All was going well just before the flamboyant Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Gadaffi, reached the security checkpoint at the venue of the ongoing 15th Ordinary Session of the African Union heads of state summit in Munyonyo on Sunday.
Riding in a four-wheeled electronic cart, Col. Gadaffi had arrived shortly after the Senegalese, South African and Zambian presidents. He chose to ride the cart instead of walking.
His burly security men had marched along in a security ring around the slow moving cart, shouting in Arabic as they approached the Ugandan Presidential Guard Brigade cordon, possibly demanding that they be allowed to pass through. But President Museveni’s guards stood their ground.
Undaunted, they allowed Col. Gadaffi to get past them with just four of his men. And this is what kicked off the drama which then unfolded. Some of Gadaffi’s guards tried to force their way through but were firmly resisted by the uncompromising Ugandan security personnel.
For about five minutes, other guests looked on as the unseemly grab-and-drag scuffle played out, only dying down after the Libyan Ambassador to Uganda Abdalla Bujeldain intervened. “Don’t fight. Don’t fight” he shouted at one of the Libyan guards who was struggling with the Ugandans.
Dressed in a shimmering greenish gown and spotting his trademark dark shades, Col. Gadaffi appeared oblivious of the commotion going on around him. He would calmly enter the large summit tent before settling down next to Uganda’s unflappable Foreign Affairs minister, Sam Kutesa. Sunday’s altercation was not the first time the presidential security units of Uganda and Libya have entangled with each other.
In March 2008, during the opening of the Old Kampala Mosque (built largely with money donated by the Libyan leader), they came within seconds of drawing guns on each other. There were fist fights and flying kicks in a macho display of martial artistry both at the pre-event at Nakivubo Stadium and at the new mosque itself. Then, the quarrel was about who should control the entrance. On Sunday, after the Presidents adjourned to take a group photo, the stampede resumed.
The ensuing melee caught some reporters and delegates, and for a moment it was difficult to tell who was in charge. Col. Gadaffi, who was near the scene, continued talking to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, pretending as if nothing was going.
Ordinarily, such scenes would not occur but the love-hate relationship between the boys from Libya and the Ugandans would seem to stem from the desire of the former to take over things when their man is around.
A visiting head of state should ideally not bring more than 10 armed guards into a host country – at the very least if they were more than that number then their presence must be discreet.
In fact, Defence/army spokesperson, Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, said while the number of his security was not so much of an issue: “For us, we were controlling the number of guns entering into the conference room,” he said. Col. Gadaffi’s security has repeatedly ignored the rule on guns.
Security sources say this time he entered the country with more than 300 guards, most of them armed. His big entourage at Entebbe Airport stretched the airport security when he arrived in the country on Saturday. He came with five aircraft, one carrying the many vehicles for his motorcade. This has almost always been the norm each time he visited Uganda which for a while tolerated the enthusiasm of his protection unit – until it became a little too rich for the taste of his hosts.
It was a similar display of self-importance that upset the applecart of Col. Gadaffi’s 2006 visit to Nigeria. Faced with a potential loss of face, he threatened to return home after the Nigerian authorities refused to allow all his 200 guards from entering the country with arms.
In Uganda, as is his practice, he has now had that fancy. A bedouin tent is pitched on the grounds of Munyonyo at a point not far from the waterfront. Guarded by rings of his security, it is in this tent that the Libyan leader is said to be entertaining a train of visitors including traditional leaders he personally invited to the summit to diplomats and politicians of varying shades.
As usual, Col. Gadaffi, it would appear, is determined to stamp his mark of the unorthodox on this summit as has happened elsewhere. It will be remembered that he unsettled his Italian hosts – and sparked public outrage in June 2009 when in a typical lecture on his unconventional understanding of democracy, suggested that if it was up to him he would abolish all political parties in Italy and give power directly to the people.