And so the axe has finally fallen. Uganda’s police chief for the past 12 years, army General, Kale Kayihura, was finally fired last week ago.
His departure had been predicted so many times in recent years, with all manner of rumours doing the rounds about whom he had fallen out with or rubbed the wrong way and how that meant that his goose had been cooked.
But the man kept going. Other rumours had him enjoying such levels of trust from his boss, the president, that one would have believed he would hold on to his job until President Yoweri Museveni ceased being president.
But the longer Kayihura stayed, the more rumours of his departure intensified. Meanwhile his standing in the public eye, for better or worse, kept sinking.
Under him, the police sank to the lowest depths of unpopularity perhaps in its entire history, thanks to what struck many Ugandans as its unashamedly partisan attitude towards the government’s political opponents in opposition parties. They had turned the opposition into proverbial punching bags, to be hammered with gun butts, batons, sticks and whatever else whenever they dared “raise trouble” for the police’s political masters.
That Kayihura and his police had become objects of hate was there for all to see the moment his sacking was announced. Ugandans have a special way of hating.
They usually take things as far as celebrating openly and relentlessly whatever misfortune may befall the object of their hatred.
For example, in late 2016, the public was treated to obscene scenes and messages of jubilation on social media platforms after it was announced that a young man who previously had shown much zeal in performing his duties as Director of Physical Planning at Kampala Capital City Authority, had perished in a motor vehicle accident.
George Agaba had been instrumental in a campaign to get rid of illegal structures in the city, in which a good number of Kampala’s poor made a daily effort to make ends meet. And then one day his bodyguard shot and killed a person during an operation to demolish kiosks in one of the city’s suburb.
In reacting that way to his death, though, it was as if people had decided it mattered little that he had been a mere cog in a wheel, as it were. Those who celebrated his passing, however, hoped that their joy would “teach a lesson” to “the high and mighty.” Back to reactions to Kayihura’s sacking.
One question we ought to be asking is what of all the things that happened under his watch, to which many of us object and feel angry about, was of his own making and what had origins elsewhere.
What did he allow to happen that he couldn’t possibly have prevented and what did he disregard, which he could have ensured didn’t happen?
These are empirical questions the answers to which will forever remain hidden to many of us. But clearly only those who have lived on the moon over the past almost 32 years and know nothing about how politics in Uganda works would believe it was all entirely up to him.
And only such people will allow themselves to hope or expect the new police leadership to perform miracles in terms of reshaping the relationship between the force and the public and opponents of the government.
To appreciate the drivers behind the image the Uganda police has earned or created for itself, one has to consider things such as how it has been transformed in recent years.
Granted, there are signs of a certain level of professionalisation, but only in a very loose sense. Under Kayihura, if one disregards the influx of military officers into the force and its so-called militarisation, the police has grown in numbers, acquired new equipment and infrastructure. Even the officers are generally better dressed.
But the emphasis, as all Ugandans know, has been on equipment with a particular purpose, especially anti-riot gear.
There is a reason why investment in these things has grown with time: Disaffection and disillusionment with the way the country is led has grown. And therefore the need to prepare to contain would be “troublemakers” as and when they may dare to raise their heads.
Meanwhile, there are many ways in which a great deal remains unchanged. Police officers, juniors at any rate, still earn a pittance with little else by way of fringe benefits.
A large number, together with their families, live in hovels they built for themselves in dilapidated barracks left behind by the British after Independence, with old buildings to which not even a coat of paint has been applied in decades.
Few police stations outside the capital Kampala or large towns have means of transport to respond to emergency situations. Except if opposition elements are “threatening public order.”
A citizen reporting a crime at a rural station would be lucky not to be asked to find their own paper to record the details of what ever it is they are complaining about.
So in blaming Kayihura, one should spare some anger for whoever has been dictating or approving his priorities.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]