Where is Sam Mugumya? This question is plaguing his family and Uganda’s opposition leadership. Sam, an ardent opposition party activist, disappeared from his home district of Rukungiri, on Uganda’s western border with Congo, in early November. His friends were shocked when, days later, Uganda’s military spokesman announced that Sam had been arrested in Congo for alleged “subversive activities.” His friends told me Sam had no plans to travel to Congo at the time. Despite efforts to get information, no one has yet confirmed his exact whereabouts or any pending charges.
Things took a sinister turn on November 6, when Uganda’s government spokesman, Ofwono Opondo, tweeted a photo of Sam, shirtless and gaunt, stating that he was in detention in Beni, Congo. The tweet indicated that Opondo at least was in contact with those holding Sam, suggesting some level of Ugandan government collusion.
When opposition members tried to petition the Congolese embassy in Kampala this week, seeking information about Sam’s whereabouts, Ugandan police blocked their access. Two days later, police also prevented the opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye, from petitioning Uganda’s Foreign Affairs Ministry to help locate Sam.
As a well-known opposition organizer, Sam has been arrested many times in protests and political campaigns. In October 2011 he was charged with treason after a demonstration. As in other similar cases, prosecutors never provided any evidence and the case was dismissed in 2013. But in the past, though he has been roughed-up and restricted by bail conditions, at least Sam’s family knew he was alive.
This time, the official silence is very troubling. No matter what Sam may or may not be accused of, his family is entitled to answers. They shouldn’t be baited by Opondo’s tweets, then denied information. Refusal by officials – whoever is responsible for his detention – to provide information as to Sam’s whereabouts would constitute an enforced disappearance, a serious crime under international law.
Uganda’s current government has a history of using harassment, including criminal charges, to obstruct opposition politics. Dr. Besigye, a former presidential candidate, faced a litany of charges in the run-up to the 2006 elections, hampering his ability to campaign.
As Ugandanspoliticians gear up for the next elections in early 2016, the government needs to ensure that all candidates can campaign without interference. Sam’s disappearance may be a sign that more obstruction is in the offing. His detention for more than three weeks appears to have been conducted wholly outside the confines of the law. If Uganda’s officials aren’t complicit in his disappearance – and many believe they are – they need to immediately help Sam’s family locate him and be more vocal in their concern for his rights and well-being.
Until then, we will all keep asking, where is Sam?