On May 11, 1999 this newspaper published, on its back page, a photograph of two soldiers forcefully shaving a woman’s pubic hair. A few days later Candida Lakony, 24, came forward and claimed it was she in the photograph and that the dirty deed had been carried out in Gulu barracks.
The outrage was universal. Women activists were apoplectic. Usually calm folks shook with indignation. Of course, the NRA was not without blemish, as tales from the Bush War and post-war counter-insurgency operations showed.
Yet the photo was disturbing for we now had a new progressive Constitution, an elected government and the army had even changed its name to UPDF; such excesses were supposed to be things of the past. Secondly, there was something troublingly mundane about the photograph. This wasn’t a rebel or a mass murderer; it was a small helpless woman and the soldiers in the picture seemed to be doing it simply because they could. It was impunity by a thousand scissor snips.
The President met Candida, offered sympathies and promised to investigate and severely punish the errant officers. The story was not to have a happy ending; Candida and her lawyer failed to prove it was she in the photograph. She was jailed for giving false information to the police and died soon after her release.
This history offers important background and context to the current outrage and umbrage over torture, the latest being that of Geoffrey Byamukama, the Mayor of Kamwenge Town Council, and others arrested in connection with the murder of three police officers earlier this year.
What moves a man (they are often, but not always men) to drive a nail into another man’s kneecap or tie a low-hanging brick to their crown jewels? When Candidagate broke, many people swore by the last hairs on their heads, that it wasn’t and couldn’t be UPDF soldiers; why is it that almost 20 years few have any doubts about whodunit?
People who have studied the psychology of torture have found that most torturers are initially reluctant. Then they receive official encouragement to “go on, smash in that kneecap”, followed by peer encouragement, say of who can pull out a fingernail faster using a pair of pliers. Before long, they begin to dehumanise their victims, lose all inhibitions (this is where they come up with increasingly cruel and imaginative ways of causing pain), before torture becomes a self-perpetuating way of institutional life. The key to stopping the bleeding is to stop official encouragement of torture.
The Candida episode, regardless of the veracity of the photograph, was an opportunity to draw the line under any form of torture or human rights violations. It was missed. Instead, the 2001 elections opened the Pandora’s Box, saw the emergence of the ironically named ‘Safe Houses’ and allowed for torture to become a last-and-oftentimes-first resort for security operatives.
Initially it was meted out to suspected rebels and sympathisers, then to terror suspects, onto political opponents, and loud-mouthed journalists. Now if someone owes you money and refuses to pay you can extract it, together with a pound of flesh from any part of their body, if you have the right thug in security to call.
We are not yet at the Idi Amin stage where a security operative could ‘disappear you’ if you refused to smile as he took your girlfriend away from you in the bar, but we are frogmarching our way there, one ‘superficial injury’ at a time.
President Museveni, to his credit, has written to his security chiefs over the latest torture revelations to point out that the practice is “unnecessary and wrong”. However, the President appears more concerned about the limited efficacy of torture as an evidence-gathering tool and advises, almost in passing, that it “must not be used again if it was being used as I see some groups claiming in the media”.
The President should do more to condemn torture in all its forms; it is morally repugnant, illegal and unjustified. He should call for an independent inquiry into this and other cases of torture, human rights violations and extra-judicial killings, of which there have been plenty, punish perpetrators and compensate victims.
If those who authorise and conduct torture only receive a slap to their wrists then history will consign this government to the dark, bloodstained prison cells of violent impunity, to suffer the company of the Obote and Amin regimes. As a proverb from northern Uganda says, the teeth may smile but the heart does not forget.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi. firstname.lastname@example.org