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Francis Zaake was in the shower one evening last week when the police broke down his bedroom door. He was dragged away in handcuffs and later suspended from his arms and legs inside a truck so that every bump on the two-hour drive stretched his limbs to the breaking point. The officers blinded him with a substance he thought was pepper spray. Almost three weeks later, he still can’t open his eyes, he told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview from Uganda.
This was just the first of 10 days of torture. Zaake’s alleged crime: delivering food to neighbors left hungry by the coronavirus lockdown.
This is how coronavirus measures are being used in Uganda, where the government of President Yoweri Museveni and government-aligned paramilitary groups have persecuted political opponents, beaten journalists, closed the courts, and even raided an LGBTQ shelter all in the name of halting the virus. Zaake said the other prisoners he met in detention told him they were thrown into crowded jail cells just for breaking the coronavirus curfew. Several are living with HIV but were being denied medication. None of them could access lawyers; the jails were keeping out all visitors, even though the cells were so crowded that the coronavirus could spread like wildfire inside.
Zaake is a 29-year-old member of Parliament affiliated with the opposition People Power movement, which is rallying the support of the country’s large population of young people living in poverty. He was released on April 29, after 10 days during which he says he was beaten all over his body and slashed with something that felt like barbed wire. One politician who was allowed to visit Zaake just before his release said that “bits of flesh hang off his chest as though someone had attempted to randomly pluck them out with a fork but stopped midway.”
Zaake said he was still in the hospital struggling to walk or open his eyes. This was his first interview with a foreign news outlet since his release, and his voice was so weak he could barely be heard over the phone.
President Museveni is “taking advantage of the situation,” Zaake said.
“If I’m a member of Parliament and this is done to me, other Ugandans are killed. They’re shot,” Zaake said. “They use this COVID-19 crackdown to really violate our human rights. I’m not only the only one.”
Government spokesperson Ofwondo Opono did not respond to a request for comment. But on Thursday, the minister of internal affairs, Obiga Kania, submitted a report to Parliament in which he alleged Zaake deliberately hurt himself: “It is probable that Hon. Zaake could have inflicted himself” with the injuries.
The brutality of Museveni’s coronavirus lockdown reflects his determination to win a sixth term in elections next February. The country has just 97 confirmed cases and no deaths, but the government has imposed some of the most sweeping restrictions in the region. They were enacted on March 31 with no notice, stranding many Ugandans without food, transportation, or sufficient medication. The president announced on Tuesday that some businesses, including hardware stores and restaurants, could begin to reopen, but most of the restrictions will remain in place for at least another two weeks.
From the beginning, he declared that only the government would be allowed to distribute aid; any politician caught doing it on their own would be severely punished.
“That is looking for cheap popularity because you're going to make people gather, which is risky. You will be charged with attempted murder,” the president said.
Museveni is the one trying to politicize aid, said Nicholas Opiyo, one of Uganda’s leading human rights lawyers. Members of the president's National Resistance Movement political party have been freely distributing food aid outside formal government channels at the same time Zaake was organizing his effort.
“It is part of how Museveni has used COVID to gain political mileage and locked out political opponents,” Opiyo said.
Museveni’s recent easing of restrictions did not restore many basic rights, Opiyo said. He will allow only 30 lawyers to operate in the whole country, which has a population of more than 40 million. Courts have only been opened to send people arrested to jail, without access to lawyers or an opportunity to challenge their detention.
Museveni’s government has long been a key US ally in east Africa, receiving more than $400 million in aid in 2019. Museveni has a long track record of human rights abuses, including arresting his leading opponent in the 2016 election and killing at least 100 civilians — including 15 children — in the aftermath of the vote. But the government is becoming even more authoritarian as Museveni prepares to seek a sixth term in 2021.
Zaake was already quite familiar with the brutality of Museveni’s regime. He jumped into politics after being elected head of his university’s student organization. He was first elected to Parliament in 2016 and is a prominent ally of one of Museveni’s most serious rivals, Bobi Wine. Wine is a former pop star who is so popular among Uganda’s large young and low-income population that he was nicknamed the “ghetto president” before he'd entered politics.
Wine and Zaake have repeatedly been abused after entering political life. In 2017, a government minister knocked Zaake unconscious on the floor of Parliament as he tried to help defeat a constitutional change to allow Museveni to run for another term. Zaake and Wine were brutally beaten by government officers during a 2018 campaign swing. Wine’s driver was shot dead, and both politicians faced charges of treason.
But Zaake said he was still surprised at the violence he suffered this time. He said he was careful to observe social distancing regulations when he organized food deliveries on April 19, and he thought nothing of posting pictures that people sent him of neighbors receiving aid. He never personally left his compound, nor did he invite people to gather to receive food. Instead, he packed essentials like rice and sugar into care packages and arranged for the food to be delivered by motorbike drivers.
He was formally charged with “negligent acts likely to spread infection of disease.” But this was clearly just a pretext to abuse a Museveni critic, Zaake said. His captors never mentioned the food aid during his 10 days in detention.
“This was a deliberate move to torture me,” Zaake said. They taunted him, saying “no one would demonstrate for me because everyone is under lockdown.” He thought he might die “because they were telling me that they are going to kill me.”
Wine helped raise an international outcry about Zaake’s treatment, repeatedly sounding the alarm about the situation to his more than 1 million Facebook followers. Wine and several other prominent opposition leaders also wrote about Zaake’s torture to the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, noting that Museveni is behaving with impunity even though the country receives more than $1 billion in international aid from the US, the UK, the European Union, and multilateral development funds. Wine also posted a video of people around the world voicing support for Zaake.
Zaake’s wife, Bridget Zaake, said she now fears for their lives. She was at home nursing their 3-month-old baby when the police raided the house, and an officer slapped her and threatened to kill them. This was the worst condition she’d ever seen her husband in, she said, and the whole experience “really makes me feel very insecure.”
But Zaake said he’s determined to keep fighting the regime. He’s already filed a lawsuit against the officers who tortured him and has no plans to leave politics.
“I’m determined to get back to my work and also to defend my fellow Ugandans. Since I’m a victim, I’m in the position to fight,” he said. “I feel I was born for this moment. … I’m among the few who can do this because everyone is so afraid of the dictatorship.”