After securing Buganda Kingdom during the early days of their colonial rule, the British used Baganda chiefs to expand their control over what later came to be called Uganda.
The Baganda chiefs must have felt invisible to their subjects. This gave them the opportunity to plunder the other regions they governed. They, for instance, increased graduated tax from Shs30 to Shs300. They then repatriated the loot back to Buganda.
It was this greed for wealth that forced locals in Bukedi region to rise up against the colonial representatives in 1960. Bukedi comprised of what later became Mbale, Tororo and Soroti districts.
Writing in Obote: A Political Biography, Kenneth Ingram says, “Taxation was the ostensible reason for the rioting, but more fundamental was the feeling that chiefs should not act simultaneously as tax collectors, controllers of the police called upon to arrest defaulters, and as judges at their subsequent trial.
“Obote had no doubt that his party had helped to instigate the protest, but while he had considerable sympathy with the people’s complaint, he was critical of the violence they had employed to make their point.”
The Baganda officials in Bukedi were not only administrative chiefs, but prosecutors and judges in some cases, and they also levied and collected taxes at the same time.
Writing in Policing, Colonial Life and Decolonisation in Uganda 1959-1960, Stewart West, a former police officer who took part in quelling the riots, says: “Africans are probably more suspicious of other tribes than most people, and to have another tribe not only overseeing them but also collecting taxes was asking for trouble.”
Mbale and Tororo were the epicentres of the riots. Administrative centres and homes of the chiefs were targeted. The District Commissioner, a one Gibson, was also attacked and beaten by the demonstrators.
“Later, I was to find that a mob was setting fire to chiefs’ houses as they went. In the pursuit, we had taken around 200 to 300 prisoners. So I set about shipping them back to Tororo by the lorry load, about 20 at a time,” West writes.
However, the locals were not ready to stand by and watch as their colleagues were taken to prison.
“We explained that we had arrested these people for rioting and attacking the chiefs, and would be taking them back to Tororo. They told us that could not be the case because they were not bad men. At this point we were asked to release the prisoners and when we refused, the Africans immediately began shouting for assistance,” West writes.
“The forest on both sides came to life and a huge party of Africans armed with spears, bows and arrows, and pangas emerged. I learned what the expression ‘being frozen to the spot’ meant. My mind and body ceased to function for a moment.”
Realising that they had been outnumbered in both manpower and weapons, the police officer called on his men to board the lorry and leave. The police were armed with batons and shields while the demonstrators had bows and arrows.
The squad charged with quelling the Mbale riots was commanded by Tim Forbes.
His single truck was attacked by the demonstrators and one of his constables fired in the crowd to create an escape route for their truck.
“I was astonished to hear that he was charged with opening fire without orders. I would have given the guy a pat on the back,” West writes.
During day two of the Bukedi riots, afraid of what the demonstrators would do if they reached the town, eastern region magistrate Keith Arrowsmith tasked the officer commanding the anti-riot police with the responsibility of arresting the demonstrators so that they could be tried.
Five kilometres from Tororo Town, the anti-riot squad encountered the first group of rioters. They held blazing torches as they marched towards the chief's home.
“Keith leapt from the truck and started to read the Riot Act. The crowd then turned about and headed across country to another chief’s area. We went around by road to head them off, but they immediately turned round again and went back to the first place,” West writes.
Police then started running around in circles with the rioters until West fired at them to break up the group, against the magistrate’s approval.
“Two shots were fired by myself and a constable. I had seen a man setting fire to a chief’s hut. When he realised he was being watched, he broke away and ran in a left-to-right direction away from the hut. Aiming at his chest, I fired one round at him and he appeared to be hit,” West writes.
After several running battles with the police, the rioters realised that it was only the White policemen with guns while the African policemen were not armed.
They later isolated one White and tried to have a go at him. “We met crowds on several occasions and broke them up without opening fire, although on one occasion I had to use my revolver in self-defence when a chap with an axe had a go at me,” West says.
Support was called in from Kenya and a 24-hour curfew was declared in the whole of Bukedi area. A company of the Kenyan African Rifles (KAR), commanded by Capt Paul Woodford, was deployed to guard Tororo Town.
Besides the KAR reinforcement, the police air wing was also used. A police Cessna aircraft patrolled from above, giving locations of the mobs to the foot and motorised forces on the ground.
It was during such operations that the pilot of the police plane, Chris Treen, spotted a mob which had laid an ambush for the motorised patrol on the Mbale-Tororo Road.
“We kept on patrolling for a few more days, but this more or less ended my involvement in the serious troubles,” West says.
The riots were fully subdued on the fourth day. But by then, 12 people had been killed, some by the rioters and others by the security forces.
One thousand rioters were arrested. Among those was a leading politician in the region, Balaki Kirya. Those arrested were charged with riotous assembly. Because of the big number of detainees, another magistrate was sent in from Kampala to help speed up the process.
“We tried as far as possible to place the accused into groups and gathered witness statements in support, linking people and the acts of violence they had carried out,” West says.
During the trials, allegations of demonstrations being fuelled by politicians outside Bukedi were proved.
Milton Obote, then Uganda Peoples Congress president, showed up at Tororo Police Station to see some of the detainees.
“It was alleged that certain politicians were fomenting unrest in the area. There was quite a lot of political activity and the main parties were the Uganda Peoples’ Party and Uganda Peoples Congress,” write West.
However, when Obote visited the prisoners, the orders were then that unless he had specific names of people he wanted to see, he was not to be allowed to see anyone. In the end, he was not allowed to see anyone.
The demonstrators were sentenced to between two and three years imprisonment.
A few months later, in August 1960, the government issued a 14-page sessional paper based on the report of a commission of inquiry into the disturbances in Bukedi and Bugisu districts of the Eastern Province.
The report blamed politicians for inciting the masses, much as the local chiefs were at fault in the way they handled taxation issues.
“The chiefs were responsible for collection and it was alleged that they were inflating the tax bills and pocketing the difference. The whole situation had been allowed to get out of hand, even though sensible action by the administration could have defused it and it is fair to say that the rioters had been pushed too far, whilst the administration had sat on their hands doing nothing,” West concludes.
During Day Two of the Bukedi riots, afraid of what the demonstrators would do if they reached the town, eastern region magistrate Keith Arrowsmith tasked the officer commanding the anti-riot police with the responsibility of arresting the demonstrators so that they could be tried.