Posted on June 3, 2008

I Did Not Eat DRC Pygmies—Otafiire

Chris Obore, The Monitor (Kampala), June 1, 2008

Local Government Minister Kahinda Otafiire has rubbished suggestions that he could be arrested for alleged complicity in war crimes in the DR Congo, saying that after all he never ate any Congolese nationals.

In a telephone interview from Cameroon where he is travelling, Maj. Gen. Otafiire said he is not worried at all that he is one of the Ugandan generals who could be picked up following the surprise arrest a week ago of Mr Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former Congolese rebel chief and onetime vice-president.

“I have nothing to worry about,” Gen. Otafiire said. “Did you hear of me eating pygmies in Congo? I never ate pygmies.”

Belgian police arrested Mr Bemba, who was backed by Uganda during the Congolese civil war of 1998-2002, after the International Criminal Court (ICC) secretly charged him with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In April 2007, Mr Bemba fled his country following a bitterly contested presidential election against President Joseph Kabila late in 2006.

He was arrested on May 24 in a suburb of Brussels, Belgium.

The ICC said “Mr Bemba is chairman of the Mouvement de Libération du Congo (MLC), an armed group which intervened in the 2002-2003 armed conflict in Central African Republic (CAR) and pursued a plan of terrorising and brutalising innocent civilians, in particular during a campaign of massive rapes and looting.”

It added: “Mr Bemba had already used the same tactics in the past, in CAR, in the DRC, always leaving a trail of death and destruction behind him.”

Following Mr Bemba’s arrest, speculation has been rife that some of Uganda’s army generals could now find themselves in the Congolese politician’s situation because a 2001 UN report named them as having looted the DR Congo’s natural resources and facilitated the commission of war crimes.

The state of armed conflict that still obtains in eastern DR Congo has spawned all manner of militias, some of whom believe that the eating of human flesh, particularly certain body parts sliced off pygmies, would protect them in battle. Mr Bemba, who fled to Portugal last year after he was accused of treason at home, later relocated to Brussels, where he acquired a home.

Before the end of the civil war in 2002, his forces controlled a large swathe of eastern DR Congo, where he was an ally of Uganda during the time of the UPDF occupation of parts of its western neighbour’s territory.

Gen. Otafiire was variously involved in DR Congo affairs from before the 1997 ouster of Mobutu Sese Seko, escaping narrowly when the Rwandan and Ugandan forces exchanged fire in Kinshasa in 1999.

After the release of the 2001 UN report, the government of Uganda set up a parallel investigation—the Justice Porter Commission. Maj. Gen. Otafiire was exonerated by this commission.

“Who is [now] saying I am implicated?” Gen. Otafiire said in the phone interview. “Don’t they know that New Vision paid me Shs30 million for defamation [over the same DR Congo matter?]”

The plain-speaking general said he is a free man and can travel anywhere “unless the world is ruled by jungle law”. The UPDF withdrew from the DR Congo in 2003 and Uganda subsequently lost a suit filed by Kinshasa at the International Court of Justice.

The ICJ ruled in 2005 that Uganda should pay damages as compensation for the UPDF’s plunder of the DR Congo’s natural resources and related atrocities committed there between 1996 and 2001. The DR Congo has claimed $10 billion in reparations, but Uganda is still negotiating a possible way out without paying.

Maj. Gen. Otafiire’s irreverent use of language has left many of his interlocutors flustered in the past. In the lead up to Uganda’s 1996 presidential election, he advised Democratic Party torchbearer Paul Ssemogerere to retire from politics and instead take to “rearing ducks”.

When he was named by the UN as having allegedly looted timber from the DR Congo, Gen. Otafiire asked: “What is this Congo timbering, do they want to Congo timber me?”

Most recently, Kampala Central chief Godfrey Nyakaana accused the general, who then was environment minister, of masterminding a witch-hunt centred around a house Mr Nyakaana had built in a city wetland and had thus been demolished. In response, Maj. Gen. Otafiire characteristically wondered whether Mr Nyakaana was a “frog to live in a wetland”.