Uganda: Inside Govt's Growing Iron-Fisted Approach to Dissenting Voices

7 December 2020

The images of Mityana Municipality MP Francis Zaake being carried to the Mityana Chief Magistrate's Court to take plea while prostrate after allegedly being tortured in police custody back in April were as distressing as they could be.

On April 19, a combined security detail of police and military bundled Mr Zaake out of his home, carted him off and held him incommunicado for 10 days. He was later him to court on a stretcher when he was motionless. Mr Zaake was accused of distributing food to his constituents in violation of the presidential guidelines to control Covid-19.

On May 6, Mr Zaake, through his lawyers of Kiiza & Mugisha Advocates, petitioned court, seeking for unspecified compensation from individual police and military officers for his torture.

Police argued that the MP had flouted measures and guidelines of the Covid-19 national taskforce, led by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, on food distribution to the vulnerable people. Earlier on, President Museveni had warned that politicians who wanted to contribute relief items during the virus lockdown ought to hand them over to the national taskforce, and anyone who insisted would face attempted murder charges, a statement, which flouts the principle of legality as provided in Article 28 of the Constitution.

It did not take long when several ruling NRM party MPs were seen distributing food, uninterrupted. None was ever arrested by police nor admonished despite repeated protests from the Opposition.

In a subsequent address on April 28, the President weighed in on the matter, firing barbs at police for arresting Opposition MPs for distributing food while allowing NRM MPs and ministers to do so unmolested.

Pointedly, Mr Museveni did not condemn Mr Zaake's torture. And on numerous occasions when torture was a sticking issue, he either kept quiet, spoke cautiously against state actors, or cheered them on.

While passing out police trainees at Police Training School in Masindi on August 21, the President commended security agencies for beating "properly, in the right way" the now National Unity Platform's presidential candidate, Mr Kyagulanyi, back in 2018.

At least 33 people, including Mr Kyagulanyi and MP Zaake, were arrested in August 2018 for allegedly throwing stones at the presidential convoy. Still, it emerged later that most of the detained had been tortured by security agencies. Mr Kyagulanyi's driver, Yasin Kawuma, was shot dead from inside the former's Tundra vehicle near Hotel Pacific in Arua Town in the melee that ensued. To this date, no one knows who murdered Kawuma. It also remains unknown whether an investigation was ever conducted.

Police double standards

During food distribution, the NRM went on to conduct its party primaries later in September, which brought together gatherings, in violation of public health regulations, and during which several high-ranking officials, including Health minister Jane Aceng, were joined by multitudes without masks that did not adhere to social distancing guidelines. This happened as police routinely thwarted Opposition party gatherings under the pretext of the same public health regulations.

This selective application of the law, according to Dr Zahara Nampewo, the director of Human Rights and Peace Centre at Makerere University, partly propelled the raw emotions that morphed into the two days deadly riots mid last month following the arrest of Mr Kyagulanyi in Luuka District for violating Covid-19 guidelines.

"No doubt Covid is one of the worst crises the world has seen in more than 70 years, and naturally required measures to curtail its spread; this we saw government doing and in a committed matter at the beginning, which led to curtailing certain freedoms," she says. But then, she opines, down the road the country started seeing Opposition MPs brutalised for distributing food to their constituents while NRM MPs, who were doing the same, were being guarded by police.

"This selective application of the law resulted in disgruntlement; the unrest we saw. Peaceful protests are provided for in our Constitution; unfortunately we saw a very aggressive and brutal response by the duty bearers--the police supported by the military and other personnel who cannot be accounted for--crossing the parameters of what the use of force are," Dr Nampewo says.

The police, the army, security minister Gen Elly Tumwiine, and President Museveni expressly condemned the protestors as "criminals backed by foreign forces" bent on sowing seeds of anarchy to make the country ungovernable-- Arab spring style.

"While the locals have been ignoring the social-distancing etc, the added danger to the campaigns is that political groups from afar, encouraged by non-caring politicians, can now import added danger when they roam around claiming to be mobilising," Mr Museveni said in his last address on November 29.

He added: "Some of the political actors, working with anti-Ugandan elements from outside, have been promoting impunity and swearing that they will render Uganda ungovernable. We have been monitoring them through intelligence. Working with criminal gangs, whom they pay money and give drugs, taking advantage of serious weaknesses in the police."

The President insisted that no one is above the law.

After two days of protests in different parts of the country, some 54 men, women, and children had been killed. Some sources, however, put the death toll at 84, including those who succumbed to bullet wounds in the days that followed. The President promised compensation for families whose loved ones were killed.

Dr Nampewo, however, argues that by merely offering compensation without first bringing to book the rogue elements in the military and police who dispensed the unbridled terror is akin to whitewashing these egregious crimes.

"Every Ugandan has a duty to defend the Constitution in whatever capacity. What we are seeing on streets are mostly young people expressing themselves in the only way they know. So besides offering compensation as if to say we can kill you as long as we can pay you, for me I think government should be looking at the grievances among the youth," she says.

A state of violence

According to a police CID report, some 836 suspects were arrested, of whom 362 suspects were charged in court, 330 remanded, and 32 released on court bail.

With the country stunned, some families still bereaved, while everyone else has moved on, justice could take longer for those who were arrested--indications have been made to subject these civilians to the military court martial where the rules of evidence are blurred.

Police indicated early last week it had commenced investigations into the killings to establish culpability and prosecute the perpetrators. Two weeks after the killings, neither the Inspector General of Police Martins Okoth-Ochola nor the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen David Muhoozi, have uttered a word about actions of the men in uniform they command.

Earlier on in March as the Covid-19 lockdown took a toll on the economy, rogue Local Defence Unit personnel were caught on camera flogging a group of women downtown Kampala on grounds of enforcing the Covid-19 guidelines. The army immediately arranged for the women to meet the CDF, and the actions of the errant officers swiftly condemned and promises made for them to be brought to book. Likewise, the army paraded its errant officers who engaged in human rights violations during the lockdown in the full glare of cameras, as an act of accountability.

Two weeks ago, the UPDF deputy spokesperson Deo Akiiki, Police spokesperson Fred Enanga, reading from what appeared carefully calibrated scripts spoke against the protesters as "criminals," but conspicuously did not comment about the high handedness of their colleagues.

Yet, the carnage and events of two weeks ago appear to be part of the history of the regime's iron-fisted tactics to subdue the civilian population. The government employed the same disproportionate force during the 2009 Buganda riots during which more than 40 people were shot dead by the military, and during the 2011 protests in the aftermath of the elections when a number of people were killed and others left with injuries.

Four years ago, the military raided King Charles Wesley Mumbere's palace outside Kasese town, the operation commanded by now Lt Gen Peter Elwelu, which left some 155 people dead, according to Human Rights Watch, a US- based rganisation.

The Chief of Defence Forces at the time, Gen Katumba Wamala, while appearing before Parliament's Defence and Internal Affairs committee in December 2016, denied knowledge about the operation. He said he was in Kampala when the offensive was launched, and the army followed orders from the Commander-in-Chief, after King Mumbere defied attempts to have his royal guards surrender. The government has never published the names of those killed or sanctioned an independent inquiry.

No where to run

But human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo says nearly all institutions are "hostages to a system that is increasingly moving away from quasi-democratic to totalitarian." "The events of two weeks ago point to a shift to totalitarianism, of a narrow elite imposed on the population and that is called national interest. The shoot to kill orders were merely to placate President Museveni from dissent," Mr Opiyo argues. "State institutions are held hostage as all of us," he adds.

Mr Opiyo says accountability mechanisms such as the Uganda Human Rights Commission are "merely white elephants." The commission has not had a head for more than a year since the death of the former chairperson, Med Kaggwa, and when he was alive, it was not fully constituted amid chronic underfunding.

"Even when they publish a report, there is nothing substantial; they were not any different from a media house. So at best, victims of such state excesses are left with few options of seeking court redress for compensation which doesn't come easily, or to keep silent," Mr Opiyo says.

By the time of the November 18 and 19 protests, there were reports pointing to a pattern of police officers acting with impunity without nametags or being masked out of fear of being exposed. There were images widely shared of military vehicles with their number plates concealed. Analysis of videos and images of that day indicates that several shooters wore masks, did not have nametags, or drove in unlabelled vehicles.

As such, several questions remain unanswered and government--the Executive-- is not about to provide answers. Key among the questions is, who was this motley gang of security operatives? Under which chain of command were they operating? While addressing the media at the Uganda Media Centre, Gen Tumwine, did not offer any contrition. Instead, he appeared piqued and argued that to catch a thief, you must behave like one.

When a journalist asked if the shoot-to-kill orders that led to the carnage were sanctioned by the commander in chief, Gen Tumwiine described the question as "stupid."

With the spontaneity of the protests, journalists too found themselves both overwhelmed and targeted. But with the growing trend of citizen journalism, individuals shot and shared images and videos to shine light on what appeared to be state sanctioned violence.

In one widely shared video, occupants in a vehicle as those used by police VIPs driving at breakneck speed shot at a group of bystanders who did not seem to be rioting or burning anything as police and the army have alleged. A shrill follows shortly after the shooting.

After carefully studying the video frames, we established that the shooting happened at Banda on Kampala-Jinja road. The two victims of the brazen shooting, Shamin Nabirye was five months pregnant with triplets while the other, Shakira, had just given birth two weeks before.

The bullets fired intentionally going by the video; tore through Ms Nabirye's diaphragm, partly rapturing her liver and tore of one of the amniotic sacs that contains and protects a fetus in the womb. After removing the bullet, the doctors realised they too had to remove the unborn babies.

Ms Nabirye is still trying to come to terms with how she narrowly survived and the unbearable pain of losing her loved ones. Doctors have recommended advanced treatment for her but she can neither work for a while to raise money nor can her husband.

For Shakira, the bullet tore through her lower torso and exited from the right side of the back, narrowly missing the spinal cord. She was returning from a shop to tend to her baby when she joined a group of youth on the road that were staring at the police armoured personnel carriers. Their crime, according to the video was chanting "people power" at a passing vehicle.

Barely, 500 meters from where the duo was shot is a police camera--the only one in a radius of about 1km from Nakawa. Hence, if the military is committed to transparent investigations and sanctioning its rogue elements, this case would be easy to start with as there are plenty of good leads.

Uganda's history of violence is succinctly captured in the preamble of the 1995 Constitution yet it appears that the country is far from healing from the scars that have stained the national conscience.

Research findings

On Friday, this newspaper reported that six out of every 10 Ugandans are worried about violence during the ongoing electioneering exercise, according to views expressed by voters in a survey by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a non-profit American organisation. The first month of campaigns for the presidential elections scheduled for January has been marked by clashes between security forces and Opposition candidates and their supporters.

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