Kampala — Perhaps no police chief in Uganda's history has suffered more criticism over the execution of his role than Gen Kale Kayihura, who was at the helm of the force from 2005 to 2018.
Gen Kayihura, now alienated, having fallen out with the system and battling charges in the General Court Martial, distinguished himself as an unapologetic protector of the regime, who would task his lieutenants to scour the law for any excuse to stop Opposition kingpin Kizza Besigye, and other opponents of President Museveni. Even where the law seemed to fail, Gen Kayihura would still find an excuse to act.
Under Gen Kayihura, colonial laws, including one on 'preventive arrest' and another on banning groups, were dug up to curtail activities of Opposition players, particularly Dr Besigye.
Gen Kayihura always availed himself, ready to personally defend all actions. On different occasions, he appeared before MPs and they quizzed him about what they called highhandedness in the police's handling of Dr Besigye. He would throw his hands in the air and challenge the MPs to offer advice on how he would keep Dr Besigye at bay.
Because of Gen Kayihura's work methods, he earned himself unflattering names from his critics and the people he worked to stop. On social media, a number of Ugandans referred to Gen Kayihura as "Kayihorror", with many branding his force as a 'regime police'.
When he got in the way of former prime minister Amama Mbabazi organising against President Museveni, Ms Jackeline Mbabazi, Mr Mbabazi's wife, baptized Gen Kayihura "Gen Teargas". During Gen Kayihura's reign, teargas was liberally showered on regime opponents.
As the criticism went, Gen Kayihura was seen as a career soldier who had no business leading the police force. Critics called for a career policeman to take over in order to de-militarise the police force and return it to the civil force it was meant to be.
As a result, optimism greeted the sacking of Gen Kayihura and the appointment of Martins Okoth-Ochola, his former deputy, as police chief. Mr Ochola's appointment, many said, would mark a fundamental shift in how the police relates with the political Opposition.
The optimism which filled much of the commentary and public reaction now appears to be gone, just more than a year later, with many political actors, especially in the Opposition, saying the modus operandi has remained the same and in some cases gotten worse.
Regarding rallies, under Mr Ochola, both registered Opposition political parties and other groups have had a hard time organising and holding political rallies, with many foiled by the police. Police's main argument is that the parties and other groups fail to observe the guidelines under the Public Order Management Act (POMA) 2013.
Several public rallies of parties such as the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and the Democratic Party (DP) have been blocked by the Force as a result. DP's reunion meeting in Jinja and many FDC rallies such as in Tororo, Kaliro, among others, were blocked by the police.
From this accusations and counter accusations, the main issue of contention is the interpretation of the controversial POMA. The resolution of the same has remained in balance since the enactment of the law in 2013. Court is yet to pronounce itself on the law more than six years after a court petition challenging it.
In 2013, Center for Constitutional Governance (CCG), together with six other organisations, went to court after the enactment of the law challenging sections that contravene the Constitution in as far as freedom of association and expression are concerned, among other things.
Lawyer and human rights activist Sarah Bireete says police brutality in Uganda has been institutionalised under President Museveni's government.
"It was not about Kayihura, even though he was known as 'Afande Teargas'. Kayihura simply perfected the instructions. Police officers normally refer to something known as 'orders from above'. That's the source of brutality in this country. If the commander in Chief detested a brutal police, there is no way police would be brutal to the people they are supposed to protect," Ms Bireete who is also the executive director of CCG, says.
The fusion between police and the army, Ms Bireete says, is another source of the problems. The military, she adds, has a different training and mandate from that of the police. The combination, she explains, gives birth to the current state of affairs.
"During the post-Arua situation, it was the UPDF clearly and shamelessly clobbering citizens on Kampala streets after shooting dead [Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi's driver] Yasin Kawuma and brutalising many Opposition leaders in Arua. And the justification by the commander in chief was very absurd - he said the violence in Arua was justified and the perpetrators have never been punished. The buck about police brutality in Uganda stops with the commander in chief."
On April 25, a team of members from the Inter-Party Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD), including representatives from the ruling NRM, agreed to set up a team that will come with regulations for proper implementation of POMA.
The team from government included Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda (leader), Internal Affairs Minister Jeje Odongo, Minister of General Duties Mary Karoro Okurut and Deputy Attorney General Mwesigwa Rukutana.
"We held a productive IPOD council meeting today, and agreed to form a committee to examine the application of POMA with a view to arriving at a harmonised position," Dr Rugunda tweeted after the meeting.
More of the same
In the past three weeks, police backed by the military has shut down at least three radio stations where former presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye, was holding talk shows. In other cases, he has been blocked from the same, his rally venues sealed off by the police, arrested and supporters brutalised and tear gassed.
On April 22, the police blocked a concert by Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine. Tear gas was fired and many of his supporters beaten up.
A scene akin to the 2011 brutal arrest of Dr Besigye at Mulago roundabout in Kampala, almost played out as police operatives shattered the windows of Mr Kyagulanyi's car before forcefully dragging him out into a waiting police van. Police later released him, but applied "preventive arrest", another Kayihura era tactic. Police's laid siege on Mr Kyagulanyi's home despite a 2016 ruling against the Force over the same.
In December 2016, court declared that the continued police siege on Dr Besigye's residence in Kasangati, Wakiso District, was illegal and ordered the Force to leave his home immediately.
At the time, court also ordered that Dr Besigye be unconditionally freed from unlawful detention disguised as "preventive arrest". The court also condemned his detention at his home, which is not gazetted as a prison under the law.
Ms Alice Alaso, a former legislator and now promoter of the Alliance for National Transformation (ANT) party, says the action of police limiting the activities of anti-establishment groups and individuals was not a purely Kayihura issue.
"I saw many commentators saying what Kayihura was doing was a personal thing. At that time, many people commented that with Kayihura out, we were going to have a more civil police force. I didn't buy into at that time. I held my breath, I said perhaps because we now have a professional policeman, Okoth Ochola as IGP. But the reason I was still skeptical is that this police force that we have in Uganda operates under a very high-handed government, so it doesn't matter who is in command," she says.
The former FDC party secretary general, says only a democratic liberation of the country would put an end to partisan policing against some groups.
"At this stage, the regime is more obsessed with survival. They want to shut down any person who wants to say a thing that is contrary to what they are feeding Ugandans on. Alternative voices, dissent, freedom of assembly and expression will be curtailed with highhandedness. They will come heavy on freedom of expression because the regime is very insecure and doesn't want Ugandans to assemble and discuss its character. Whether you have Kayihura today or Okoth Ochola or whoever, they will still do it as long as this government is scared about its survival," she adds.
The ruling NRM party electoral commission chairperson, Dr Tanga Odoi, says the image of the police has drastically changed for the better.
"Police has more respect for the people. You cannot practice lawlessness and expect police to keep quiet. If the police has excesses, then those excesses must be condemned. I think the current police under IGP Ochola has better relations with the public than before," he says.
He warns the ruling party politicians against acting with what he terms as impunity, insisting they are not outside the ambit of the police or the law.
"Any NRM person who does things with impunity will be handled by the police, so I call upon NRM politicians to restrain themselves from lawlessness. If there is need for the Opposition to notify the police about their activities, I think that should be done. I don't see why that should be a problem. We should not encourage lawlessness. No country can be built with lawlessness," he adds.