16 May 2007

Uganda: Kiboko Squad Members Speak Out

On April 17 a group of ruffians stormed Kampala streets armed with sticks (Kiboko) whipping all who stood in their operational area. They emerged out of the Central Police Station. Inside Politics' Glenna Gordon has been on the search for the real Kiboko squad and now brings some accounts.

The day before April 17, they were called. The orders were vague, but orders are to be followed. They were to report to the Central Police Station the next morning for a job that would take some hours.

They came from the Taxi Park, from the ranks of the Police, from the boxing ring, from Kampala Road, from the government intelligence office. They were all strong men.

After they arrived at CPS, they were photographed and identified, and given breakfast of bread and milk tea.

"When we were stationed at CPS, we were told about the violence in town. We were taken to a room down stairs and given sticks to beat whoever was violent," said one member of the Kiboko Squad in an exclusive interview with Inside Politics.

He spoke on the condition that we do not reveal his identity; in a small take- away place near Luwum Street. Sweat dripped down off his shaved head and emanated in concentric circles around his armpits as he spoke of his activities as part of the squad.

The next day, the day canes ruled Kampala, a group of plain-clothes men roamed Kampala Road indiscriminately beating people with sticks to effectively quell a demonstration over the controversial give away of Mabira Forest land for growing sugar cane. "We didn't aim at beating just anyone, but in case they were a suspect, we just beat them," he continued. The Kiboko denied doing harm to anyone but thieves.

However, on April 17, the Kiboko Squad indiscriminately caned anyone who ventured beyond Kampala road towards the Constitutional Square. Among the injured were several journalists who were simply covering the day's events. They moved as a trained, prepared and coordinated unit around the streets, inspiring fear in civilians. Their sticks effectively cowered the crowd, controlled their movement and reigned them in like cattle.

Part of citizens' fear came from the lack of clarity: Who were these men? Who commissioned them? Why were they roaming the streets of Kampala without uniforms, licenses or any of the signs of respectable peacekeepers?

Currently, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission is investigating the semi-vigilante group and will release a report at the end of the month.

"I don't know where they got the sticks from," said a second Kiboko Squad member, whose arms bulged under his florescent yellow tank-top. A boxer by trade, his strength was written all over him - as was the reason behind his recruitment.

After the riots, the kiboko scattered and spread all over Kampala - from the offices of the government where they work as police officers and spies to the side of the road where they work as used clothes salesmen and taxi conductors and touts. The group itself was ruled by someone nicknamed "Backfire," who has been previously identified by the press as Juma Semakula. However, Mr. Semakula was unwilling to comment as were most of the squad members.

"It's private," one after another repeated upon a request for an interview. Their refusals were all phrases similarly - with references to the private - as if they had been briefed by 'Backfire' or perhaps DPC Emmanuel Muheirwe, upon what to say if contacted by the press. The first Kiboko squad member later added, "Kiboko Squad was ordered from the Divisional Police Commander, though he later denied it." He also implied that the command could have come from even higher up than the DPC.

Even President Museveni at one time nodded to the activities of the squad when he told a meeting of Asian businessmen at Hotel Africana, "I salute the Ugandans who stood by justice and opposed the criminals."

Though the exact genesis of the Kiboko Squad remains hazy, the first member said in defense, "Police officers could be stoned by the public, or maybe a police officer can get annoyed and triggered to take the life of a culprit. So the Kiboko solve this problem. We came to agree that it was better to use sticks and whips than tear gas and live ammo. Someone came up with the idea of forming a small group of whippers who can beat up those strikers."

"They told us not beat up the leaders of the opposition but small people because they were causing the chaos," said the second squad member.

According to this member, when the police brief the squad, they were informed that there was a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) preparatory meeting taking place nearby and their job was to protect the dignitaries and preserve order while the meeting was taking place. As soon as it adjourned, their task was over. However, Chogm officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs say there was no meeting of any kind related to Chogm on April 17.

Members of the squad insisted they were also there for general security, "because people become ruthless, so we were to beat them and scare them. We were there to prevent hooliganism," said a squad member.

Additionally, he insisted, "We were not terrorising Kampala, only protecting the property of some rich people around. One man with an Internet café gave a member a Ush 50,000 note. That's not terrorism. We kept peace. People who don't want peace say we are terrorizing."

Members agreed the civilians were not randomly targeted, but instead, the squad only went after criminals. "We didn't do any harm. No one was seriously beaten, except for one thief trying to steal a motorcycle and a phone," he said. "He was given twenty strokes, but he was a thief."

The other kiboko member interviewed said he even "enjoyed" his work, though he claimed to be unpaid, because he was "keeping peace." "We were whipping thieves out of the area," the first man corroborated; also claiming he was not paid for his duties.

For the meantime, the squad is inactive. However, members have been told they will be called upon in case of any insecurity or chaos.

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