By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi
The force should seek dialogue not revenge say analysts
John Michael Ariong spent his 26 years of service as an unknown policeman but his death on March 21 has thrown the whole nation into a tailspin. Ariong’s death, supposedly at the hands of civilians, was so significant that it forced President Yoweri Museveni to visit the bereaved family at their seemingly dilapidated home at Nakawa Police Barracks. But most importantly, it marked a new low in the relationship between the Police Force and the people it is supposed to protect and aroused a plethora of yet unanswered questions.
Will the relationship between the police and civilians, which has been deteriorating since Walk to Work protests started in April 2011, get even worse as police seek to avenge Ariong’s death? For example, there is a valid fear that the government might deem this the opportune time to re-table repressive iron hand legal provisions that have faced stiff resistance even from diehard NRM MPs in recent months.
One of them is a proposal by the President for a constitutional amendment that will take away the right to bail for demonstrators. The other is the controversial Public Order Management Bill, which has been vehemently criticized by human rights activists as high-handed and unacceptable. The government appears to think that a repressive legal regime is the death blow that will end political demonstrations for good but it appears to be a little far-fetched as it might cause even more serious repercussions for the government both locally and internationally.
Also, leading political players and observers say the death of Ariong could be a turning point in the fallout between the government and its opponents, particularly between President Yoweri Museveni and FDC President Kizza Besigye. If accommodation is reached between the key political rivals, the police-civilian rivalry would be easy to mend.
MP Jim Muhwezi, who fought along with Museveni and his principal challenger Besigye during the bush war that brought the government to power, says the manner of Ariong’s death and the reactions it drew are “key pointers” that the government needs to engage protesters amicably. “Many people may disagree with how the opposition is conducting itself but where it has reached it is time to sit down and talk,” said Muhwezi, who also chairs the NRM Veterans League.
Besigye, along with his colleagues under the umbrella of Activists for Change (A4C), recently held rallies across the country dubbed ‘Walk to Work Reloaded’ with the key message being that Museveni would be overthrown in a people’s uprising this year, just one year after winning a 68 percent majority in February 2011. Police suspected that Lukwago’s city tour, which Besigye joined unannounced, was a continuation of the protests.
Ariong, who had only a year earlier been promoted to Assistant Inspector of Police and was at the time of his death the OC Kafumbe Mukasa Police Post, was the first policeman to die since the start of ‘Walk to Work protests.’ A number of civilians have died in the same protests, including two year old Juliana Gift Nalwanga who was killed by a bullet in Masaka. Others are Dan Musa Wasaga killed in Gulu, Adoni Mugisu, Charles Odur, Semuga Kanabi all killed near Nakivubo Stadium, Sam Mufumbiro killed in St. Balikuddembe Mmarket, Frank Kizito killed in Masajja, Wilber Mukalazi killed in Bweyogerere, Augustine Guwatudde who died in Namasuba) and James Mukibi who was killed in Kampala.
Critics say the police and government showed double standards by not reacting to the civilian deaths in the same manner they reacted to that of Ariong. Until now, no security official has been indicted in the courts for killing or harming a protester. Even police officer Gilbert Arinaitwe, who roughed up Besigye last April and attracted wide calls for his prosecution, has not faced any legal proceedings.
When he was allegedly hit on the head with a brick thrown from a building site at Mini Price along Ben Kiwanuka Street, Ariong was trying to restrain a crowd accompanying Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and Besigye on what they said was a tour of ongoing works on city roads and drainage systems. President Museveni showed so much care that he visited the bereaved family’s home and gave guarantees of supporting the dead officer’s children.
Additionally, Ariong’s death was angrily received by the Police Force and vows of revenge were made, most notably by the Deputy Inspector General of Police Okot Ochola at a requiem mass for Ariong at Christ the King Church. The police swoop that led to the arrest of over 100 people from the building site from where the killer brick is suspected to have been thrown had already led to the indictment of some suspects before the courts.
As the police investigated Ariong’s death, another fallout, this time between the police and the press, was taking a new twist as journalists who covered Besigye’s appearance at the Magistrates Court at Buganda Road were roughed up. Siraje Lubwama, a reporter with the Observer newspaper, says Kampala Metropolitan Traffic Police Director Lawrence Nuwabiine ordered his arrest and beating, along with a couple other journalists, as they covered Besigye’s entourage from Buganda Road Court.
Besigye, Kampala Woman MP Nabilah Ssempala, FDC Women’s League Chairperson Ingrid Turinawe and Kawempe Division Mayor Munyagwa Mubarak were charged and released on bail for managing unlawful assembly that led to Ariong’s death and the injury of other policemen. Lukwago didn’t turn up in court because he was reportedly in South Africa on official duties.
Besigye vowed to continue with protests even during the week of the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) meeting in Kampala, beginning March 31 to April 5, prompting Police chief Kale Kayihura to order a confinement of all demonstrations in Kampala during that week to Kololo Airstrip.
Indeed, critics worry that the government could be waiting for the IPU conference to end then use the Ariong issue to mete out more repression on its opponents.
Fixing the politics
Makerere University don, political scientist Yasin Olum warns that “tough times lie ahead” if the key players don’t alter their behaviour.
Since Museveni and Besigye fell out in 1999, they have never met about anything and different attempts at bringing them together have yielded no results. They have fought out three gruesome election contests, with the most recent one ending in accusations of rigging like the ones that preceded it, thus sparking of the Walk to Work protests.
Political engagement between Museveni and his opponents has almost been impossible especially since Besigye came into the picture. Even a donor backed initiative under the umbrella of the Interparty Organisation for Dialogue (IPOD) that was supposed to bring together the ruling and opposition parties to discuss key national issues is dead to all intents and purposes, majorly because the opposition parties accuse the ruling NRM of not being interested in talks.
But Besigye told this reporter that talks are still possible “if they are genuine with a clear agenda clearly spelling out how we can get out of the current crisis” but that President Museveni has the keys. In the alternative, Besigye said, Museveni “can decide to bring an end to repression and mismanagement of this country and the current problems will cease”.
But how can Museveni achieve this? Besigye suggests that Museveni, who has been in power for 26 years, will first leave office for any meaningful reforms to take place in Uganda. Museveni maintains he was elected for a five-year term just last year and he will see it out. Museveni has also given no indication yet that he will quit at the end of his current term in 2016.
Recent findings of the Afrobarometer showed that the vast majority of Ugandans are dissatisfied with government’s handling of the country. Kyaddondo East MP Semujju Nganda says if Museveni declared that this was his last term in office and agreed to a minimum agenda of reforms, the current situation could be diffused.
But Olum says this is difficult to realise. “Museveni is about one thing,” Olum says, “he must win every battle.” Olum thinks this is why even talks between Museveni and his opponents cannot yield much. “What have his talks with Mengo yielded?” Olum asks.
Bringing the political protagonists to a round table may appear to be difficult, but Makerere University law professor Fredrick Jjuuko agrees that only a political solution can repair the growing rift between the police and civilians.
“The government has difficult choices,” says Jjuuko, “it can engage the protesters or choose more repression.” Jjuuko says experience shows that engagement is “painful because it depicts those in power as weak but repression is more expensive because it leads to more resistance.”
Jjuuko adds that it is not too late for the government to allow protests, arguing that if Ugandans discover that the protests are more destructive than constructive as the government says, they will eventually shun them. The only option the government should not consider is that it can “permanently bottle up people’s anger,” says Jjuuko. So then how can those who feel they should protest go about it?
Makerere University political historian Mwambutsya Ndebesa says Museveni has no interest in sustaining repression for long because “putting on a charade of democracy has served him well” during the 26 years he has been in power. Ndebesa says even if the laws on public order management and bail are passed, they will be diluted not to conflict with basic human rights, “but most likely they will not be passed.”
Ndebesa says by “purporting” to be democratic, Museveni has “never had the most progressive forces in Uganda and internationally ganging up against him,” a trend he would wish to continue. The most likely solution he will seek, in Ndebesa’s view, lies in fixing the politics.
UPC President Olara Otunnu weighs in with a suggestion. He says there have to be clear rules of engagement for protesters and the police to follow.
Organisers of protests, Otunnu says, should take responsibility to first brief their followers about what the protests are about and what is acceptable and what isn’t. To achieve orderliness, Otunnu suggests protest organisers should hire marshals to ensure that the crowds conduct themselves according to the set rules and whoever diverts from the set rules and engages in actions like throwing stones should be arrested and handed over to the police. Otunnu says such a person “would be an enemy of the cause”.
The question of who causes chaos during protests has been a touchy one, with A4C Coordinator Mathias Mpuuga saying many of the stone throwers during opposition rallies and processions are actually part of the police’s “stone throwing squad”. The police has laughed off such accusations.
Otunnu says the police should also come up with rules of engagement and declare to the public which instructions are given to policemen deployed to handle protesters. “This is standard practice internationally,” says Otunnu, adding that if everyone knows what instructions security officers who are deployed to police demonstrations are given, it would be easy to isolate police officers who violate the rules.
The government can decide to tighten its grip on protesters and demonstrators or engage its opponents in dialogue as Muhwezi suggests. Whatever choice it takes, however, the consensus revolves around one thing: Ariong’s death is a wakeup call for the government to adopt internationally accepted standards of policing in regard to engagement with civilians.