Nobody is safe in Uganda, and no hi-tech gadget can fix that

Wednesday June 27 2018

Ugandan police and military patrol the streets in the capital Kampala on July 3, 2014

Ugandan police and military patrol the streets in the capital Kampala on July 3, 2014 following a warning by the US of a "specific threat". PHOTO | AFP 

By FREDRICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI
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A few years ago when bombs were exploding in different places in Kenya on a regular basis and the bombers seemed to be running rings around the country’s security agencies, Ugandans were generally reacting with incredulity. They could not understand how such a thing could happen.

We had good reason to wonder. First, it had been years since bombs had exploded in Kampala and left scores of people dead.

The security agencies had reacted swiftly and seemed to have sealed whatever loopholes the bombers had exploited. The people accused of having committed the atrocity were in jail, paying for their sins.

Second and more broadly, ever since coming to power, the Museveni government had acquired a distinguished record on matters of security. So safe did Ugandans feel, they even would boast about “sleeping peacefully” at night.

Many would use their peaceful sleep to justify voting for Museveni whenever he stood for election.

It is hardly an exaggeration to assert that there is a time when for Museveni and his government, ensuring security outside of the then war zone of northern Uganda and to some extent areas bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the cattle rustling zones of Karamoja, was something of a religion. Nothing was left to chance.

Putting on a brave face

That was then. Today, few people insist that the country is totally safe or try to convince the rest of us to feel the way they do: the president, the country’s security chiefs, and a few ruling party politicians. Unfortunately for them, many members of the public can see that they are simply putting on a brave face.

We all see them being driven around Kampala and the country in monstrous convoys of vehicles full of guards who are armed to the teeth.

Ordinary motorists are by now familiar with being forced by these same guards who have no respect for taxpayers, to make way for big people on congested roads.

Clutching at straws

If indeed security is assured and no one need worry, why won’t the big people demonstrate it by scaling down the large numbers of guards that accompany them everywhere?

No one expects them to have no bodyguards, of course. But whole platoons of armed men for single individuals do nothing to convince anyone that their assurances are worth taking seriously.

In recent times, if anything has contributed to making Ugandans think that the assurances of the securocrats and their political masters are so much hot air, it is the murder on Friday last week of ruling party Member of Parliament for Arua Municipality, retired colonel Ibrahim Abiriga.

What has struck fear in the minds of many is not that yet another prominent Ugandan has met their death in a hail of bullets fired by people who by all indications are well-trained in the use of firearms and related manoeuvres.

Rather, it was the seeming uncertainty and confusion with which the high and mighty reacted.

Nothing illustrated more the shock the shooting had inflicted on the ruling establishment than the clear clutching at straws as they struggled to come up with instant explanations of what had happened and suggestions regarding what should be done.

It was striking to hear, for instance, that the “solution” to the problem of targeted assassinations is the use of electronic tracking devices to be installed in all vehicles and motorcycles; prohibition of the use of hoods and jackets by motorcycle riders; the sanctioning of hate speech on social and other media; and the installation of security cameras across the country.

All this raises many questions, for which there is no space here.

At the level of politics, however, the key question is what has happened to a government that once upon a time was undisputed in its capacity and willingness to guarantee the security of person and property of all Ugandans, outside of war zones.

Asking for protection

The president may point at the laxity of the police and even other security agencies. That, however, sounds like the symptom of something more fundamental, the antidote to which will lie in more than simply technical fixes entailing the use of gadgets and running after alleged purveyors of hate speech.

There is a view that politics in Uganda has gone a little too far in the direction of winner-takes-all and the marginalisation and exclusion of losers, and that we need to work towards finding a new consensus about what is important and what is not.

Abiriga’s death may have seemed to galvanise ruling party members into asserting their dominance and alleged moral superiority as an organisation that does not kill their opponents. But there is no denying that behind the seemingly brave faces is fear brought on by the knowledge that the next victim could be anybody.

If the assassinations have proved anything, it is that even bodyguards are no guarantee of safety.

It suggests that those ruling party MPs who are now asking for protection for themselves and their families because they feel they are particularly at risk are better off arguing for a new kind of politics that emphasises consensus-building around contentious issues and minimises the do-or-die contestations that leave anger, disillusionment, hate and vengefulness in their wake.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]