Bare breasts and the naked face of official brutality

Saturday April 28 2012

On Thursday, the Uganda government announced that a police officer had been suspended over the alleged sexual assault on opposition activist Ingrid Turinawe.

Several armed riot police swooped on Turinawe’s car to stop her from travelling to an opposition rally.

One officer then repeatedly went for her right breast, squeezing it violently as Turinawe screamed and fought him. Eventually, she was yanked out of her car and bundled into a police van.

Until now, police and other security officers who crack down violently on the opposition in Uganda have been promoted.

Indeed, at the height of the Walk to Work protests by the recently banned Activists for Change (A4C), a senior officer who did not violently break up one of the walks was demoted to oversee a decrepit police garage.

The difference this time was that the breast-attack on Turinawe was not just bizarre, but disturbing in a strange sort of way.


The video of the attack that was posted on YouTube sparked notably angry responses.

There are many other stories in this, though. In the 1990s, East Africa witnessed the rise of militant street political activism by women.

Kenya was the epicentre, and the late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai the poster girl of the movement.

Women’s activism seemed to die down in the mixed democratisation wave that swept the region, but is now on the rise again.

In Kenya, activist Ann Njogu has been flying the new flag. In Uganda, Turinawe is the face of the new feminism.

There is something unnerving about Turinawe. Literally every other month, she is either beaten up by security officers (sometimes badly), or is arrested, or is in court.

She most spends more time in hospital, prison, at rallies, and in court than in her house. No matter how much she is struck down, she will get up and defy power again.

Second, it is reveals a striking pattern in the way East African Men of Power use intimate body parts to terrorise their people.

In West Africa, both rebels and unruly government soldiers like to cut off the genitals of their male opponents and eat them.

In the wider East African belt stretching from Rwanda and DR Congo to Uganda and Kenya, the weapons of choice are rape, attacks on breasts, and mutilation of other private body parts.

In Rwanda during the genocide, the genocidaires sexually assaulted prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana then killed her in a most unspeakable way.

In the troubled eastern DR Congo, and in Kenya during post-election violence of early 2008, rape was the principal way women were attacked.

In the rebellions in north and northeastern Uganda, rebels and other “men in military uniform” would attack villages and shoot the women in the legs.

They would rape them, go away, come back later to the fields where they had left them and rape them again because they couldn’t run away. Some weapon had their breasts cut off.

It seems the attack on Turinawe opened a window into a dark side authorities in Kampala and many ordinary citizens would rather remain closed.

Women activists, outraged at the manner of Turinawe’s arrest, threw off their blouses and confronted the police wearing bras only. They were promptly arrested.

A breast is not always a breast in Uganda. It can be a political weapon too.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Group’s executive editor for Africa & Digital Media. E-mail: [email protected]. Twitter: @cobbo3