What you need to know:
Arsenal fans who were arrested for taking to the streets to celebrate their team’s defeat of Manchester United say Kagame should help them go and see the Gunners play at the Emirates Stadium.
Paul Kagame has many faces—a general here, a spymaster there and uncle somewhere. Arsenal fans only see one—he is one of them, probably the best of them, and a “daddy long legs.”
A group of Arsenal fans who were a fortnight ago arrested in Jinja City for taking to the streets to celebrate their team’s defeat of Manchester United in the English Premier League say the Rwandan leader should help them go and see the Gunners play at the Emirates Stadium.
“President Kagame is a true Arsenal fan, but also if we asked a politician here for such help then everything would be politicised,” says Felix Bagiire, a radio presenter better known as Shamlove.
Kagame is a renowned Arsenal fan. He has often spoken out his mind about the team and famously asked legendary manager Arsene Wenger to leave in 2012.
He also forged a shirt sleeve partnership with Arsenal to promote tourism for his country.
Daddy long legs is a spider, the ones with long springy legs. But in Korea, daddy long legs is a tall handsome man, a benefactor.
After fighting two liberation wars, President Kagame is undoubtedly following events in English top flight football with keen interest, hoping Arsenal liberate themselves from the Premier League title drought that stretches back to the 2003/04 season.
But suddenly in Jinja, Shamlove, Albert Musoni, Augustine Ndagusa, Philemon Isabirye and Fulgence Othieno feel they can get to watch Arsenal live at the Emirates Stadium after their arrest thrust them into the spotlight.
Along with Abubaker Kasule, Isaac Katabazi, and Denis Waihe, the spunky ‘Gooners’ from Bugembe, Namulesa and other parts of Jinja and Buikwe districts had emerged from hot soup tasting themselves rather sweetly.
Hearts beat. When they stop, you die. There are two certainties of the heart—you can’t advise a heart in love, and you can’t predict a heart in sports.
When Uganda Cranes martyred Nigeria at Namboole stadium on June 2, 2007, a final year student at Makerere University stripped to his underwear and joined hundreds of others in a celebration procession to the Constitutional Square.
Luckily, it was possible to come together like that back then without the police crushing the living daylights out of you. The students returned to the university later that night with no incident.
There are 16 years between 2007 and today. That is enough time for Shamlove, who was aged just seven then, to grow up and engage in a less crazy fanaticism than that of the naked Makerere student—but not return home from it.
Shamlove and his seven colleagues would spend more than 24 hours in a holding cell at the central police station wondering whose egg they had stepped on when they took to the streets in Jinja City to celebrate Arsenal’s dramatic 3-2 victory over Manchester United.
“It never crossed our mind that we could be arrested for celebrating as football fans,” says Abubaker Kasule, 32, who was behind the wheels of a black Toyota Harrier with a sunroof from which Shamlove stuck half his body out.
He was brandishing a modest trophy and chanting “Arsenal, Arsenal, Arsenal...” A train of boda boda riders had joined in, but they vanished into thin air once police had swooped in on the feisty group.
Kasule had exuded relatively calmness when police intercepted them at the intersection of Iganga Road and Ripon Road East.
“[The celebration] was just something small for Arsenal fans and that was it,” said the businessman who deals in electronics in the city.
The last-gasp win had helped Arsenal open up a five-point gap to Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table. They also went 11 points clear of their vanquished rivals.
Once hauled into the holding cell, however, reality started dawning on the ‘Gooners.’ They were being repeatedly asked who had sponsored them as police tried to establish any links to Robert Kyagulanyi’s National Unity Platform (NUP) party.
Two days before the debacle, at least 13 NUP supporters were arrested at a wedding reception at YMCA Jinja. Police said the group that had travelled from different places in Busoga was NUP supporters.
At the police station during a media briefing, James Mubi—the Kira Regional Police spokesperson—repeatedly stressed that they had not arrested Arsenal fans but rather people with motives they were investigating.
What had tied loose noose on the Arsenal fans was that they had come from different parts of Busoga, just like the 13 suspects two days earlier. Police wanted to pull that loose tight until they spat out “the truth.”
“We are just staunch Arsenal fans,” they insisted. “We’ve no ties to any political party or politician, this was just a small celebration.”
The group had spent the first day in custody without seeing anyone from the outside. Their relatives had only been allowed to see them two Tuesday ago. The police would soon learn that Arsenal is indeed one of the most supported clubs globally alongside United. Soon after this publication broke the story of the arrest on its website, the BBC picked it up. It was trending globally within the hour. This gave the country a bad rap.
Taunting Gary Neville
Asan Kasingye, a former chief political commissar at Uganda Police Force, was seething. This was not because he is the chairman of the Arsenal supporters in the country. He reckoned “the police … could have ascertained that [the ‘trophy parade’] was not mischievous or intended to commit any crimes.”
“It was just a happy bunch of supporters following intense banters between them and Manchester United supporters before and during the match,” said Kasingye, a retired Assistant Inspector General of Police.
The group was released unconditionally on Tuesday afternoon.
Speaking to this publication from Bugembe town in Jinja, the group said it had been stunned to learn that police had claimed they knew nothing about Arsenal.
Their celebration had been spontaneous, Shamlove said. They had bought a cake to celebrate the win, but realised that since they had cars they could get into the skins of fans of the rival team and to “taunt Gary Neville for repeatedly rubbishing Arsenal.”
Neville, a former Manchester United defender and captain, is currently a television pundit.
“We paid $200 (Shs730,000) for the trophy,” Shamlove said.
But like ASP Mubi said, it was only 21 games into the season, and with 17 to go, the celebration looked premature by all accounts.
“It was Manchester, beating Manchester alone…” said Philemon Isabirye, speaking for the first time since introducing himself.
He had been quiet all through the interview as his friends narrated the “sweet ordeal” of spending the night bunched on the cold floor in the cell and emerging to find they were trending globally.
At some point, this writer could have sworn he saw the 25-year-old events manager pulling and chewing blades of grass. Isabirye looked like the kind who could have sobbed in jail and blamed his friends for everything while wondering aloud what his mother would do with him later.
Shamlove had cut him off. No doubt to his relief. He was more at home by himself. And the grass.
“After Manchester United beat us 3-1 last time, they (United fans) talked a lot. It doesn’t matter anymore whether we win the Premier League title or not, we are winners,” Shamlove opined.
But he corrected himself almost immediately as he pulled into an air of confidence that would make Mikel Arteta proud. “This season, we are winning. On May 28, we will mobilise 10,000 Arsenal fans and bring Bugembe stadium down. We want President Kagame to attend.”
“Every fan wants to see their team win trophies, but it is my biggest dream to watch Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium in London one day,” says Fulgence Othieno, 23, who joins later.
Being a radio personality, it had been easy to get Shamlove’s contact. A barber who lives and breathes Arsenal had swiped a few photos in his phone to confirm it was the person this writer was looking for and shared his contact. The others were not known.
Yet the first evidence that they had really “made it in life” beyond the trending news was when Kasingye and Fred Enanga, the police spokesperson, separately hosted the group in their office in Kampala on Tuesday.
They had learnt a few things about public conduct from the top police officers, but with Kasingye in particular, there was more. It is time to set up the Arsenal fans association in Busoga and connect with the North-London club officially.
But before they get that far, the United fans who went to church for prayers the day of the derby are definitely hoping God answers theirs by May 28 when the curtains draw on the Premier League. Failure to win the league after such a celebration will arm rival fans with more than just memes to troll Shamlove and his group.
“The good thing is that we are going to play in the Champions League. We have spent some good years (seven) without tasting that,” Kasule said.