In Uganda, the “embarrassing” death of a Minister of State

Uganda State Minister Charles Engola was shot dead last week by one of his guards. For President Yoweri Museveni, the event is “an embarrassment” for the army whose soldiers “turn into mercenaries” seeking to earn money with civil jobs.

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni
Uganda President Yoweri Museveni during the state funeral service for Minister Charles Engola | © Uganda’s Ministry of Defense and Veteran affairs

On May 2, Wilson Sabiiti, a soldier of the Ugandan army, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), went to Charles Engola’s home, the State minister for Labor, Employment and Industrial Relations.

He shot Mr. Engola 28 times, 64, who died soon after. The minister’s aide, Lieutenant Ronald Otim, was also injured. Mr. Sabiiti then took out his life in a hair salon where the minister’s wife was used to going.

Yet, Mr. Sabiiti, 33, was one of the minister’s bodyguards, hired about a month ago. But while the exact motive of the shooting that shocked the country is still under investigation by the police, the military man reportedly struggled to make ends meet as a father of 4 children and would have complained about salary arrears.

The killing resurfaced comments online about how low soldiers get paid, about 300,000 shillings (94 dollars) a month for the lowest grade. The soldier was at the lowest rank in the army as a private. He joined when his father died so that he could financially support his family. The average salary for a low-skilled worker in Uganda is about twice as much.

During the state funeral service in honor of the deceased minister and retired UPDF colonel on May 10, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni denounced the tragic event as “a very big embarrassment for the army.”

During his speech, Mr. Museveni argued the military should return to the doctrine of the National Resistance Army, the rebel group he led to seize power in 1986 that became the UPDF in 1995. He claims they used to fight for their country and accepted low pay.

While he said the 169th economy per capita couldn’t afford to pay high salaries for the army, he denounced people who always seek more money, a philosophy turning soldiers into “mercenaries” who go to work in the civilian sector.

For the president, the soldiers who go out on operations for civilian duties should only be provided with food, not allowances or pay.

In Uganda, soldiers on guard duty get paid between 300,000 and 500,000 shillings per month (80 and 134 dollars) by the government, according to Ugandan news publication Monitor. Mr. Engola, for instance, had more than five bodyguards from the army to ensure his protection.

Several high-profile public figures have been gunned down over the past decade, leading senior officials to seek protection personnel.

The presence of the UPDF in civilian life has increased over the past few years in a country ruled by the same leader since 1986. And during 2021 elections, of which President Museveni was declared the winner after postponing the age limit for a president, were marred by widespread violence and repression from security forces, according to Human Rights Watch.

But for UPDF General James Mugira, the act of Mr. Sabiiti is only about “indiscipline, period!” On Tuesday, during a speech in Parliament, which recently passed an extreme anti-LGBT bill, argued that the Ugandan army “has never been a mercenary force. Our service to our motherland has always been and is out of patriotism and ideological conviction.” The minister’s killing “cannot be reduced to an issue of low salary and allowances.”

The minister’s death also raised comments online, pointing out the minister was shot by an employee hired to ensure his protection.

After Mr. Engola’s death, Youtuber Ibrahim Tusubira criticized the minister online. A few days later, he was shot dead near his home in a suburb of capital city Kampala by an unidentified gunman who waited for him for two hours, according to CCTV footage. The cause of his death remains unknown.

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