Crisis of Uganda police, and that man Besigye (Part 2)

Wednesday March 21 2018




Last week in ‘Kayihura and the ‘graveyard’ of our police chiefs: The untold story’, we looked beyond the municipal issues that have led to the crisis of the Uganda Police Force today, and the recent much-debated sacking of Gen Kale Kayihura as IGP.
Two of the crises, originated in part from outside our borders – the fallout between the anti-Mobutu allies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the August 1998 terror bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. At home, leading the police became too important and big to be left to professional police. It was, therefore, taken over by the apple of NRM’s eye – the military.

And, then, as we mentioned, in came Dr Col Kizza Besigye, a staunch NRM/NRA man-turned opposition renegade, who upended Ugandan politics. The Besigye story deserves many books. Journalist Daniel Kalinaki wrote a book on him Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution, and even he acknowledges in private that he only scratched the surface. So we will only do the equivalent of peeing into a hurricane here.
There is a reason, in addition to raw force, that Yoweri Museveni has lorded over this fair land for 32 years. He understands power dynamics like few others. He saw the Besigye challenge not just as a political fracture of the NRM, but a potential crack in its military armour.

Contrary to the view that to secure himself, he made the UPDF more partisan, he seems to have done the opposite - de-ideologised the rank and file of the army; sought a new pan-African raison d’etre for it; but stacked it with loyalist leadership. That de-ideologisation of the UPDF required that the police be more highly politicised, and its capacity for crude violence be amped.

A part of this repositioning was necessitated by the fact that Besigye humiliated Museveni in the north in 2001. Museveni, who was irritated at a result that cast him as a south-west Ugandan regional chief, decided it wouldn’t happen again.
So, first, he had to definitely end the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion in the north. Uganda divided its approach to supporting John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and backed the Sudan peace talks that started in 2002 (and ended in the Nairobi peace agreement of 2005 that set South Sudan on the path to independence). For Kampala, South Sudan created a buffer against Khartoum, effectively killing off its ability to support Joseph Kony further.

Next, Museveni sought to take away Besigye’s most potent rallying point – so the NRM’s one-party/no-party system was ended. But, of course, this opened the north to both UPC and DP, who historically enjoyed support in the region that had gone to Besigye in 2001. The expected result was that the NRM vote bloc would become marginally the largest. And so it has.
The new multiparty era, South Sudan peace deal and impending independence referendum, and the need to give the UPDF a grand purpose above new domestic rivals, led partly to Uganda becoming the first country to put boots down in Somalia as the pioneer AMISOM contingent in 2007. It was, admittedly, a masterful rebranding by the Uganda militariat, but it wouldn’t have played out this way without the series of events set off by Besigye.

Undercut from the north, Besigye’s base shifted to the south –mainly around Kampala. It was the kind of urban challenge Museveni and his camp have never really understood.
The response, largely managed by the police, was three-fold, and reliant on urban constituents, who would know better: First, co-opt boda boda riders as an informal intelligence network. Secondly, rally marginalised youth and the low-level criminal networks in the outskirts of Kampala into a militia affiliated to the police, to infiltrate and also beat down Besigye supporters and break up the “Walk to work” protests later.

To understand what went wrong here, we need to go back to Maj Kakooza Mutale’s controversial 2001 “Kiboko Squad”, which was largely an anti-Besigye militia.
Kakooza Mutale isn’t most people’s first choice of a roommate, and “Kiboko Squad” was a disgrace, but it had a “disciplined” element to it. More aligned to the UPDF than police, Mutale and company ran it closely. It would parade, and had command and control.


The need to de-couple these militia activities from the UPDF, landed them into police. To cut a long story short, it was over. Unlike 2001, by 2016, the police were now cobbling together the “Crime preventers”, a militia so divorced from Kampala, they needed to camp out in the Kololo Ceremonial Grounds.
Fifteen kilometres away in Kisangati, despite (or perhaps even because of it), the police blockade around his house, Besigye laughed into his tea cup – and Kayihura took another step closer to the edge of the cliff.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3