By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
Concern persists over Uganda’s readiness to counter terrorism threats
The calm at the popular Ethiopian Village Restaurant in Kabalagala today is in stark contrast to the horror of July 11, 2010. Management has tightened security and all visitors are subjected to thorough security checks. Outside the restaurant, armed police are on regular patrol.
Similar security measures are exercised at the Kyadondo Rugby Ground, the other scene of the bloody bomb blasts that rocked Kampala on the night of the 2010 World Cup Final, as new Euro champions Spain began their journey to world football domination. Al-Shabaab turned a festive night into a tragedy of rare proportions.
The Somalia-based terrorists claimed responsibility for the bombing that left at least 80 people dead and scores injured, and have since warned of more attacks in the East African region.
The Kyaddondo rugby field, previously open, is now closed in by a wooden fence with a barbed wire-perimeter to try and keep the danger out.
Yet Uganda Police says public places remain vulnerable.
Over the last two years, police have issued more than 20 terror alerts, especially preceding major celebrations and public holidays. Public places have erected scanners and metal detectors at entrances, recruited guards. Security checks have become part of the ordinary routine of public life as hotels, banks, shopping malls, etc, all now insist on screening their visitors.
But lapses in observing are common and it wouldn’t be very hard for a terrorist to slip through.
Police issued its latest terror alert last month when a Somali-German national suspected to have links with the Al-Shabaab was reported to have entered Uganda via the Busia border with Kenya and disappeared without a trace. This followed a spate of bomb attacks in Kenya blamed on the Al Shabaab.
Inspector General of Police, Lt. Gen. Kale Kayihura says that apart from metal detectors, Police also needs more dogs to do more thorough body searches, because intelligence reports indicated that al-Qaeda terrorists use in-plant bombs inside the bodies of their suicide fighters. These can be moved across borders and computer scanners undetected.
Kayihura is determined that Police will not again be caught unprepared. Over the past two years the force has established Emergency Response Centres equipped with breakdown vehicles, fire trucks, ambulances and integrated highway patrol vehicles at different points along highways, mainly focusing on Kampala.
Police has established a specialized counterterrorism directorate. Through its Antiterrorism Assistance programme, the US Embassy in Kampala has provided equipment and trained some 400 police officers, according to Travis Daniel, public affairs officer of the US Embassy Kampala.
But poor security coordination remains a concern. A leaked diplomatic cable dated March 11, 2009 from the US embassy in Kampala titled, ‘State of Counterterrorism in Uganda,’ stated that while the government of Uganda was a willing partner in the fight against terrorism and an important member of the East African Regional Security Initiative, coordination among its law enforcement and security agencies was weak. The cable described Uganda’s counterterrorism agencies under the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force (JATT) as a ‘dysfunctional family’ with the various members coming together only in time of crisis.
“We are ready and doing everything to foil any potential threat,” John Ndungutse, director of the police’s Counterterrorism Unit, told The Independent recently.
However, Army spokesman Col. Felix Kulayigye says security should not only be left to the armed forces.
“Each person is the best guard against terrorism,” he says, “everyone must be vigilant and then work with security agencies to fight terrorism.”
In the likelihood of another attack, civil agencies are focusing on emergency services to save as many lives as possible. Police has only 21 ambulances and 43 fire tankers around the country, mostly in Kampala, and emergency rescue must rely heavily on the efforts of NGOs and volunteers. During the 2010 terror attacks, most injured were transported by police pickup vans and private cars. Uganda Red Cross Society provided four ambulances and 50 volunteers.
St. John’s Ambulance, a voluntary NGO providing first aid services, has since a trained team of 5,200 volunteers across the country to provide first aid and palliative care in case of an emergency, and to coordinate evacuations with their head office’s call centre and 24-hour ambulance service and the casualty departments of major hospitals like Mulago, Nsambya, Namirembe, Kibuli and major regional hospitals.
“It’s always our concern to transport the sick and the injured to referral hospitals as quickly as possible after providing first aid as there are greater chances of survival in the first hour (golden hour concept),” says Christine Nandyose Kasirye, the national executive secretary of St. John Ambulance Uganda.