A Uganda Human Rights Commission report for 2017 released in June this year showed 419 cases recorded against police last year. Cases of abuse by private individuals were a distant 210, the army 44, and the Uganda Prisons Service with 25.
Meddie Kaggwa, the chairperson of the Uganda Human Rights Commission noted the abuses throughout 2018 and pledged to do his best to fight for people’s rights.
President Yoweri Museveni too pledged to uphold human rights and wrote several public notes to the security forces about it. In one of them, on Oct.23, he guided them on how to handle rioters, terrorists and looters.
Museveni’s letter followed public outrage over the violent arrest in Kampala of a man later identified as Yusuf Kawooya; a member of the youth wing of the opposition Democratic Party (Uganda Young Democrats).
Kawooya’s case caught public attention on Oct. 18 when a video broadcast by Record TV showed a group of five men with guns pin, and batter a struggling man on the tarmac of a city street.
In his letter, Museveni referred to Kawooya’s case. But he did not condemn the torture or order the arrest of the offenders. Instead he said such brutalizing of suspects is unnecessary and unfair as it gives Uganda a bad image.
Viewed against an earlier public memo of May 15, 2017 that Museveni wrote to the heads of Uganda’s security organs; his comments appeared ritualistic rather than purposeful. Back then Museveni said using torture in order to extract confessions was wrong because it interferes with the fight against crime.
Meanwhile, Dr. Livingstone Sewanyana, the executive director of Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI)—a human rights advocacy that has been focusing on civil liberties in Uganda over the last 25 years told The Independent that a culture of impunity is growing, including acts of abuse against fellow citizens.
“The year was punctuated with several incidents of torture, extra judicial killings were rampant and generally speaking, grew,” Sewanyana told The Independent on Dec.14.
Back to the future
Many people do not see any positive change ahead on the human rights abuse front. Instead, they see it worsening as the country edges closer to the next general election in 2021. The real jostling starts in 2019.
Sseggona says opposition politicians are already being targeted.
“Right now we cannot associate. For Bobi Wine’s case, they have gone into his pockets. Now he cannot organize a concert in a place where other musicians are allowed to.”
“Why? They want him broke so that he can go and beg President Museveni” Sseggona says, “As long as President Museveni wants power and becomes greedier day by day, he becomes more desperate and his handlers become more zealous.”
“The situation is likely to get even worse next year, and especially as we edge towards 2021 when the next general election is expected to be held,” he says.
Opio also expects Uganda’s human rights record to even get worse as 2021 draws nearer. “The closer we get to the general elections in 2021 the more heightened cases of human rights violations tend to become.”
“But what is deeply worrying for me is that Uganda has gone full cycle when it comes to militarization of governance.”
Opio says the police have been overrun by the army as it appears it is the army now doing criminal investigations and arrests.
“You also have the army now involved in key sectors of the economy. You now have the anti-corruption fight being led by a one Col. Nakalema.”
“The increased militarization of the state is just becoming a new normal. We are going to see more reliance on the army when it comes to governance and the economic question.”
Opio says President Museveni’s relying on the army to entrench himself in power cannot be good news for defenders of civil rights in the country.
“The army is trained to look at the person at the other end as an enemy who must be decimated; they are not citizens exercising their fundamental rights.”
“That can only mean one thing: decimation in the respect for rights because the army is not straight about the law, it’s about dealing with the enemy.”
Sewanyana says at the level of rhetoric, there have been attempts to uphold human rights in the country but the practice still speaks a different language. “The political will to fight human rights abuse in the country is still lacking.”
Jackie Asiimwe, a Kampala-based human rights advocate, told The Independent on Dec. 15 that the events that have happened in 2018; the Arua saga and the land question, tie in with others; right from the Kasese incident two years ago and have made her reflect on one question: “Whose country is Uganda?”
“If one side can continuously prevent thousands of Ugandans from talking yet they are where they are on our behalf, whose country is Uganda?”
For her, Uganda’s human rights concerns revolve around the question of constitutionalism.
She says many of the human rights events that happened this year are somehow linked to one saga last year which saw the raid of Parliament, the beating of legislators and the eventual removal of an article in the constitution which limited the age of a presidential candidate to 75 years.
“All happened because we don’t want to respect the rules that we have put in place and this will remain an enduring event.”
“Competition without constitutionalism is no fair game and that is especially if one feels that they can change the constitution whenever it suits them,” she said, “Constitutionalism is built over time and over the respect for boundaries that one has set.”
Asiimwe’s views on constitutionalism are perhaps something Justice Katureebe, who often rules on them at the Supreme Court, needs to reflect on as much as he did on his encounter with the judge from Iceland regarding the Kyagulanyi torture incident.