A bitter harvest from the seeds of gun culture

CAUSE: Student strikes at universities, especially Makerere, have led to many student deaths . FILE PHOTO

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A large majority of Ugandans are now able to handle a gun, largely courtesy of the controversial Chaka Mchaka political education programme, where all willing citizens underwent training on, among other things, how to handle a gun. The aim of the programme, according to the government, was to “demystify the gun”.

Within a week, four Ugandans have been shot dead by the very security agents mandated to protect them. It is the continuation of a trend that exposes the ugly side of Uganda’s gun culture
It is the kind of behaviour that compelled a senior minister to resign some 23 years ago, but not today. When, on October 15, 1987, then Internal Affairs Minister Kahinda Otafiire drew a pistol on the late Jennifer Kuteesa at a hotel in Kampala during an argument, he resigned soon after.

Maj. Gen. Otafiire did not fire a single bullet, injure any individual, or even kill a fly. But because of the embarrassing incident involving the then wife of current Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa, he took the decision to resign.

Accepting his minister and erstwhile bush war comrade’s resignation, according to Radio Uganda archives, President Museveni said he welcomed it “because the National Resistance Movement government will not tolerate any indiscipline displayed by anybody regardless of his position, as shown by Otafiire.”

Time tells
Time, however, seems to have dulled the NRM government’s intolerance for that sort of indiscipline. The same minister, who was returned to cabinet after a spell in the political wilderness, drew a pistol on former Daily Monitor photojournalist Mike Odongkara while he was taking pictures of an accident scene involving his car on April 26, 2008.

Maj. Gen. Otafiire explained the second incident as an action he took in self-defence.

“Somebody ahead of me,” explained the minister in an interview with Daily Monitor published May 2, 2008, “was driving badly. I tried to avoid him and I ended up in the ditch. I was alone, and then someone came flashing (photographing). In that situation you will get out your gun.”

Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi said then that the government was studying the incident and would “take appropriate action”.

Maj. Gen. Otafiire is still a minister, now in charge of the tourism, trade and industry docket.

With government officials having climbed down from the moral high ground of their initial years in office, even junior personnel in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) seem able to walk away after killing ordinary Ugandans.

Last week, during a stand-off between the crowd at Kasubi Tombs and security officials following a mysterious fire that razed the mausoleum housing the remains of four former Buganda Kings, it is suspected that soldiers fatally shot three unarmed civilians and injured scores of others.

No action has been taken against the soldiers who allegedly fired the killer shots, according to Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye, the spokesman of the army and the Ministry of Defence.

Lt. Col. Kulayigye told Saturday Monitor on Wednesday that the army leadership is still studying what transpired that day and will draw lessons to inform the decision that they will take.

During most of the interview, Lt. Col. Kulayigye’s arguments betrayed a reluctance to condemn the actions of the security forces at Kasubi Tombs. Instead, he argued, the actions of the civilians – in attempting to stop President Museveni from reaching the charred mausoleum – amounted to the sort of provocation that no soldier can take without breaking free of his leash.
“For anyone to behave the way they did last week was unacceptable and that is why, regrettable as it is that people lost lives, we do not blanketly (sic) condemn the security officers for the actions they took. But like I said, there is need to study, and we are doing so, how we have been managing crowds and I am sure there are lessons to learn,” he said.

Those lessons will come at least 30 lives late, given that another 27 civilians died – the majority succumbing to gun shots – during the September 2009 riots sparked off by the government’s refusal to allow Kabaka Ronald Mutebi to tour Kayunga District. However, they will be vitally necessary lessons if – as is seemingly likely – the government intends to deploy the army along with police whenever there is a protest or public demonstration.

Lt. Col. Kulayigye says the army’s basic rule of engagement with regard to crowd control is supposed to be the use of minimum force. But he adds that when crowds exercise the maximum force within their means, then the interpretation is that “if that person had a gun, they would shoot.”

“That is why the riot police have protective gear, which the army doesn’t have, and yet the number of police officers is inadequate. The police have grown, and I look forward to a time when police will not need our support, but for now they still need us and when they do, they invite us to support them. It is, however, tricky when they invite us and we find a crowd that is throwing stones. It ceases to be an innocent crowd,” he said.

Settling scores
In a society that history taught to view the gun as a source of power, some soldiers are taking that kind of latitude to settle scores in their social lives. In May 2009, Nicholas Mucunguzi, a soldier attached to the elite Presidential Guard Brigade (since reconfigured into a more robust Special Forces unit) shot dead seven people before taking his own life at Top Pub in Kampala following a disagreement over a prostitute.

Stories of jilted soldiers shooting their love rivals and spouses have become commonplace. But, according to Lt. Col. Kulayigye, such stories only mirror the wider Ugandan society.

“Whereas we instill discipline and endeavour to train our soldiers, the element of the wider society affecting us can’t be ruled out. The element of an individual having stress from the outside society affecting his behaviour within the military can’t be ignored. After all, if Christianity which has existed for over 2000 years, still has not managed to stop us from sinning, what about UPDF which is only 29 years? We are human beings,” he argued.

Yet, unlike other human beings, a supposedly disciplined force that the army should be is entrusted with lethal weapons and should be trained to keep their cool even under the most extreme of provocations.

Lt. Col. Kulayigye admits that the army does not carry out any mental check up before recruitment or during a soldier’s professional career. He said the soldiers are instead rotated when they are on duty so that they can have time to rest.

According to Lt. Col. Kulayigye, for Uganda to stem the recent spate of gun-related killings, the remedies to the problem should not only be administered to soldiers. He said; “The wider society, including us in the army, need counselling on how to cope with the rising pressures of life; pressure of taking care of a family, pressure of loved ones who expect more than you can afford, both in civilian life and the military.”
But the other danger may lie in the current army attitude towards weapons with Lt. Col. Kulayigye saying every soldier ordinarily is allowed to sign for a weapon which may or may not be always in his possession.
Given the porous perimeter fencing around most military installations, it is not easy to monitor the movement in and out of barracks which allows for the possibility that a military person can walk out with a gun unnoticed.

This is what might have happened in the wee hours of February 22 at Mbuya Army Barracks. Pte James Niwagaba, who had been on guard duty at the defence ministry office located in the same area, retired at 5a.m. only to sneak out to the neighbouring Kinawataka slum where he attacked his lover, Deborah, alleging infidelity and alcoholism. He shot her to death before turning the gun on himself.

Pains of liberalisation
The liberalisation of nearly everything Ugandan – including security – means that arbitrary shootings are now not limited only to the government security agencies.

A large majority of Ugandans are now able to handle a gun, largely courtesy of the controversial Chaka Mchaka political education programme, where all willing citizens underwent training on, among other things, how to handle a gun. The aim of the programme, according to the government, was to “demystify the gun”.

However, it was the proliferation of private security firms, which employed many of the able-bodied youth who underwent training under Chaka Mchaka, as well as providing employment to many retired soldiers and police officers, which has further raised the number of guns in the country.

At least 35 private security companies are registered with the police countrywide, with an average number of 250 guards each.

But while the private guards are allowed to carry a weapon perceived to give power, their pay is not as empowering — with their earnings averaging Shs100,000 a month. As a result, there have been incidents in the past when security guards either hired out their guns to thugs or facilitated theft of property in the premises that they are supposed to be guarding.

According to police statistics, about 30 people in Kampala were killed by private security guards last year, while more than 100 cases involving security guards are still under investigation by the Police Rapid Response Unit. Twenty-four private security companies in the country were last year closed by Police after they failed to comply with minimum security standards with their guards instead engaging in criminal activities.

The State Minister for Internal Affairs, Mr Matia Kasaija, says the government is mulling over the idea of disarming private security companies altogether due to the high instances of misuse of the weapons.

“We are seriously considering removing guns from private security firms. We are consulting with security firms and very soon we are going to pronounce ourselves on that matter once and for all,” Mr Kasaija told Parliament on February 2. “Other countries do not have guns (armed security guards) and I don’t see why we can't be like them.”

Toys of the rich
But that is not the only action that needs to be taken. The law allows any Ugandan to own a gun, provided they have a license to do so.

With this alternative available, pistols are now the new toys for the rich; they have taken the place that mobile phones occupied in the mid-to-late 1990s as the must-have item for the moneyed class.

Most businessmen, politicians and individuals of a similar nature, who can afford a license to carry a gun, begin to imagine enemies they might need to shoot down and, consequently, acquire a rifle without the requisite training. This has set the stage for a heady mix of money and the sense of power brought on by being in possession of a firearm.

Minister Kasaija says even the government does not know the number of firearms in circulation in the country.
Addressing delegates at a small arms workshop on February 20, 2009, he said, “How many firearms are in circulation? Even the Police doesn’t know. There is no clear system to know who has a gun.”

The magnitude of the problem is, however, highlighted by the fact that the police have, under the Firearms ReductionProgramme, destroyed 66,000 ammunitions over the last three years.

The Police, however, say they are taking measures to at least ensure that its own guns are not used for illegal activities.

On February 23, the Force launched the national firearms marking exercise, with the Director of Police Operations, Francis Rwego, saying the exercise will help bring police officers who were engaging in armed robberies and hiring out guns to suspected criminals to book.

“There have been incidences in the past where some police officers were engaged in criminal acts like robbery. We shall now be able to know where the gun came from,” explained Mr Rwego.

The firearms marking exercise will also be carried out for weapons belonging to the UPDF.

However, that exercise could still be a futile effort as long as the illegal entry points for firearms into Uganda, through Karamoja region, West Nile, and Mutukula on the Uganda-Tanzania border, are not sealed.

The National Coordinator of the Firearms Reduction Programme, Mr Ahmed Wafuba, was not available for comment, as he had travelled to the Karamoja region.

For the recent past at least, Uganda has not descended to the depths of the late 1990s when 20 bombs went off in Kampala between 1997 and 1999, leaving 46 people dead and hundreds injured.

Yet, with an unknown number of guns in the country, and an evident decadence of the national conscience, the loss of life to guns could increase before it reduces.

Recent Deaths by the Gun

  • March 22, 2010: UPDF 2nd Lt. Ambrose Ogwang, takes a family hostage at a residential house in Mbale town and shoots dead police officer George Koire who was on duty at the crime scene. Capt. Ogwang had reportedly earlier stolen money from a shop and was trying to escape.
  • March 15, 2010: Two Kenyan students studying at Makerere University are shot dead by a private security guard, while the third, a Ugandan, suffered severe injuries. Brian Amuruga, a first year law student, and Ignatius Nyongesa, a third year commerce student, were shot following commotion between rival camps in the students’ guild elections.
  • Feb. 22, 2010: Pte. James Niwagaba, attached to Mbuya Military Barracks in Kampala, shoots his girlfriend, Deborah, six times before turning the gun on himself after a domestic squabble.
  • Feb. 14, 2010: Lt. David Okumu, 45, a detach commander at Busanza in Kisoro District, shoots his wife, Terry Akuru, and then takes his own life. Lt. Okumu was reportedly furious that his wife had received Valentine’s Day messages, allegedly from her lover.
  • May 2, 2009: PGB Pte. Nicholas Mucunguzi opens fire at Top Pub in Kampala, killing eight people on the spot and later himself and injuring several others, allegedly after some of his belongings were stolen by a prostitute.
  • May 3, 2009: UPDF soldiers guarding the house of Security Minister Amama Mbabazi shoot dead a man, later identified as Francis Nuwagaba from Kyogo-Kafungo village in Rukungiri District, who allegedly tried to climb the wall fence of the minister’s residence.
  • July 15, 2009: Sudan People’s Liberation Army Capt. John Kwoch, fires live bullets at revelers at Simba Casino in Kampala.
  • June 28, 2008: Local Defence Unit operative, Richard Kyarikunda, shoots dead Alex Mbabazi at Retenga cell in Kabale Municipality. Kyarikunda was sentenced to death in December 2009.
  • Dec. 4, 2008: Rehema Caeser, the wife of Arua Municipality MP Hussein Akbar Godi, is shot dead by unknown assailants at Lukojje village, Nama Sub county on the Mukono-Kayunga road. Mr Godi was arrested shortly, as a prime suspect, but the case is still ongoing.
  • April 5, 2007: UPDF PGB private Zepha Muhumuza kills Rukia Nandago, Collins Nabende, and Moses Kiwani in Mbale Town. Mumuhuza reportedly killed Nandago, a sex worker, for failing to meet his sexual demands and subsequently shot Nabende and Kiwani for trying to intervene.
  • April 21, 2007: UPDF PGB Lt. Peter Ahimbisibwe kills Presidential Office official Nelson Ssendegeya in Kampala.
  • Sept. 24, 2007: Robert Ojala, a security guard shoots his two sons and then himself dead in Kakajjo II Zome, Kisenyi.
  • May 14, 2006: UPDF Pte. Ochieng Ekamu, attached to the 21st Battalion in Rukungiri District, shoots dead two SPCs and injures one. Pte. Ekamu, who was on the run at the time, had earlier gone on rampage, killing a family of three in Kiteso village in Kasese District.
  • Feb. 15, 2006: Lt. Ramathan Magara, a retired UPDF soldier, shoots into a crowd of opposition Forum for Democratic Change supporters at Bulange in Mengo, killing three people and injuring several others.
  • Oct. 15, 2006: Pte. Bono-Lino Africano, a UPDF soldier deployed at Laguti IDP camp in Pader District, shoots dead seven people, including his wife, child and father in-law. Pte. Bono took matters into his own hands after a meeting called to resolve a domestic dispute, in which he accused his wife of having an affair with another man, hit a stalemate.
  • Sept. 13, 2004: NRM Spokesman Ofwono Opondo shoots dead one of the suspected robbers who were reportedly trying to steal a car near Kampala Parents School, where he had taken his daughter.