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Who is burning the country?

By Independent Team

Between April 7, 2008 and March 11, 2009, there have been at least 95 fire incidents in schools all over the country, according to police statistics.

In the last three months alone, at least seven schools and six markets have been set on fire with varying degree of damage: Kibibi Secondary School in Mpigi, Masaka Islamic School and Kakungulu Memorial School ‘ both in Masaka, Maracha Secondary School in Arua which was burnt twice, Kingsway School on Entebbe Road in Wakiso, Pariet Preparatory Mixed School in Kitintale- Kampala, and Kikonda Primary School in Kabwoya sub-county, Hoima which was burnt on March 13.

In nearly all the incidents, police have posited arson as the probable cause. But even as they say this, they have in the same vein conceded that their investigations have not been definitive. According to the police, ‘the reports [of the] Government Analytical Laboratory and Ministry of Housing have not been exact or specific in most cases as to the possible causes of these fires thus making investigations speculative’

In short, the authorities are clueless as to the actual causes of the fires; let alone who could be behind them despite the posturing that the situation is under control.

95 school fires in 11 months

6 market fires in one month

Security agents suspect enemy group

using old bush war tactics

The most destructive fires over the last 11 months were perhaps two: the Budo Junior School dormitory on April 14, 2008 in which 19 children lost their lives, and the Owino/Nakivubo Park Yard market on February 26, 2009 in which property worth billions of shillings was lost.

In both incidents, the fire was believed to have been caused by arsonists but to this day police have failed to trace the perpetrators. Instead in the Budo case, the matron, four watchmen and former headmaster are on trial for criminal negligence, not igniting the fire.

Barely two weeks after the Owino market fire, two other markets in Kiwatule and Bwaise suburbs of Kampala went up in flames on March 10 and March 11 respectively. On the same day [March 11], another market in Jinja ‘ Napier Road Market ‘ too went up in flames for the second time in as many weeks.

On March 23, Kansensero market in Masaka was set ablaze. And like in all the earlier incidents, the cause of the fire was believed to be arson but the perpetrators are still unknown.

Last week, there were another two fires in Kampala: one in Wandegeya opposite the Post Office that reportedly burnt down the entire building, and the other in Nakawa Industrial Area that burnt a plastics recycling plant. By press time, it was not yet clear what the causes of the fires were.

So who is burning the schools and markets, and where will the fires go next?

These are questions many Ugandans have pondered over for the past year and no real answers seem to be provided either by the police or the government. Instead, there has been as much speculation on who is responsible as on the actual causes of each fire.

Police have dismissed nearly all incidents in schools as acts of undisciplined students or business rivalry, and markets fires as acts of petty thuggery by street boys high on opium and other intoxicating substances.

‘It has been observed that the students have contributed to most of the fire incidents, in most cases as an expression of anger against school administration and regulations. There is need for the school administration to swiftly deal with indiscipline among students at their schools to avoid copycat mentality through; sensitisation, education and counselling. There are no indications so far to link the school fires with terrorist activities. The respective security agencies are on the look out,’ says the Annual Police Crime Report released by Inspector General of Police (IGP) Kale Kayihura in Kampala on March 26.

The question, though, is why suddenly are students or street boys burning schools and markets? Looking at the pattern of the fires in the last year, they are mostly occurring in the radius of Kampala, Mukono, Mpigi, Wakiso and Jinja districts, with a sprinkling in the other parts of the country (see fire map).

‘So what makes these areas susceptible to undisciplined students and rowdy street children and not other parts of the country?’ queried a security analyst who spoke to The Independent on condition of anonymity.

Who is lighting the fires?

According to our sources within the intelligence establishment, there are growing fears that this wave of disguised crime could be much deeper than is being publicly admitted.

In fact the most sombre hint was given by the police itself when they warned recently that other worse forms of ‘mass crime’ might be coming.

‘Intelligence reports indicate that as the menace of school fires is being fought and contained, bad elements may use other avenues to fulfill their intentions like penetrating school kitchens, water sources, etc and using poison to harm the school community. The education institutions should therefore be alerted accordingly,’ police said in its 2008/09 crime report.

So who are these bad elements? What does the euphemism ‘bad elements’ mean in Uganda political parlance? If all along the problem has been attributed to undisciplined students, what level of indiscipline could drive them to poison whole schools? Are the ‘undisciplined students’ and ‘street urchins’ coordinated in this scheme or not? Is this intelligence picked from within or without the school environment?

According to our sources, embattled political intelligence operative Charles Rwomushana was perhaps among the first security officials to pick hints of an organised hand behind this wave of flames. The other, the sources say, was a State House intelligence officer whose name The Independent could not readily establish who compiled a report on the iron-bar hitmen (katayimbwa) who terrorised parts of the country last year. However his [Rwomushana’s] report was disregarded by his superiors, prompting him to share the information with other officials not directly in his reporting line. Last week, Rwomushana was dismissed from Internal Security Organisation (ISO) for, among other reasons, sharing intelligence information with unauthorised people. His public clashes with Security Minister Amama Mbabazi during the Temangalo saga may have led to his suspension but some insiders say there could be more to his eventual dismissal than meets the eye.

ISO director general Amos Mukumbi confirmed to The Independent on Thursday last week that indeed Rwomushana had been dismissed for sharing sensitive intelligence information. He did not, however, say what kind of information and who he shared it with.

As the fire scare consumes the country, disagreement or lack of clarity within the security establishment continues to fuel speculation that the truth is being concealed.

Ugandans will recall that in the 1980s, unknown groups sowed mayhem in and around Kampala; throwing grenades, waylaying people returning home late and hitting them with iron bars, planting landmines, etc which successfully created a sense of fear and uncertainty in the population. The then Obote II government initially dismissed them as acts of bandits and thugs bent on disrupting public life. Only later when matters got worse did the government concede that these were acts of sabotage by rebel groups operating in Luwero, Mukono and other areas surrounding the city.

According to a former senior intelligence officer who talked to The Independent on condition of anonymity since he is still bound by the oath of service, the current crisis bares the hallmark of an organised group that may have revisited the old National Resistance Army (NRA), Uganda Freedom Movement (UFM) and Federal Democratic Movement of Uganda (FEDEMU) modus operandi to demonstrate a sense of power lessness of the government and the vulnerability of citizens as a precursor to the next phase of expanded and upgraded operations. And this government, knowing the old tricks very well, is not letting the cat out of the bag because of the tremendous psychological boost it could give the group but also the dampening impact it would have on the population and the economy.

‘If you study the pattern of the fires ‘ the low moments and the upsurge, and how the iron-bar hitmen were operating, it shows an organised group. It shows there is somebody regulating it that he kind of lets the dogs out and pulls them back when it gets too much,’ he said.

If this be the case, then the question is: who is in charge? Who holds the switch that turns the thugs on and off possibly when they are getting too exposed? Are the thugs controlling themselves or is it the successes or failures of our security establishment that are responsible for the surges and lulls in the fires and iron-bar crimes? Are the actors in or outside the state?

The circumstances around some of the fires have also served to create more questions than answers. The Owino market fire seems to have been started from a fireball lobbed through a hole in the wall which exploded, engulfing the whole market in seconds if not minutes. Intelligence analysts point to the similarity of the ignition object to that used in the attempted burning of the Red Pepper newspaper’s printery last year.

At Bwaise market, witnesses reported hearing an explosion before the fire.

‘We heard something burst as we went home after watching a football match and we rushed to see what had happened. That is when we saw the mattress warehouse on fire. The flames spread at a high speed since every material was highly inflammable,’ said Joseph Muwonge, a trader at the market.

Area vice-chairman Ali Kyeswa said they suspected the fire was started by an arsonist. ‘We discovered a three-litre jerrycan smelling of petrol at the scene and we think someone deliberately started the fire,’ Kyeswa said. How the jerrycan and smell of petrol could have survived the fire is a puzzle given that petrol burns towards the source.

The circumstances around the fire at Kikonda Primary School in Kabwoya sub-county, Hoima district on March 13 are even more intriguing. The sub-county chairman, Francis Mukoto, is quoted in the media saying local area leaders had before the March 8 Women’s Day celebrations received phone calls warning them not to host the function at the school. The Regional Police Commander for mid-western, Martin Amoru’s comments in the media regarding the same fire were even more poignant. ‘We have been experiencing fire outbreaks in boarding schools but such an incident in a day school and at night was questionable. The school has no electricity,’ Amoru said.

In the case of Budo Junior, the mystery of the two adult bodies reportedly found in the burnt dormitory which police admitted and later quickly denied but which parents who arrived first at the scene insist were there is another issue that has clouded the mystery of the fires. Police’s explanation that these bodies were picked elsewhere and the patrol pickup only showed up with them at Budo has not been convincing to the public. Police’s threat to prosecute anyone who continues to speculate about these mysterious bodies has only fueled speculation of a cover-up regarding these fires.

What is the impact of fires?

So what has been the cost of these mysterious fires on the country ‘ so far?

In terms of actual cost, it is inestimable as billions of shillings worth of goods and physical property have been lost, not to mention the two or three dozen lives lost (19 in Budo fire alone).

Thousands of small scale traders (approx. 10,000 in Owino, 500 in Jinja’s Napier market, 500 in Bwaise, 1,000 in Kasensero, 500 in Kiwatule etc), have lost their entire investments disrupting not just their family incomes and therefore their lifestyles, but also putting them at the mercy of banks and other money lending institutions.

If every trader in the burned markets had a minimum stock and operating capital of Shs 1,000,000 (others had several millions while others Shs 100,000 and below), the simple arithmetic yield a figure of Shs 12.5 billion lost in just the five markets! That is close to entire 2008/09 budget allocation for the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry (Shs 15 billion)!

As for the schools, the cost of damaged buildings too runs into billions of shillings while replacement cost of school materials (clothes, books, etc) to parents could average Shs 500,000 per student. If of the 95 school fires at least 50 students on average lost all their properties, the replacement cost to parents is a staggering Shs 2.3 billion, that is approximately equivalent to the entire 2008/09 wage bill of the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development (excluding URA) which stands at Shs 2.35 billion!

While the immediate financial cost of these fires is therefore staggering, it is the long term economic and political impact that should perhaps worry the country more.

President Yoweri Museveni built his government on its reputed ability to provide security. National security revolves around three pillars ‘ the state, the regime and the citizenry. According to this concept, state + citizen (human & property) security = national security. Regime security is part of state security but the two are not fused. So ultimately, security is achieved not when regime security is paramount but when state and citizen security are paramount.

For many Ugandans, the knowledge that nobody is going to break into their house in the middle of the night to rob them, or waylay them by the roadside to snatch their little possessions under gunpoint, or in this case burn up their properties is what security means to them.

Museveni has largely maintained this over much of the country but this recent spate of fires, iron-bar hitmen, collapsing buildings, child sacrifice, etc has punctured a hole in ‘Museveni’s national security’ and the ripple effect is that now more than at any other time before since 1986, Ugandans feel insecure and uncertain of tomorrow.

Parents are not sure whether their children’s school will be the next to catch fire and, if so, whether their children will be among the lucky ones to survive, and they do not know if their children will be next on the witch-doctors’ altar of human sacrifice. Small traders who form the bulk of retail trade in the country are no longer sure whether their goods will go up in flames tomorrow, the other day or the day after. The factory owners are not sure whether their factory will be burnt, with a fire starting out from a rubbish heap like what happened to the chemical factory in Nakawa last week. People in the suburbs and villages where iron-bar hitmen have been on the prowl are not sure when the cold metal will land on their neck or skull.

In short, a sense of helplessness and fear is about to engulf the country and with it will trigger reduced investment and very importantly rejuvenate a craving for change. The NRA, UFM, FEDEMU and other rebel groups were able to create this sense which in a way hastened the Obote and Lutwa governments’ exit. Even in present times, areas that have suffered this sense of helplessness like northern Uganda, West Nile and Kasese where ADF rebels burnt several homes and schools have been the most eager to vote Museveni out of power. In 2006 general elections, all these areas predominantly voted for opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidates and in a few instances in Lango for Uganda People’s Congress (UPC).

If this situation is recreated across much of the country, especially in Buganda where 50 of the more than 95 fire incidents have occurred and also where the bulk of iron-bar hitmen and child sacrifice incidents have been reported, then what are the political implications of this on Museveni’s future as he gears up to campaign for his fourth (actually sixth) term?

Why can’t fires be put out?

From the foregoing, analysts say, it is important for President Museveni to quickly get on top of the situation if he is to salvage his falling political fortunes. Already, run-away corruption and animalistic sectarianism that has seen his family, relatives and in-laws come to the centre of the national dish is eating away his coat tails. So if insecurity (of person and property) is allowed to fester on for another few months, regardless of who is behind it, then it could greatly complicate things.

So why can’t the authorities get hold of the situation?

‘Because security organs have failed to define the enemy group,’ said a security analyst, adding that ‘while in the past groups opposed to Museveni were clearly defined either in the face of [Francis] Bwengye, Amon Bazira, or Joseph Kony with a known structure, whoever is behind these fires is operating a very fluid and faceless structure.’

This probably also explains the confusion in government whereby only the police are speaking; dismissing everything as the work of undisciplined students or drug addicts while ISO, Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), Internal Affairs minister and the Security minister who in the past have come out to speak on even the smallest things like the presence of green flies in the city are loudly silent. There are no terrorism alerts and police make it a point to emphasise that they have not found any links between the fires and terrorism.

‘It is not clear whether these people are using disposable personnel or a standing force with self-preservation at the back of their mind,’ a former intelligence official told The Independent, adding ‘the ADF and LRA had mastered the art of self-preservation so that they went for soft targets but still achieved huge returns by way of social and economic disruption.’

Where will it all end?

The question of where all this will end is going to pre-occupy the country until the government comes on top of the situation by either stopping the menace all together or convincingly explaining to the public what is going on without ambiguity.

With lives and property at stake, it will not be enough to demand of schools and markets to increase their security vigilance without knowing against whom.

But ultimately if this is the work of an organised group and not just acts of indiscipline or thuggery, whoever holds the switch that keeps turning the fires on and off could  dictate the economic, social and political life of the country in the coming many months. Hopefully that will not the case.

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