On May 04 President Yoweri Museveni released a public statement detailing his views on the recent spate of violent run-ins between police and leaders of some opposition groups.
“If you want to hold a public meeting (olukungana) or a procession (ekivvulu) for a legitimate reason, you should liaise with police so that your procession does not endanger the lives of Ugandans or the safety of their property,” the President wrote.
He added: “Therefore, if you want to assemble publicly or hold a procession, it must be for a legitimate reason. If it is to preach hate, to decampaign investments in Uganda, etc., then we shall not allow you.”
Museveni’s statement is likely to be read over and over by many, but especially by Inspector General of Police (IGP) Martins Okoth Ochola and his deputy, Maj. Gen. Steven Sabiiti Magyenyi.
The duo will regard the statement as an order. They will assume they are expected to implement it. That, however, could become problematic because Museveni’s statement is open to many interpretations.
What is a legitimate reason for assembling? What does the President mean when he says “liaise” with the police? What is to “preach hate, to decampaign investment?”
The President’s statement comes about two weeks after the April 25 meeting between leaders of the government and opposition parties to discuss how the police force is implementing the Public Order Management Act (POMA) which was enacted in 2013 to guide on the issue of public assemblies.
It has since become a blanket shroud for police to break up rallies, make arrests, and cancel any meeting organised by any opposition party or individual. According to many observers and commentators, the situation is likely to get worse as the 2021 general elections campaign approach.
Tougher challenge for Museveni
Historically, such pressure has always intensified around police in the buildup, during and after elections.
Unlike in 2016 when Museveni only faced two strong candidates, he might face four tough challengers in 2021. Bobi Wine of People Power, Besigye of FDC, Gen. Mugisha Muntu of the new political party—Alliance for National Transformation (ANT), and Norbert Mao of the Democratic Party bloc.
Under normal circumstances, Ochola should have nothing to worry about; apart from just ensuring law and order. However, the ruling party is used to police being part of the machinery that frustrates the opponents and aids the process of keeping power, observers say.
Sometimes police’s contribution is indirect. In July 2010, for instance, police recruited 5,500 Special Police Constables (SPCs) to the force. Officially, these were supposed to assist in the policing of elections. However, observers said they threatened and intimidated people mostly at the expense of the opposition.
Then ahead of the 2016 elections, police recruited so-called Crime Preventers. These openly identified with Museveni and the NRM.
Now, ahead of the 2021 election, the police plans to recruit 10,000 Probationer Police Constables (PPCs) and 105,000 Special Police Constables (SPCs) according to the Budget Framework Paper FY 2019/20. Already about 6000 of these have completed a year-long training and have been deployed, mainly in the Kampala City area. But the opposition is likely to be tougher to handle.
Ochola’s biggest headache is likely to be Bobi Wine.
Ochola’s predecessor had learnt the ways of the main targets around election time, mainly then-FDC presidential candidate Kizza Besigye.
Kayihura had infiltrated the FDC with informers and could sometimes foil their plans long before they acted on them. That the Besigye of 2016 and before operated within the well-known structures of an organization—the FDC, helped Kayihura a lot.
With the departure of Kayihura, observers say, police appear to have lost the ability to penetrate the opposition, know what they are planning beforehand and demobilise them.
Bobi Wine on the other hand is also completely new on the political scene. The Kyadondo East MP also does not operate within any known structures.
Yet he has shown that he is able to mobilise support locally and abroad to the extent of replacing Besigye as Museveni’s biggest challenger ahead of the 2021.
A new poll by Research World International (RWI) shows that if elections were held around now, Museveni would get 32 % of the vote, Bobi 22 % and Besigye 14 %.
Another sign of Bobi’s ever growing strength is that candidates in any election who identify with his `People Power’ slogan, win. They are mostly young and have swept student guild elections at most major universities. The biggest percentage of voters in the 2021 elections will be in the same bracket—between 18 and 40 years.
Since October 2017 when Bobi Wine emerged as a serious contender against President Museveni, police has blocked 124 of his events, including music concerts.
On April 22, police blocked Bobi Wine, smashed his car window and sprayed him with pepper spray, before arresting him and others who were accompanying him. The attack was similar to another infamous one in 2011 against opposition politician Kizza Besigye in Kampala in 2011. The police subsequently held Bobi Wine under house arrest.
Ochola not giving orders?
According to some observers, part of police’s challenge in managing the politics in the run-up to 2021 is the management style of IGP Ochola and his deputy, Sabiiti.
Ochola, insiders and ordinary observers say, is the complete opposite of his predecessor, Gen. Kale Kayihura. Where Kale was seen as a politician—a cadre of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), Ochola presents a fascade of professional policing. Sabiiti does not hide his NRM cadre credential but equally prefers to operate behind the scenes.
Commenting on the media shy-duo, Jude Kagoro, a professor at Bremen University, who has researched Uganda police and served as an instructor at the Bwebajja-based police academy, says the main difference between Kale and Ochola is that the former was more known, much more emphatic, and was a politician.
He says Ochola might, in fact, not be giving many of the orders at police today.
He says while police as an institution operates under command and control—with orders from above—individual police officers also have discretionary powers. This means that, during operations, when they rarely have enough time to wait for orders, they tend to make decisions on their own.
In the Uganda Police case, they tend to make decisions that they think could give them mileage as individuals and avoid those that might destroy them.
“Officers are always in a very fluid and delicate situation all the time. You give a wrong order, you are in trouble, you don’t give any order you are in trouble,” Kagoro says, “If Besigye is whipped and nothing happens, the officers are likely to continue doing that.”
Kagoro adds: “Ochola loves structures and from conversations with officers, you get a sense that they have been empowered to take decisions on their own”. For some, the result is a force that appears publicly to be without direction.
“Kale used to interrupt officers a lot,” Kagoro says. While many saw this as a negative thing, others claim that it meant that under Kayihura, decisions were centralised, clear, and bore authority. They claim that that may be lacking today.
On April 29, for example, when the police arrested Bobi Wine at Mulago Roundabout in Kampala as he headed to CID headquarters where he had been summoned to record a statement, the Police Spokesman, CP Fred Enanga issued a statement.
He said Bobi Wine would be slapped with “additional charges of holding an illegal assembly and procession, after he was accused of organising his supporters to escort him along the way”.
But when Bobi Wine appeared before Buganda Road Court, Enanga’s claims appeared totally false. The singer turned politician was charged only with disobedience of statutory duty over an incident from July 2018. Such incidents make Enanga look bad. They also discredit the police leadership’s authority.
Police’s unwritten mission
When Ochola and Sabiiti were appointed on March 4, 2018, many celebrated their appointment and hoped the police could be transformed from a force known more for persecution of the opposition rather than fighting of crime. Little, it appears, has changed on the crime scene and the targeting of opposion politicians has worsened.
In a recent case of torture, the police at their HQ in Naguru, Kampala, pounced on a known activist called Nana Mbarikiwa, who is said to be seven months pregnant, and teargased her until she passed out and had to be hospitalised.
In another case, police shot dead one Ronald Sebulime in assassination style in broad-day in Mukono. He was suspected of trailing cabinet minister Agnes Nantaba and had been arrested and handcuffed when he was executed.
“It was always naïve to think that anything would change under Ochola,” says opposition stalwart Muwanga Kivumbi, who is the Butambala County MP, “It is a question of mandate. The unwritten mission of police is very clear. It is regime protection and consolidation,” he adds.
’s views on security matters are respected because he has been Shadow minister of Defence and is also a member of the Defence and Internal Affairs Committee of parliament that monitors all security agencies.
He has built a legislative career of campaigning against the excesses of security agencies.
From that vantage point, Kivumbi says any political police such as Uganda’s, with a mission of consolidating the regime, would always behave the same way irrespective of who is its head.
Kivumbi says if regime protection had not been the sacred mission of police, Ochola’s predecessor; Kayihura, would not have lasted as IGP with that level of impunity for 13 years.
He said that stick-wielding goons and teargas started under former Chief of Defence Forces (CDF) Gen. Katumba Wamala when he was IGP. Kayihura succeeded Katumba in 2005 until the former was fired on March 4 last year and replaced with Ochola.
“The very first time we saw stick wielding operatives leaving a police station to come and beat people was under Katumba,” Muwanga said, “Kale only gained more trust and perfected the mission. Ochola is a professional with the same purpose. It is business as usual.”
More teargas for Besigye
Jude Kagoro says what is happening at police under Ochola is not surprising. He says politics in Uganda is shaped in such a way that security forces are part and parcel of government.
“Officers subconsciously refer to NRM as our side and the opposition as the other side,” he told The Independent, “under such circumstances, Ochola cannot do anything different.”
Kagoro said that from his research, it is clear that one of the defacto roles of police is to defend the ruling government against the opposition.
“Kale might have brought the police into the centre of politics,” Kagoro explained, “But this role has a much longer history. The colonial government used the police for that, the same applies to the post-colonial government and Museveni’s government continues to use it.”
For police officers to build their careers, Kagoro explained, they have to understand this dynamic. “A good commander is seen as one who is able to contain the opposition,” Kagoro said, “If you are overrun, you are in trouble.”
So police is likely to continue firing teargas and live bullets and invading media houses to block opposition broadcasts.
And President Museveni’s carry-all statement is likely to worsen the situation.
Already the police and opposition players are locked in contention over POMA. The police insist they must grant permission before the opposition politicians can conduct any activity. But the politicians disagree.
“Out of respect, we inform police of our activities and we know that according to the law, we do not need to seek for permission and they are not supposed to block us from addressing our supporters,” Patrick Amuriat, the FDC president, told journalists.
He says his party always respectfully informs the police of its activities; be they small in-door meetings or big outdoor activities. He says in all cases, police often disrupts them.
In April alone the police blocked Besigye and FDC activities in Jinja, Tororo, Kaliro, Mubende, Mbarara, Kigezi, Kabale, Kasese, and Bushenyi.
Besigye has been dragged out of radio studios in Bushenyi, Jinja, and Mbarara.
“We condemn acts of harassing people and teargasing people by police because this is not expected of a Force that is supposed to keep law and order,” he says.
Besigye meanwhile says Museveni is using the same tactics the British colonialists used to block opposition groups. He says Museveni uses threats and guns.
“What you are seeing now is a sign that Mr Museveni fears the power of the people. That is why he does not want us to talk to them so that they can get empowered,” he said after police blocked him from holding rallies in Bushenyi.
Police Spokesperson Fred Enanga says opposition politicians are free to carry out activities aimed at building support in preparation for the upcoming elections, but many refuse to first notify police.
He says even when some opposition politicians write to police, they are deliberately vague.
“They just say during this month, we will hold rallies here and there,” he says,“We are noticing that they are doing this because may be they get mileage and political capital out of their confrontations with police. Whenever police comes in, they spread the message that police is brutalising them.”
“There is a deliberate effort to portray police in a certain way, turn the public against it and then win a sympathy vote. That is not right,” he adds.
As the political environment gets more charged ahead of the 2021 elections, there are fears that the confrontations between the opposition and police could get worse.
With the police force Ochola oversees already facing intense criticism for brutality and persecution of the opposition, it is not clear if he is concerned about a legacy. In any case he is 60 years old and looking at retirement. Having spent 30 of those years building a professional reputation in police, will he see retirement as a relief or rejection?