When Covid turned into a political and security tool

Security forces on a foot patrol to enforce curfew in Kampala  on April 29 last year. PHOTO / FILE

Wycliff Shambi, a 34-year-old teacher, was standing near the roadside stall he moonlighted at as a chapati maker when he was shot dead by patrolling members of the Local Defence Unit militia last Saturday night. 

His crime appears to have been being caught outside at 9.30p.m, half-an-hour beyond the curfew imposed to curtail the spread of the coronavirus disease.

A teacher at Munyonyo Parents School, Shambi had taken to making and selling roadside food to supplement an income that had disappeared after the pandemic forced schools to close, and drying up his salary. 

A year after the first coronavirus infection was confirmed in Uganda, many continue to pay the price for the politicisation and securitisation of the pandemic.

When the first case was confirmed in Uganda in March 2020, the presidential and parliamentary elections were still several months away. 

Anticipating that the campaigns would gather people and potentially spread the disease rapidly, the government responded by locking down the country.

The airport and borders were closed to all but essential movement of drugs, schools, places of worship and recreation were closed and – crucially – public rallies and all political gatherings were banned or severely limited.

Announces lockdown
“It is wise that we temporarily remove these concentration points to prevent the spread of coronavirus,” President Museveni said in a national address locking down the country on March 18, 2020.  “All these institutions, without exception, should close so that we deny this virus high concentration. We don’t want the virus to find dry grass ready for ignition,” he added.

That ban on political activities forced the Electoral Commission to revise its roadmap to the 2021 General Election and postpone all planned activities from March to May, reducing the available period for campaigns. 

In addition, the commission would also later change the manner in which the nominations, campaigns and elections were held.

In July 2020, government tabled a new draft law, The Political Parties and Organisations [Amendment] Act 2020, which the opposition argued was intended to regulate internal activities of political parties like delegates conferences and meetings under the guise of fighting Covid-19.  

Controversial law
The most instructive guideline under this law was Regulation 5(3), which empowered parties to override their constitutions and opt for ways of holding meetings and delegate conferences without gathering.  

The law allowed the parties to include virtual meetings, phased elections and resolutions by circulation as an alternative to conventional gatherings during their primaries.

The amended law was seen by the Opposition as a move by the government to influence the internal democratic processes and mechanisms to elect their leaders. 

The Opposition MPs tried to oppose it in Parliament on July 9, 2020 but the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), which commands a two-thirds majority in the House, took the day. 

A week later, President Museveni signed it into law. The electoral process had to follow strict Ministry of Health standard operating procedures (SOPs) that, on top of calling for the wearing of face masks and washing of hands, limited the number of people who could congregate, as a means of stemming the spread of the disease. 

The enforcement of these SOPs was to become politicised, controversial – and deadly.

 The spokesperson of the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, Mr Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda, said soldiers, who were deployed to enforce the SOPs, continue to form the bulk of law enforcement work for which many have not been trained or accustomed to. 

“The government unleashed Local Defence Unit (LDU) personnel, soldiers and police and have not gone back to the barracks,” he said. 

The security forces have become a common feature on the streets patrolling day and night and manning regular roadblocks.

 Unsurprisingly, the methods and language of law enforcement quickly became militarised. A curfew from 9p.m. to 5am was declared – the first country-wide curfew in more than thirty years – and in another national address on May 4, President Museveni described the coronavirus as “an enemy”.

 “In our bush language, all these [restrictive] measures were aimed at simama, piga magoti, nyamanzeni and silika - stop, kneel, keep quiet and listen. In that way, you can hear clearly ekirikukaabuuza (moving in the grass or bush), locate its approximate position and act,” he said.

Many petty traders who tended roadside evening market stalls or walked to work or back home in the evening or the small hours, quickly found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

More than 4,000 people were arrested for flouting the curfew regulations but were later pardoned by the President because the prisons were getting congested and that was more dangerous because the disease could easily spread and kill prisoners and prison staff.

Then, to enforce the lockdown, the country was divided into zones and all the seven UPDF infantry divisions were deployed – one of the country’s most extensive peacetime deployments in history. 

The Kampala Metropolitan Area, which registered the highest number of Covid-19 cases compared to other parts of the country because of its big population, saw the government deploy a UPDF brigade that was backed up by about 6,000 LDUs and thousands of police officers. Security sources said this was one of the biggest deployments since NRM came to power in 1986.

The deputy army spokesperson, Lt Col Deo Akiiki, says Article 209 (b) of the Constitution empowers the military to work with civilian authorities in case of emergencies and natural disasters to carry out law enforcement operations. 

Army involvement
“We used the same clause to deploy in Bududa [during the landslides] and our participation in distribution of food during Covid-19,” he said.  

Enforcing the curfew, he added, was a noble cause offered by the military under Section 43 (1) of the UPDF Act of 2005. Others have a different view.

 Mr Nganda said while it was understandable, at the beginning, to stop gatherings, it became self-defeating when security forces started targeting only political gatherings. 

 “At first, it looked reasonable to stop the meetings but it became unfair when they started stopping only political gatherings. I had four political meetings and they were all stopped and my supporters were arrested, yet non-political gatherings were left,” he said.

 This, Mr Nganda said, showed that the intention wasn’t to protect people from spreading or being infected with the coronavirus, but to curtail competition from the Opposition as the country prepared for the  January 2021 elections.

 “Government was more enthusiastic [in enforcing] the law against the politicians. I remember when I was going for nomination, my supporters in Wakiso, Matugo and Kasangati were all arrested. They were put in a room where they couldn’t even sleep because of congestion. Surprisingly, they were later charged with involving in acts that could cause the spread of the disease,” he said.

Mr Norbert Mao, the leader of the Democratic Party, said at the beginning of the lockdown Ugandans complied with most security and health regulations until efforts to stop the disease turned political and financial.

“Ugandans were compliant. Nobody should blame them. It was until Ugandans realised that some people were using Covid-19 as a money-making venture,”  Mr Mao said. He says the fight against the pandemic was later politically weaponised. 

 “Candidates could not use the power of crowds. But again the SOPs were abused by some parties like the party in government used the SOPs to contain its rivals,” he said.

When campaigns started, security forces targeted more the opposition leaders and their supporters while ignoring candidates from the NRM party and their supporters.

An estimated 11 million people participated in the NRM party primaries in September according to the organisation’s own count, and while this was at the height of the pandemic, there were few if any arrests of party members who routinely and widely disregarded the Covid-19 social distancing guidelines.

 Taking a cue and believing that the rules and the deployment of the army and the police were a ruse to favour the ruling party in the upcoming elections, Opposition candidates and supporters started breaking them.

In early November , the singer-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, was arrested on allegations of breaching social distancing rules while campaigning for the presidency. 

He was returned to his home and released without charge and the storm appeared to have blown over.

Then on November 18, Bobi Wine was arrested again in the eastern town of Iganga while campaigning, on similar allegations. 

This time protests broke out in Kampala and surrounding areas, against what his supporters saw as unfair treatment of their candidate and biased application of the rules.

The “enemy” had been unleashed. In the two days that followed, government security agents, including many in civilian attire but brandishing military-grade assault rifles shot and killed dozens of people across the country. 

The official death toll was later given as 54 although Opposition supporters maintain that it is significantly higher.

Hundreds more were arrested – some dragged out of their homes in the dead of the night – in the weeks that followed. 

Some were charged with violating social distancing rules, but many, including many members of Bobi Wine’s inner campaign team, were charged with alleged possession of military stores, or more specifically, the red beret popular with the youthful members of the opposition leader’s camp.

More than two months after the end of the elections, hundreds remain in military custody, and dozens more remain unaccounted for. 

Every so often a “disappeared” Opposition supporter turns up on the roadside abandoned by their captors with what appears to be torture wounds.

 Lt Col Akiiki defended the military deployment during the campaigns, and against allegations of brutality and extra-judicial killings. 

“We punished all those who didn’t follow our rules of engagement,” he said.

 A promised investigation into the November killings remains open and no military officer has publicly been put on trial over the deadly violence from the protests. 

In addition, an investigation by this newspaper found that the majority of those killed or injured during the two days of violence were not involved in the protests.

Since the country registered its first case, 334 people have died from coronavirus disease  and 40,651 have been infected, according to the official account. 

It still isn’t clear how many people were killed in the militarised operations to enforce Covid-19 social distancing rules during the campaigns, but as the case of Shambi shows, the death toll continues to rise even after the elections.

In deploying military strategies to contain the pandemic during a political season, it appears that the medicine was at least half as bad as the disease it was prescribed to cure.