Five years gone. A few days after the May 1, 2007 death of former Defence Ministry Permanent Secretary, Brig. Noble Mayombo, President Museveni suggested that his blue-eyed officer could have been bumped off by a gang within the region.It appeared that the finger was being pointed at the Rwandese Government, however after a few years the Uganda Rwanda relationship has resurrected and Noble’s death continues to stay unexplained. The idea, among other conspiracy theories, prompted Mr Museveni to institute a probe into Brig. Mayombo’s sudden demise. Five years later, however, his family is raising questions as to why findings of that probe have remained secret. Senior Reporter Emmanuel Gyezaho speaks to retired Maj. Okwir Rabwoni, a younger brother to Mayombo, who suggests that the government’s silence continues to breed more conspiracy theories.
The President instituted an investigation into the death of your brother, Brig. Mayombo, shortly after his death in May 2007 and a report was handed to him in November that year. Has your family received findings of this report?
What is true is that investigations were carried out under the leadership of Brig. James Mugira. At that time he was heading the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence. We, as a family, were not notified about what happened. We were not given copies of that report and even when Brig. Mayombo’s father died, he died without receiving a copy of that report or made to know to the best of my knowledge.
How do you feel that five years on as a family you have not been told what became of that investigation?
It is only logical that any human being would feel unhappy about it. Because whatever the cause, whether it was natural or whatever, it would have been good manners to inform the closest relatives-next of kin, about what caused the death of such an important person. He was not somebody peripheral in social, political and military terms. So, silence breeds conspiracy theories and although I don’t believe in such theories, I feel that at least some of us who were very close to him should have been called aside and informed about what actually happened assuming the investigation was conclusive and thorough.
Mr Museveni suggested that your brother may have fallen victim to a gang within the region that had him on a hit list. What did you make of this theory?
First of all when a person of his profile dies, there is bound to be a lot of speculation. I cannot sit here and say so and so did this. He was a person who was deeply involved in covert activities on behalf of state security, so he was bound to grow enemies across the region. In the course of his duties definitely he made a lot of enemies. But that is only one dimension of where problems could have come from, if his death was caused and not natural. There is the dimension which is regional, there is the dimension which is national because he stepped on quite a few toes. That is why we are anxious, some of us, of listening to the methodology of the investigation by looking at the report and looking at its conclusions. If a crime was committed; crimes do not die, they are not time barred.
You could even say that in five-ten years, new leads could emerge. But I for one, I am not in a big hurry to point accusing fingers. So it would be wise to wait since the subject under discussion is no longer with us. Slowly the truth will come out. But it has been quite harrowing for the family. It has caused a lot of agony to see that such a high profile leader dies and we are left in an information vacuum and there is a lot of speculation and rumour. We would have loved to have the file closed and start celebrating his life and his achievements.
What were your late father’s feelings on this matter?
He entered a sort of permanent shock because that was the last of tragedies he expected. Mayombo was the jewel of my father’s crown; in the family, our community of Tooro, the nation and even in the region. He was a giant; he had already become an international figure. So to lose such a son; he was his favourite. They had similar characteristics: commitment to causes, organisation, time consciousness, sticking to principles, loyalty, honesty and extreme generosity. Of course they were both extremely articulate; my father as a preacher in church and Noble as a soldier, politician, parliamentarian. So he continued talking about him a lot and he missed him a lot.
As a family did you attempt to ask the government to share contents of the probe report?
No we didn’t.
Because we thought the initiative lay with them. We thought that it is normal procedure so if somebody doesn’t come to you there must be a reason they are not coming to you. In fact it is the State’s responsibility anywhere in the world, to contact relatives of the deceased if an investigation has been carried out. It is not only good manners, it is also a legal and procedural responsibility to come out and say this is what happened. But since they didn’t, we didn’t see any reason as to why we should put pressure on them.
It was not uncommon for people to mention your brother as a possible successor to the President given his stellar rise and leadership qualities. In light of the controversy surrounding his death, some suggested he may have been a victim of a succession power play in government. What are your thoughts?
Really I am not an authority in the internal dynamics of the succession politics in the NRM. I don’t know how they do their thing but what I can say for sure is that the qualities he had, the visibility he had, the ideological depth he had, the national appeal he had, the regional acceptability he had and the grasp of Uganda in the context of a developing East African federation and the future of Uganda in the quest for regional integration and pan Africanist agenda. He was an organic part of the development of these processes.
He understood the security dimensions of leading a country like Uganda in this region. He was highly knowledgeable, he was becoming extremely experienced and he had an immense web of contacts, so he would really have been a boon to the future prosperity of Uganda had he been allowed to lead. He would really have made an excellent president not only of Uganda but for East Africa. He was a good listener. What hurt some of us who believe in the unity of East Africa and the region was that his life was cut short before those ambitions could be realised.
As a family, from the moment you understood Noble had gotten ill, what did you actually think went wrong?
Well, my own view is that what was repeated again and again was a superficial report and that is why His Excellency the President himself instituted a commission of inquiry because the report that was given during the burial was a superficial report that he suffered from acute pancreatitis. That is why I am saying it could have been natural or caused. Medical experts agree that both scenarios are possible. Beyond that really, I cannot tell. The rest is just conjecture because there are very many dimensions you can look at.
When you say the report was superficial what do you mean?
It is just like saying Emmanuel was walking along the road in the evening and a vehicle comes and runs him down. The cause of his death was impact of a vehicle crushing his skull full stop; but who was driving the vehicle, why did it crush him, how was he crossing the road? The reasons behind what happened are important when making an investigation. The report was telling us what happened; the organ failure and what caused the cardiac arrest and blah, blah, blah, because that’s how human beings die whether naturally or poisoned.
They were just telling us that the man has died. But the report was not as detailed as we would have wanted and that is what prompted the probe. Otherwise the government would not have instituted the probe had the report been satisfactory. Even the President himself gave like three or four scenarios which could have caused his death. And the President said that after he had received the James Makumbi report. That is why I am saying the James Makumbi report was superficial in a way because it was just a medical chronology of what had taken place. That is why government promised us a more detailed investigation. That is the investigation that was carried out and as you rightly pointed out the report was submitted to the President in November of the same year and since then he has been absolutely silent.
Have you had opportunity of interfacing with the President since then?
I have met the President on a couple of occasions and we have discussed other topics but not this particular one. Because I had thought the initiative would come from government to say look here, this is exactly what happened according to our findings, you may believe it or not but this is what we have. Then we would know as a family what to make of it. But since they didn’t, we didn’t go further to inquire. We let it rest.
Shouldn’t you have prodded and asked for the report?
Why should we? If you came to me and asked me to lend you $500 and you say you will return it to me in a month’s time. I meet you after one month and you don’t give it to me, I meet you a second month you don’t give it to me, what is the use of asking for the money when you and I both know that you owe me that money? Where we come from in our culture and community, we are laid back people. It doesn’t mean we are weak. We are laid back people and don’t like raising a lot dust and making a lot of noise over a phenomena we are not able to control, we would rather keep our dignity until such a time we are able to uncover the truth. We thought that was the most sensible course of action.
In submissions to Parliament, Dr James Makumbi suggested that doctors had ruled out the possibility of poisoning.
All these, in my opinion should have been subjected to the Mugira report. That is why I said the Makumbi report was superficial. I didn’t agree with that statement and it was too premature and too early to rule out those possibilities. That is why the President found it proper to institute that commission to carry out a more elaborate investigation, if it did.
Did the Mugira inquisitors speak to you or any of your brothers?
No they didn’t?
Did they speak to your late father?
No; to the best of my knowledge.
What about his wife Juliet?
I think they asked her a few questions like how did he come into the house, throwing up; just a few not really as detailed investigation. Maybe the areas of investigation were outside the ambit of the family. That is why I am saying I don’t know the methodology that was used. This is not to say that it wasn’t a thorough investigation because I haven’t looked at the report and I cannot criticize the report. But what I can tell you for a fact is that a majority of the family members were not quizzed.
In the absence of speaking to close family members, where does that leave the report?
Your guess is as good as mine. I don’t know. I cannot answer that question.
So would you want government to handover this report?
Absolutely I would be so happy and the family would be happy to receive the copy and also the opportunity to talk to the President about details of this report. We would be happy; lay the matter to rest and we celebrate his life.
How is Juliet coping with life without your brother?
Well, she is struggling like any other Ugandan who has lost a valuable husband and friend and she is doing her best to raise her family of young children. Two of them are already at university, one is in senior five and the three young ones are still in primary school.
Is the government supporting the family in any way?
I don’t know but we as family and friends set up an education fund specifically for school fees. On the other part, I think they are just struggling as any other Ugandan. I am not very well informed about how the UPDF handles the welfare of families of fallen comrades. But by and large, they are in the mainstream of other Ugandans as they struggle to make a living.
Did you brother have any businesses he could possibly have left behind?
No unfortunately Noble was a poor man. His work was totally around the issues of national defence and national security and maybe on the periphery of some of the other diplomatic and political mobilisational work that the President would assign him. He never had time to do business. It’s amazing that he had very little personal property. He never even owned a car, he used to move in official vehicles. That is how committed he was to his duties. He was not a materialistic person. His generosity aside, he had contempt for army officers and politicians who had this money culture.
You had a very ugly spat with him in 2001 leading to your dramatic arrest at Entebbe airport. What really went wrong?
It was a product of different levels of political judgment. Because ideologically, we were really of similar mood, we were all left of centre; people who believed in equitable distribution of power and resources, fighting marginalisation and the excesses of capitalism. We agreed on the unity of the African people, regional integration and the pan-africanist agenda. And in Parliament, in my stint in the 6th Parliament, he supported my fight against corruption.
Our disagreement was on the candidacy of President Museveni and Dr Kizza Besigye in 2001. That is one point where we had a difference and unfortunately until he died that was an area we had never resolved. My view was that 2001 had been the right time for us to have a change of leadership not that President Museveni was an incompetent leader or bad man but that Uganda had to set a precedent like Tanzania. Nyerere came, Ali Hassan Mwinyi came, Benjamin Mkapa came played their part and left.
Now we have Jakaya Kikwete who is going to hand over in 2015 to another person. That shows civility in politics. But Noble felt that the situation was still too fragile for President Museveni to leave. So it was not a strategic, ideological disagreement. It was a tactical disagreement, it was a political disagreement. We talked about it and he came to visit me when I was still in exile in Britain and we had quite a good laugh and by the time he passed on, we had more or less cemented relations and agreed to disagree as gentlemen that live together as family.
Did he express feelings of remorse for the way you were manhandled at the airport?
Absolutely, in fact he came to me in Britain and told me I am sick and tired of your friends in the army who are always bashing me about beating you up at the airport. But of course in his usual jocular way he said to me you seem to be very popular in Uganda and the UPDF, everybody is bashing me and I am feeling guilty about it so why don’t you save me this embarrassment and you come back home.
But on my part I forgave him because I loved him very much as a brother and I thought it was misjudgment on his part and it could have been handled better. But we went over it and moved on. The issues we were raising 10-12 years ago are gaining more steam to date, which means they are still relevant to the political life of the country.
What were his last words to you?
He said I really don’t know what is happening to me. I feel my stomach is on fire and I have been okay. Then as usual, consciously, he said, I have this trip to China and it is very, very important. I told him don’t mind about China; work is always there, let us first see if we can get you in better shape. You could see he was very worried.
At the time, did he indicate that he was feeling something odd, unnatural happening to him?
There has been talk that on the Thursday he fell ill, he had been at a place in Kampala and had something to drink and eat before he got sick.
It is true, I think he took a piece of meat and drank like a quarter of a bottle of beer and then he started vomiting. He was even vomiting in the car on his handkerchief. So by the time he arrived at his home he was really, really ill. That was a Thursday. Immediately he was taken to hospital and that is when the deterioration began.
Do you know the place he had been?
No, I don’t know. It is still unknown.
Are you aware of anything he may have told his wife on that day?
No she hasn’t told me anything.