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A commentary on news and events in Uganda and elsewhere


Just an ordinary bloke.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Brig. Mayombo; the death of an enigmatic officer and gentleman

Brig. Noble Mayombo, 42, who died in Nairobi’s Aga Khan Hospital after a short illness last week, was an enigmatic face of President Yoweri Museveni’s government; brilliant and brutal; kind and cunning; ruthless but forgiving.

He was also daring – he dropped out of law school at Makerere University to join Museveni’s rebel National Resistance Army in 1985 – and driven; he would return a few years later to complete his degree and later, a masters in human rights law.

His was a life of contradictions; despite his degree in human rights law, he was accused, during his time as head of military intelligence, of allowing the torture of suspected rebels and political opponents in ‘safe houses’.

In its 2004 report on Uganda, Human Rights Watch accused the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, then under Mayombo, of widespread torture, illegal detentions, and the execution of political opponents like Patrick Mamenero, who had supported opposition candidate Kizza Besigye in the 2001 presidential election.

Yet many people saw Mayombo’s noble side and will remember him for brilliance, not brutality. That brilliance first shone through in 1994 when, aged only 29, he was picked as one of the army delegates to the Constituent Assembly then debating a new Constitution for the country.

It was here, in his opening speech to the Assembly, that Mayombo’s political ideology – of the carrot and, often, a large stick – came to the fore. Quoting the legal philosopher James Bright, Mayombo said: “knots which the law cannot untie may have to be cut by the sword.”

He added: “I and many others in uniform today symbolise the politics of resistance to misrule and injustice in Uganda. We wear uniform not out of choice but compulsions to keep power away from those who think power is an end in itself, to keep power away from those who think the people of Uganda are not important, to keep power away from those who think they cause use power to kill, plunder and settle personal scores with impunity.”

His critics, including opposition leader Besigye whom he forced into exile in 2001, claim that Mayombo abused his power when he rose through the ranks. His defenders, particularly in the army say, in effect, that the sword was required to untie the knots.

His impassioned and persuasive arguments helped entrench the Movement as the ruling party in a no-party state and set off a meteoric rise through the army ranks, from Lieutenant in 1994 to Brigadier by the time of his death. As expected, there were grumbles about the speed of his star, especially among more stagnant officers – but Mayombo was not the only beneficiary of quick promotions, and there is little to suggest that he was undeserving.

Brig. Mayombo was extremely loyal and unrestrained by pride; the enduring image of him as President Museveni’s aide-de-camp – one of the several short stops on his career trajectory in the 90s – was of him kneeling down to lace up his master’s shoes after Museveni had just visited a mosque in Kampala.

Mayombo was also very loyal to his family and friends; his father, an elderly reverend last week spoke of his son’s generosity in paying for the old man’s medical treatment in South Africa, one of many tales of his philanthropy. But loyalty came after service to the cause; Mayombo famously ordered for the arrest of his brother, Okwir Rabwoni, in 2001 just before the latter joined Besigye, whom he supported, on a campaign flight to Arua, northwest Uganda.

Even here the contradictions showed; Mayombo helped his brother obtain visas and money to go into exile in the United Kingdom – but later prevented Okwir from being granted asylum by swearing an affidavit declaring that the applicant would face no danger if he returned. As it were, Okwir has since returned to the country and apparently made up with his brother before his death.

Both brothers strongly professed Pan-Africanism and Mayombo, who received military training in Libya, routinely spoke out in support of its ideals of a peaceful and united Africa – but he was one of several Ugandan army officers accused by a 2002 UN Security Council report of plundering mineral resources from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

All officials named in the report, including Mayombo, denied the allegations and a subsequent judicial commission of inquiry found no evidence to initiate prosecutions. True to form, Mayombo made both foes and friends while in DR Congo. Prof. Wamba dia Wamba, who once headed a rebel faction supported by Kampala last week recounted to the government-owned New Vision newspaper how Mayombo had put his life on the line and braved bullets to save the rebel leader’s life. There was another touch of ingenuity from Mayombo; to get the light-skinned professor past the Rwandan army to the airport, he dressed him up in UPDF camouflage and painted his face black. Genius.

In person, Mayombo was full of humour and vivacity but the smile he always wore never concealed his sometimes ruthless cunning. And cunning he was. In 2002 when the Daily Monitor, which, like this paper, is also published by Nation Media Group, wrote an article claiming that rebels had shot down an army helicopter in the north of the country, irate government officials scoured the law books to find a way of shutting down the paper. Finding none, Mayombo recommended that the newspaper plant and offices in Kampala be sealed off as a crime scene to allow police investigations. The closure lasted a week.

He got on well with journalists always giving quotes and returning calls when he could – but he could also be ruthless in his clampdown. When he was appointed as chairman of the board of the New Vision last year, Mayombo promised to uphold press freedom and allow the hacks to get on with their work. A few months later, the editor, William Pike, and his deputy, had been forced out for carrying articles critical of the government.

It is widely agreed that Mayombo, who was defence ministry permanent secretary at the time of his death, had, despite such an action-filled career, not fulfilled his true potential. There have even been suggestions that he was a potential successor to President Museveni, or at least continue to be a king maker. We shall never know.

His death, due to a failure of his pancreas, and after such a short illness, has sparked off speculation that he might have been poisoned. Defence minister, Crispus Kiyonga announced last week that government was not “ruling anything out”. But excessive consumption of alcohol can lead to the condition – and Mayombo, in his social times, certainly knew how to negotiate his way around the bend of the bottle.

How will Brig. Mayombo be remembered? His family (including wife Juliet and six children) and friends mourn a loyal and loving man; the president mourns a most-trusted confidante; while the regime mourns an intellectual who was also capable of ruthless implementation.

It is perhaps a sign of which side of Mayombo Ugandans most identified with – or perhaps a reflection of African respect to the dead – that the country was united in mourning this enigmatic officer and gentleman.

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