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Sydney-based doctor Aggrey Kiyingi hopes to unseat Uganda's dictator president. By Hamish McDonald.

Sydney man running for Ugandan presidency

Western Sydney doctor and chairman of the Uganda Federal Democratic Organisation Aggrey Kiyingi.
Credit: Hamish McDonald

Aggrey Kiyingi has just had 1.5 million copies of his name card printed and handed around in the place he is best known.

This is not the card that proclaims him Dr Aggrey Kiyingi, MB.ChB, FRACP, FACA, FABI, FCSANZ, MACPE, MAACP, DG and Consultant Physician & Cardiologist at an address in Merrylands, western Sydney.

It’s one for Dr Aggrey Kiyingi, chairman of the Uganda Federal Democratic Organisation, and in recent months it’s been handed out across the East African country: the opening gambit to unseat President Yoweri Museveni, an African strongman outranked in political longevity only by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Kiyingi, 60, has lived in Australia since 1981 when he and his then young family fled the violence gripping Uganda after the fall of the eccentric and brutal dictator Idi Amin two years earlier. He then trained as a heart specialist and is highly regarded by medical colleagues here. But he remains a well-known figure in his homeland, and says he has agreed to run for president in next year’s elections after repeated calls from Ugandans desperate for a break with government human rights abuses and corruption.

“It’s not because I want to be president,” he says. “But I’ve been in Africa, born in Africa, been here, been all over the world. God has blessed me. And I know what’s going on in Uganda. When you look at babies dying from diseases they shouldn’t be dying from, the sewage flowing, when you see typhoid (there’s an outbreak now), maybe I am abnormal but I don’t feel comfortable. If I had a chance to change that, if the people have asked me and put their faith in me, would I die a happy man to say ‘No’ and let them die?”

Museveni, who has been looking forward to capping off this year’s 30-year anniversary since he toppled Milton Obote by armed force with another sweeping election victory in 2016, is not taking such a challenge lightly.

Last month, Ugandan prosecutors charged Kiyingi in absentia with terrorism, aggravated robbery and murder along with 23 other suspects. They alleged Kiyingi was linked to the others in a militia rebel group called the Allied Democratic Forces, which has operated for many years along Uganda’s border with the Congo.

It’s a long way from his modest consulting rooms off the main shopping street in Merrylands, lined with Turkish, Afghan and Arab eateries and grocery stores, and his practice applying a stethoscope to the chests of Sydneysiders and carrying out stenting and other procedures in local hospitals.

Kiyingi has not been in Uganda since early 2007, after fleeing the country a second time. He had spent a year in a Kampala jail, then six months on bail, awaiting a verdict on charges of organising the contract murder of his estranged first wife, Robinah, in July 2005.

The night after he was acquitted, gunmen attacked his house and were fought off by his own bodyguards. Kiyingi quickly obtained a new passport from the Australian high commission in Nairobi and got a friendly airline staffer to hustle him past the immigration counter at Entebbe airport and onto a flight out.

The murder trial has left scars. Two of the four children he had with Robinah testified as prosecution witnesses, alleging a bitter dispute over the property settlement after Kiyingi initiated divorce proceedings against his wife, who had gone back to Kampala to resume a law practice. The military policeman allegedly hired to kill Robinah died in prison, possibly of poisoning.

Kiyingi says the government had plausible reasons to eliminate Robinah and himself. His philanthropic work, though an IT company called Dehezi that introduced computers to schools and other institutions throughout Uganda, made him too popular for the government’s liking. Two government figures came to him and said: “You give us some shares [in the company] and we will protect you.”

He refused. “That was my second mistake,” Kiyingi says. “One was getting in the newspapers and TV. The second was to say: ‘No, I’m not going to do it that way.’ Dr Kiyingi suddenly started being a very bad boy in the eyes of the government.”

Then Robinah was made head of the local chapter of Transparency International, the non-governmental corruption watchdog group, and was asked to investigate leakage of funds sent to Uganda under the United Nations fund to fight HIV, tuberculosis and malaria. Intelligence agents found out and urged her to soften her report.

“She was a very blunt lady, and stubborn lawyer, too, so she told them ‘No’,” Kiyingi says. “As usual the next step was to say: ‘How much? We can make you very comfortable.’ She still refused. You don’t say that to Mr Museveni.”

Shortly afterwards, Robinah was shot dead in her car. When Kiyingi arrived from Sydney and got to the funeral, two policemen stuck a pistol in his back and tried to hustle him away. He refused to get into their car, and persuaded an army officer friend attending the funeral to lend him a bodyguard to go with him to police headquarters.

“Once there, no one was expecting us: they were lost about what to do with me,” Kiyingi says. “The plan, I later got to know, was they were to drive me to town. Halfway there they would stop the car and tell me to get out, and then shoot me and say I was trying to run away. Case closed.”

It took him 18 months to get back to Sydney, after nearly dying of malaria in jail and then surviving the attack on his house. Kiyingi has rebuilt his practice and remarried, to another Ugandan, with whom he has two young children. However, his older children seem not to be fully reconciled. “We’ve kept apart,” he says. “They’ve been under a lot of pressure and I don’t want to push. They’ve been through a hard time. Their mum is dead. At that time we were going through a divorce thing, the government took advantage of this. For children during a divorce, the natural instinct is to protect the mother. I don’t blame them.”

His connection with Uganda also looked severed. “When I came back here I thought: forget about Africa, forget about Uganda,” he says. “But over time I got a lot of requests from the people. They know my community work. ‘We want you to come and stand, to come and lead the country.’ They continue. And after some time, I said, ‘Is this why God left me alive?’ ”

Then how to take on Museveni? He came up with the idea of mass printing the new name card, and getting it handed out one by one across Uganda, thereby skirting rules on political assembly and publicity.

Inevitably, it was rumbled, and the new terrorism charges came just in time to head off Kiyingi’s anticipated return to Uganda. A separate court process has meanwhile seen his property in Uganda seized over non-fulfilment of what he says was a forged contract.

However implausible, Kiyingi does see a certain potency in charges of involvement with the rebels. “These days you just want to mention the word terrorism and everybody comes to the table,” he says.

Museveni got an opening welcome from the West as a former Marxist guerilla who installed a democratic system and reduced Uganda’s HIV infection rate from 30 per cent to single figures. This has faded, thanks to brutality by his security forces, economic mismanagement, deep corruption, the removal of a two-term limit from the constitution and, last year, egged on by American fundamentalists, a harsh law against homosexuality.

But he remains a favourite in Western security circles by keeping Ugandan troops in Somalia to fight the al-Shabaab extremists, and battling the Lord’s Resistance Army on Uganda’s northern borders, with past forays into the Congo forgiven.

The campaign against Museveni will employ social media – Uganda has some 19 million mobile phone subscribers, four million of them internet-capable, pushing “teledensity” to 53 per cent of the population – and Kiyingi is also looking at renting satellite transponder time to broadcast FM radio messages ahead of the election.

But if he intends to push his campaign, Kiyingi will soon have to return to Uganda and face whatever awaits. “Yes, the prospect of immediate arrest or even death on my arrival is very real, but I am confident that people power will overwhelm the system,” he says. “I am prepared and I cannot let the people down. Security details are being worked on.”

Kiyingi’s challenge is getting much attention by Ugandans. “He is indeed being taken seriously and seen as a credible opponent of Mr Museveni,” says Henry Gombya, managing editor of The London Evening Post, an expatriate newspaper-website reporting on East Africa. “But being credible and taken seriously by Ugandans is one thing. Being able to uproot a dictator who uses the army and the country’s vast resources to stay in power is another.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 4, 2015 as "Taking on a dictator". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.