State brutality is integral to the electoral cycle in Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda. There are campaign beatings, ballot beatings and post-election beatings. Ugandans this week witnessed pre-swearing-in beatings. They can expect swearing-in beatings, after which there is every chance there will be post-swearing in beatings. Then, the election cycle over, the country shall revert to ordinary beatings.
It is tear gas season in Uganda again. The reported black-out of news coverage notwithstanding, some videos are in circulation. One shows a shopping arcade in central Kampala being evacuated by mainly young people with their arms raised in surrender. They are clubbed at the exit with batons by men in military fatigues.
It brings to mind a conversation that took place between two former student activists, still active in the 2000s. They bemoaned the political apathy of today’s youth. The older one, a veteran of 1970s Ugandan politics concluded the youth were indifferent because ‘they have not run yet.’ He believed the youth of the new millennium did not know the signs that lead to the kind of state brutality that in the 1970s gave birth to the phrase Duka duka (“Run run!” in Luganda).
“But they will run.” He concluded cynically, “They will run.”
The younger activist who had come to maturity in the 1980s had always argued that the ‘peace ushered in’, constantly cited by apologists for the corrupt excesses, was an illusion.
“The NRM regime is the longest armed robbery in history,” he insisted.
By the early 1990s, pressure put on the NRM by their donor supporters to hold elections had reached critical mass and in 1996 the country held the first presidential elections since 1980. President Museveni has continued to win elections ever since.
This has been achieved, it is now clear, by modifying the election cycle to include political intimidation. There are campaign beatings, ballot beatings and post-election beatings. We are now witnessing (some experiencing) pre-swearing-in beatings. We can expect swearing-in beatings, after which there is every chance there will be post-swearing in beatings. Then, the election cycle over, we shall revert to ordinary beatings. Meanwhile Uganda maintains a high-ranking on Transparency International’s corruption perception index.
Ordinary state brutality peaked in September 2009 when for four days the world was treated to footage on CNN, Al Jazeera and the BBC of Ugandans, mainly youths, being pursued through Kampala City and suburbs, tear-gassed, knocked to the ground and mercilessly beaten with batons. Some were shot outright. Hundreds were bundled on to lorries and driven to unknown destinations. This was as a result of demonstrations against government restricting the movements of the Katikkiro (Prime Minister) of Buganda Kingdom.
My brother was arrested outside Wavah Broadcasting Service after 11 PM on September 11, 2009, after commenting on the unrest on live television. The most surreal part of the experience was that regular police personnel at Central Police Station were anxious to communicate to us that they had nothing to do with the arrest and in fact did not agree with it.
It took two days and the intervention of a foreign ambassador to get bond and for the duration, all the desks at Central Police Station were occupied by plump, fashionably dressed people in plain clothes, clearly drafted in for the operation. The usual occupants, lean uniformed officers hung around leaning against walls. Whenever the opportunity arose they would plead innocence:
“For us we don’t agree with this.”
They were quick to assist us in any small way possible and when one was ordered to arrest me for protesting the removal of my brother’s shoes (standard arrest procedure in ex-colonial Africa), he took my wrist and led me out of sight to the side of the crowd before releasing me, all the while wearing a scowl for the benefit of his superiors.
On the second day we were allowed to sit at a desk in a glass cubicle with a plain-clothed security operative. A stream of people, mainly middle-aged women, came in to enquire about their offspring, mainly young men, who had failed to return home after leaving on ordinary errands. They had been on the way to school, the post office or the bank. Because the onset of the demonstrations had been so abrupt, triggered by the 1 O’clock news that the Katikkiro had been turned away from his destination and the state’s response so overwhelming, many people were caught unawares.
“Try all the police stations.” The operative replied to each of them. And when they said that they had,
“Then try the mortuaries.”
Ever the activist, my shoeless and injured brother interrupted each time and informed the parents that their sons were most probably being held at the JATT (Joint Anti-Terrorist Task Force) facility in Kireka where he had been held overnight after his arrest. The prison had been teeming with young men. Earlier in the year, JATT had been investigated by Human Rights Watch and found to illegally detain and torture citizens at their HQ in Kololo. Kireka was a new facility. We chanted Kireka, Kireka, whenever people were directed to mortuaries. Nobody knew where or what JATT was. Eventually casualties of the September 2011 uprising were bonded, the going rate set by the enterprising police was Ushs300,000 (US$130 in those days.)
The Officer in Charge of CID was an obnoxious person called Jonah Kule. On the first day, Kule informed us that he had nothing against us but that he had a job to do. He later handed a journalist a cell phone and asked him to pass it to me. Not understanding what it meant, I said it was not mine. The journalist then took the call, after which he turned to me and said,
“A message for you from Sorowen. He says he does not agree with this and he is just doing his job.” Andrew Sorowen was Kampala Metropolitan Police chief.
Unable to have my brother released on bond, we arranged to see the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Major Kale Kayihura on the third day (Kayihura has since been promoted to the rank of General although he still holds the post of IGP). I had been warned by the go-between that although IGP could arrange for my brother to be admitted to hospital, he had no authority to release him, and the prisoner would remain under guard in hospital. The IGP is not a traditional police officer, being on secondment from the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Forces. He said he was limited in what he could do. I told him Jonah Kule had mentioned ‘orders from above.’
Yes, he said, glad that I understood.
“So who is that person above, giving orders?” I wanted to know.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking at the ceiling. He seemed amused.
It was a long conversation during which we described the scene at CPS, emphasizing the congestion caused by the kiboko (whip) squad carrying sticks and whips. This new group of security operatives had been photographed emerging from the back of Central Police Station but its existence was still denied by IGP. Immediately he made a telephone call to Andrew Sorowen. He was so angry he was hissing,
“Sorowen, I have told you, I do not want those people hanging around that place…they should be in the field. Sorowen, who is in charge?”
Mr Simon Kuteesa was Head of Media Crimes. We discovered later when he came to CPS and later to International Hospital that it was he who had organized the abduction. On both occasions he preceded his comments with an assurance that he had nothing against his victim but that he was just doing his duty. We nick-named him Pontius Pilate.
On a second visit to the IGP, I showed him a photograph of one of my brother’s abductors that I had taken outside the clinic to which we were transferred prior to getting the hospital admission. It was of a thuggish-looking person in a lilac shirt, flat-cap and dark glasses. He was carrying a whip. The man had been outside CPS for the duration of our ordeal, sitting on a scooter as though he were just another boda boda-taxi. He was next seen outside the clinic watching TV through a window when my brother’s friend recognized him. I took his photograph and showed it to my brother. He recognized the man as the one who had knocked him down in the street, dragged him in to a vehicle and began pushing his thumbs into his eyeballs before the vehicle drove off.
Looking at the photo, IGP at first claimed the man in the boda boda rider’s disguise was a policeman, which I protested. Then he made a confession. “These people attach themselves to CPS. I am not in charge of them.”
Yet in March 2010, the IGP held a press conference at police headquarters at which he announced a plan to transform the police force, including replacing assault rifles with sidearms. The Observer’s Shifa Mwesigye, reported IGP’s statement as follows:
“We should not be carrying assault rifles on the streets of Kampala…. It is crude to arm Police with AK 47. It is by default. If we had enough budget we would acquire modern weapons,” he said [an AK-47 costs between 200 and 534 while sidearms retail for $400-500] ….
“Kayihura added that the Ugandan Police has established close links with the British Police and Ireland’s Police Garda Siochana (Guardians of the peace of Ireland) to equip the force with modern techniques ahead of next year’s elections.
“Senior officers, Patrick Leahy, the Chief Superintendent in charge of Dublin, and Kevin Smith of Britain, were recently in Uganda to assess how to help Uganda Police build professionalism. They are looking at equipping the force with techniques on how to respond to challenging situations during elections.”
In 2015 I had to report computer fraud at CPS, a procedure involving getting a case number. Tired of waiting, I ‘chased the papers’ all over the building until I found myself on the ground floor following a corridor to the back of the building. There, on several benches, were 27 men (I counted them) in military fatigues, clutching machine guns and saying nothing. It was three months before the elections.
State violence is still integral to the electoral cycle. It is small comfort that when the police are breaking the heads of Ugandans with their batons, they do not believe in it.
* Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan writer.