Canada has been nice to me and my family and we
have made it home. It is a home far away from home. Life
in exile is truly tough.
While I have a decent job and live a modest life with my
family, it is always painful when you cannot come back home
to bury your loved ones when they die. Several of my loved
ones have passed on, including my father and in-laws, and
yet I have not been able to go back to a country I fled
from to bury my loved ones.
I come from a large family and being in exile has cut me
off from that family. This is the painful part of exile
life. But I will always remain grateful to Canada for welcoming
me and giving me the opportunity to raise my family in an
atmosphere where true peace and justice prevails.