Public insecurity is eating away at President Museveni’s authority
“STOP killing us!” chanted a crowd of several hundred people as they marched through Kampala on June 30th. Their protest has good cause. Last year the bodies of more than 20 women, many strangled and mutilated, were found after being dumped in two neighbourhoods close to the Ugandan capital. Scores more people have been kidnapped. “You never know, maybe I’m next,” says Shamim Masika, a student.
Insecurity has become a hot political issue in Uganda. Newspapers have chronicled a wave of crime, from armed robberies to the murder of Muslim clerics. In June an MP was gunned down. Most startling of all was the murder last year of the police spokesman, who was shot in broad daylight outside his home. That case, like many others, remains unsolved.
Yoweri Museveni, the president, has proposed solutions ranging from more security cameras to a ban on hoodies. But many see the ageing guerrilla himself as part of the problem. When he fought his way to power in 1986 he had little trust in police officers: they would rather vote for a cow, he once griped, than for him. In 2005 he appointed General Kale Kayihura, a loyal soldier, as police chief. The new man promoted cronies and created parallel units, says Julius Odwe, a career cop who was his deputy until 2011. “Professionalism has been dying slowly,” he laments.
The force also became more political. Its swelling budget was used to buy tear-gas and anti-riot gear. Suspects limped into court with open wounds, saying they had been tortured by the police. Political protests were crushed, often with the help of vigilantes who included a motorbike-taxi baron. Stick-wielding thugs would beat protesters while uniformed officers looked on. A vast network of civilians was recruited before an election in 2016. “The police concentrated more on political intelligence and the protection of the regime” than on crime, says Nicholas Opiyo, a lawyer.
Meanwhile, the murder rate rose by a third between 2005 and 2014, according to UN data. The police have since stopped publishing statistics. General Kayihura was sacked as police chief in March and since June 13th has been held under army detention. No official reason has been given. Mr Museveni had previously complained about criminals infiltrating the police. He also keeps a wary eye on the machinations of Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president who was once a comrade-in-arms but is now a bitter rival for influence in the region. Last year the army arrested seven police officers whom it accused of kidnapping and illegally repatriating Rwandans on the run from Mr Kagame. General Kayihura had promoted some of those officers.
Mr Museveni boasts that he ended the violence and criminality of previous regimes, so public anxiety over safety tugs at the roots of his authority. For Mugisha Muntu, who led the army for a decade, the failings of the security apparatus illustrate the president’s two weaknesses: his desire to hang on to power and his tendency to subvert institutions. He sees the police, says Mr Muntu, “as an extension of the ruling party”. The force now has new leadership. But its rot starts at the top.