Kampala — A civilian minister photographed walking around a cattle farm with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder says critics are being trigger-happy and that he is authorised to carry the firearm.
Mr Mwesigwa Rukutana, the deputy Attorney General, claimed yesterday that the photograph, which has gone viral on social media, was not recent, and that he has owned the Russian-made AK-47 rifle for more than 20 years.
"That picture is about four years old, someone hacked it from my Facebook account," Mr Rukutana said from The Hague, in The Netherlands, where he is attending a meeting on the prohibition of chemical weapons.
"I had just returned from Kyankwanzi and I was moving with the gun in the evening around my farm in Ntungamo. I have lawfully possessed that gun since there was an attempt on my life during the [Constituent Assembly] campaigns [in 1994]. In that attempt, one driver of a minibus called Lutwa was mistakenly killed, the killers thinking it was me."
Mr Rukutana won the race and represented Rushenyi County in the CA, before being elected to Parliament in 2001 and appointed minister in 2009. Twenty years later he still fears for his life. "I have an escort car of eight armed guards following recent threats on my life," he said yesterday. "So what is the hullabaloo about me having a gun?"
Human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo was one of the many who weighed in on the picture on social media, saying he wasn't sure it was "a sign of peace and belief in the rule of law that [the deputy Attorney General's] office is supposed to embody".
The Firearms Act 1970 authorises the Uganda Police Force to issue firearm licenses to civilians above the age of 25 who are of good standing. Licenses are ordinarily granted for handguns, such as pistols, or hunting rifles.
The appearance of the photograph has raised questions about circumstances under which civilians can licensed to own automatic rifles normally the preserve of the police and other security agencies.
Police spokesman Mr Emilian Kayima had not responded to repeated telephone calls and messages by Monday evening while his deputy AIP Patrick Onyango referred our reporter back to the superior officer.
Mr Asan Kasingye, the police chief political commissar, referred this newspaper to Mr Hillary Kulaigye, the commissioner in charge of issuing firearm licenses, who was not available for comment.
The Firearms Act 1970 gives the chief licensing officer and the minister in charge of the police broad discretion to determine who to grant a license. The law, however, limits licenses for automatic or rapid-fire weapons to "a person in the service of the Government in his or her capacity as such, or a person authorised in that behalf by the Minister, to sell, transfer, purchase, acquire or have in his or her possession... "
Mr Rukutana was a lawyer and a law lecturer when he ran for the CA elections.
Photo triggers volleys of political fire online
A twitter handle associated with the main opposition FDC political party was forced to retract and apologise over a tweet it posted in response to the photograph, and which made references to the gun culture among pastoralist communities.
"Will UPDF that disarmed Karamojongs move to disarm Banyankore who graze cattle with guns?" the FDC handle said, sparking an animated online discussion over the comment.
As is often the case in the free-for-all arena online, opinions dropped rapidly like bullets from the rifle in the picture and were sharply divided, with a few even outright provocative.
Under a barrage of online gunfire, the FDC handle was eventually forced from its position and said in a new tweet: "The earlier tweet... did fall below the values and the principles we hold as a party and we apologise sincerely for the use of Banyankole people as a whole and to all Ugandans". The apology helped bring about a ceasefire but by last evening sporadic gunshots could still be heard in the streets of Twitter.
FDC swallows own vomit
Leading opposition party the Forum for Democratic Change in an earlier tweet hit at Rukutana with a tribal undertone laden in a message on their official Twitter handle (@FDCOfficial1), "A man (Mwesigwa Rukutana, Deputy Attorney General of Uganda) grazing his cattle the Karamoja style in Ankole. Will UPDF that disarmed Karamojong move to disarm the Banyankore who graze cattle with guns?"
After receiving backlash, FDC coiled its tail and issued an instant apology, retracting the tweet and admitting it fell below the values and principles it holds as a party, "we apologise sincerely to the Banyankore people as a whole and to all Ugandans."