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Caught in a trap. As security forces continue to enforce President Museveni’s directive on the night curfew to tame the spread of Covid-19, civilians and the law enforcers have found it rough to make ends meet, writes Abdul-Nasser Ssemugabi & Promise Twinamukye
It is just six minutes to 7pm, April 19, when a 20-year-old Evidence Kamanzi, a resident of Kanyogoga, went out to buy tablets from a clinic for his brother who had just fallen sick. Unfortunately, Kamanzi returned with more pain than the medicine he had gone to buy could handle.
Past Kanyogoga Police Station, he reached Soweto, a nearby slum in Namuwongo, Kampala.
The nearest clinic was already closed. He tried another nearby. It did not have the medicine he wanted. Frustrated, Kamanzi wanted to go home. But he saw people walking, unbothered by the curfew. He walked on too, until he saw a police officer.
“Where are you going?” the officer asked him, “What time should you be home?” His mind replayed the scenes that had recently dominated news as curfew enforcers brutalised civilians. He took off. “Kamata wuyo” (arrest that one) Kamanzi remembers a voice behind him. “I sped before another ununiformed person tripped me and I fell, belly flat on the murrum road.”
Up again, he took off wailing: “I had gone to buy medicine; for my brother…” He had lost one shoe, the second was slowing him down. He abandoned it too and ran on, the officer hot on his heels. To his relief, the home gate was open and he entered.
He bruised his knees, elbows and forehead. “I will never step outside the gate, even if it is 10 minutes to 7pm during curfew,” he says.
Kamanzi was lucky to escape. But Willy Oloya who has hearing and speech impairments did not. The 25-year-old resident of Mugila West Village in Agago District, was shot five times in the leg, allegedly by a Local Defence Unit (LDU) personnel enforcing the 7pm to 6.30am curfew.
Yet it is not only civilians who suffer during curfew operations, but also enforcers too. A week before Oloya’s left leg was amputated, Pte Alex Niwanyine lost his eye after a mob in Amuru District attacked him as he enforced the curfew.
Days earlier, Sgt Paul Kyandiya, had also been injured by a gang of youths while enforcing the curfew in Mityana District. Such incidents spurred our curiosity into what really happens during curfew nights.
There is a general consensus that the curfew increased security and decreased crime. It makes sense. Potential criminals do not have the freedom to roam at night. But that could depend on the level of deployment in a particular area.
Just days after Kamanzi narrowly survived arrest for being outside just a few minutes past 7pm, in Busega Central, a mountain bike that belonged to our landlord’s nephew, disappeared in the night. The following morning the gateman remembered having seen a man wearing a shirt that resembled the bike owner’s, walking towards the wooden structure where the bike was. “I thought they were distracting me so that they steal something from the cars in the parking,” he said.
On the same night, the watchman had seen one of the tenants entering the gate at 4am.
No one reported the incident to police. But who stole the teenager’s bike? How did he jump over the fence without being arrested by curfew patrols? How did the tenant move without being arrested? And where was he coming from?
At Busega Police Post, the tall, light-skinned officer we found, did not answer our questions. He referred us to Nateete Police Station. The officer-in-charge of Lungujja Police Station, whom we contacted on phone, also denied us audience.
Kampala Metropolitan Police Spokesperson Patrick Onyango told us that they deploy strategically according to the security risk in a particular area. “Other details are confidential,” he says, reiterating that the curfew has greatly decreased crime.
In Naguru, Morris Okot, a Monitor Publications driver, hears the curfew enforcers walk around all the corridors. But elsewhere, it is not obvious.
A day after the bike incident, I reached home a few minutes to 7pm. I was moving at a bullet speed. But surprisingly, others were in no haste.
Shops were still open. Ladies who sell chips and chicken were still piling their ready-to-eat stock, and so were the chapatti makers as if they had more hours in the night.
Pedestrians and cyclists were slow. Some in conversations at the roadside. This was not the way things happened in the earlier days of the curfew.
Is laxity creeping in? Is decrease in brutality breeding contempt? Or is it flawed deployment?
The following two days, I purposely moved out of the gate to see more after 7pm. I stood by the shops, metres from the road, just in case the enforcers came. People were moving, unbothered by. Shops that used to close by 6.20am, were still open until 7.25pm.
“Nowadays, the LDUs begin patrols after 8pm,” one shop operator tells us.
Surprisingly, during day, these very shop owners live on tension as enforcers close shops whose operators do not sleep on the same premises.
I moved towards the trading centre. Four men stood at a mobile money kiosk, perhaps making eleventh-hour transactions. Another stood at a pork butchery. Others kept moving with one lady even singing hymns towards 7.40pm.
Then I saw a boda-boda, moving two and half hours after 5pm, when they should have stopped. There could be gaps.
A week later, our neighbour’s friend picked up her little daughter at 8.23pm and walked to Lungujja.
Okot, the driver, agrees nights are safer during curfew. But he remembers a band of bare-chested thugs in Gayaza, a Kampala Suburb.
“At midnight, they held sticks near LDU roadblocks. When the LDUs moved, they moved too. When they turned, the thugs hid.”
Patrick Ssekindu, the chairperson of Busega Central, says people have tried to “behave but expect some big headed ones.”
Like boda-boda riders and their passengers; a salon operator opened one door and played loud music, just next to the Vice President’s home in Lungujja, Kampala.
Cargo driver’s tale
While some Ugandans hate the curfew, it has improved sectors like transport, according to Moses Musoke, a truck driver for a fruit company in Kampala.
“Nowadays, the roads are safer, especially at night,” he says. “Accidents are rare because cars are few; there is no commotion caused by taxis which make numerous stops picking up and dropping off passengers. Trucks only stop at their destination,” he adds.
A factory worker who had been stuck in Rukungiri District since public transport was banned on March 25, finally travelled to Kampala on May 2 night, posing as the owner of the timber on the Fuso. He paid Shs100,000.
Musoke cannot risk that. “I fear the virus. I see everyone as a suspect,” he says. Enforcing public health measures on the roads has increased the number of checkpoints and Musoke says getting past all without being paying a bribe is a miracle.
“Before, the checkpoints were mounted on a few roads but in these curfew times, even if you go past 10 checkpoints, you cannot leave the next without paying ‘something’. One night I paid Shs30,000,” Musoke says.
It is worse in south-western Uganda. Swaib Lutaaya, a cargo driver, says driving during the curfew time is disgusting.
“Sometimes we spend the whole night on the road bargaining with soldiers who extort money from us,” Lutaaya says, adding: “The roadblocks are many and soldiers treat us as if they don’t know that cargo drivers are allowed to drive at night.”
Bribes are almost the norm in our economy. It is a season for tomatoes and Lutaaya drives for more than 150kms to deliver culinary berries from Kasese to Bundibugyo District. Normally, he gives ‘something’ to the so-called Afandes, even before they ask. “It is just a token,” he tells us on phone. “It is not easy working at night and they ensure our security,” Lutaaya says.
But the extortion nowadays, he says, has made business meaningless. “There used to be one roadblock. Now they are over five. You can pay more tham Shs70,000 in one night,” he says. It doesn’t add up, Lutaaya says, because a driver’s allowance is Shs50,000.
The journey should take about three hours. But tomatoes being highly fragile, Lutaaya must drive at night when the temperatures are low, and at a slow speed to minimize damage.
“We used to pay Shs50,000 to six men to load and offload a Fuso truck. Now it is more than Shs90,000 because they don’t allow us to ferry our porters.”
A police officer at Kanyogoga Police Station, who is familiar with curfew operations talked to us on condition of anonymity. (To protect his identity, we call him afande). He says when the curfew had just been imposed, people were still moving normally like it was a joke.
“In those first weeks, our cells were full of curfew offenders every night,” Afande says. But with time, as the enforcers engaged the iron fist, “The numbers dropped to about six offenders a night.”
When the President berated the enforcers as “pigs” for terrorising civilians during the curfew, they devised peaceful tactics. “Towards 7pm,” Afande says: “We start reminding people to go home and by 7pm, everyone has closed their business.”
But there are no such reminders in areas like Busega, Nateete or Lungujja. Sometimes, Afande adds, a situation calls for preventive arrests. Example, when you are on the way to a place farther, the officers may detain you if your route or destination is deemed insecure, until morning when safety is guaranteed.
Others are allowed to move for genuine reasons.
“Like a patient in critical need of medical help but is unable to get the area leader’s permission,” he says.
Tactics differ. In Kabalagala, those arrested for violating the night curfew spend the night in the police compound and are released the following morning.
In Kawempe, Nateete, Bweyogerere, Salaama road, among other places, sources told us, curfew offenders are forced to remove their shirts and move with the patrol team throughout the night before they are released the next morning.
But all methods, Afande says, have been successful because there are no repeat offenders.
Media driver’s tale
Since public transport was banned over a month ago, Monitor Publications drivers work almost round the clock, transporting staff.
Okot, who stays in Naguru Go Down, says when you are caught outside in the curfew hours, they arrest you if your movements are suspicious but “let you free if you present genuine reasons.”
But in the early days, Okot remembers seeing officers lining up on the roads with their canes by 6.50pm and no matter who you are, where you are coming from, they would just beat you up.”
Okot drives to different places, sometimes throughout the night.
“In places like Mutungo, you see LDUs reminding people to get into their homes, then after sometime, they beat up the stubborn ones. In areas like Namuwongo, they just arrest and if you misbehave, you can also be beaten,” he says.
But Afande told us that they warn the residents before conducting an operation.
But in other places, Okot says business is normal even past 8pm.
Salaama Road in Makindye, is the most notorious place Okot knows. “Even past 9pm, you find hundreds of people walking the whole stretch from Kibuye Kobil Fuel Station to Kiruddu Hospital,” he says.
Peter Mwebesa, another Monitor Publications driver, says in Zana and Lubaga, you hardly find people outside by 7pm. But in Nansana, Naluvule in Wakiso, and Kawempe, shops and markets are open in the night. In Kyebando, Bweyogerere and Masanafu, they open till 10pm.
Last week, Masanafu residents rioted against the brutality of curfew enforcers. They almost beat up the area chairperson, whom they accused of violating the curfew.
“In Makindye, people are usually in running battles with the forces,” Mwebesa says, adding: “In Kansanga, Buziga, shops are closed but people are on roads.”
On traffic, Mwebesa says cyclists and inexperienced drivers are a problem. “They violate traffic lights, like typical boda-bodas,” he says.
The other challenges are the corrupt traffic officers and the non-traffic police officers who don’t know what to ask of drivers. “Like that three-star officer at Mulago round about who diverts traffic for no reason. When you try to talk with him, he points the gun at you,” Mwebesa says.
A Daily Monitor reporter tells us of a nameless pub in Bunga near Zebra Point where people drink and dance to loud music till late night. “They live nearby, so they know the shortcuts they use when the LDUs sneak into the bar,” he says. On Easter, the reporter adds, they were arrested but upon release, they begun from where they had stopped.