Kampala. The Commission of Inquiry into Land Matters yesterday said it will not read “too much” into government’s award of medals to soldiers who blocked its members from accessing prime plots on Mutungo Hill, a city suburb.
The Justice Catherine Bamugemereire-led commission’s comments, in response to inquiries from this newspaper, coincided with mixed reactions to the award critics considered a kick in the teeth for the land probe team.
On social media, some commentators said the four UPDF soldiers should instead have been punished.
“Uganda should be ashamed for this medal awarding act. UPDF soldiers were protecting @KagutaMuseveni’s interest… Uganda should rather have punished those officers for interfering with #Bamugemereire’s work,” a one Lewis Mugabe tweeted.
Others commended the soldiers for exhibiting discipline and restraint in the face of provocation, including an attempt to disarm them during the February 2019 confrontation.
Addressing journalists in Kampala yesterday, Mr Ofwono Opondo, the Uganda Media Centre executive director, said “because of the meticulous way these officers conducted themselves, President Museveni decided to confer on them meritorious awards.”
The four soldiers led by Sgt Julius Katuriba were given medals on Sunday during the national Heroes’ Day event in Kasanje, Wakiso District.
Section 5 of the National Honours and Awards Act, 2001, states that the Presidential Awards Committee shall advise the President in respect of persons upon whom titles of honour may be conferred.
The eligibility criteria has varied for individuals, rendering the awards to criticism by sections of Ugandans that many medal recipients are undeserving.
Mr Opondo said the rewarded soldiers “refused to be disarmed by people who are not their commanders.”
UPDF soldiers were decorated “because of the exceptional, courage and professionalism with which these officers conducted themselves,” he noted, in reference to the standoff early this year in Mutungo Zone IV.
The Bamugemereire team made the site visit to ascertain the ownership of plots 67, 48, 29 and 59 in block 237 where the External Security Organisation (ESO) reportedly plans to build its headquarters.
Sgt Katuriba, on the day of the altercation, drew a cocked gun on the team, but he was overpowered and an imminent shoot-out averted.
Mr Opondo, without naming names, yesterday warned government officials to follow procedure to prevent unnecessary standoff.
In a rejoinder last evening, the commission said its understanding was that the soldiers were not awarded for blocking its members, but for “exhibiting professionalism during the encounter.”
“The proof of that professionalism is the fact that no injury or loss of life was occasioned …,” Mr John Bosco Suuza, the commission’s deputy lead counsel, noted in response to inquiries from this newspaper.
He discounted concerns that the medal award manifested the government disapproval in the commission’s work, citing its continued funding and state-provided security for members as well as “engagement [with them] from time to time at all levels; from Chief of Defence Forces, to ministers to the President himself.”
The officials visited the contested Mutungo Hill site two days after the standoff.