19 Youth Struggles for Political Power Change Amidst Police Brutality in Uganda: Lessons for Future Youth [full paper]
On a global scale, the youth continue to be perceived as key actors in the political struggles of nations. However, their participation is still undermined by social, economic, and political factors. This article, therefore, reviews the youth’s struggles for political change amidst police brutality in Uganda. The youth have engaged in various platforms and channels to demand for political change in Uganda including protests and riots, music, social media, as well as the creation of political campaigns, activism and movements. But, the youth’s political struggles have come at a cost. The youth have been brutalized by police to the extent that some have lost lives, while others have been heavily injured, arrested, and/or detained in designated and unknown government custody. Despite the fact that the public may perceive police brutality in Uganda as mere beating on streets, it is far beyond this; some youth have lost breast nipples, nails have been plucked out, and others have lost genitals as a result of torture in police custody. Despite the gruesome police brutality, the youth have continued to struggle for their political rights and to demand for political transformation in Uganda after 35 years of president Museveni’s rule. With the persistence of the excessive use of force by police against the youth, and the youth recently becoming more vocal about their political stances, it is still too early to conclude that the youth’s efforts will create any political change in Uganda in time for the 2026 general elections. By and large, the youth’s political struggle should not be contested in any way; instead, government should enhance the youth’s civic education to enable them to participate in meaningful politics in Uganda.
Uganda is considered to have the youngest population in the world, with more than 75% of the total population being below the age of 30 (Mofat and Bennet, 2021; Ford, 2019). While the term youth is widely documented and defined in the literature, there is no agreed and unified global definition of youth. Therefore, this article adopts the definition provided by the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (hereinafter the Constitution). According to the Constitution, a youth is a person between the age of 18 and 35, meaning that about 23% of Uganda’s total population (which is 46 million) is categorized as youthful (The State of Uganda Population Report, 2019). As Magelah and Ntabirweki (2014) reveal, about 400,000 Ugandan youth enter the labor market annually to compete for approximately 9,000 employment opportunities. With the number of youth entering the labor market being disproportionate to the number of employment opportunities available, youth unemployment is estimated at 13.3% (Daily Monitor, 2021). Youth unemployment has detrimental effects not only to society but to Uganda’s economy and the political arena. Against this background of inadequate involvement of young people in Uganda, Uganda’s youth have resorted to other means such as politics, to solve the twin problem of unemployment and a regime that they perceive to be plunging the country to lawlessness.
Much as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes youth as “valuable agents of change”, youth’s participation in the political discourse and domain is still inadequate (Mengistu, 2016). According to Oroma (2017), the youth are still hampered by limited resources and civic skills to ably participate meaningfully in Uganda’s political processes. The situation is worsened further by the perception that the majority of the world has on the youth. Outlined by Daniella and Casale (2011), the youth continue to be depicted on the negative perspective, as well viewed as frustrated and isolated individuals with limited voices in the political process (McGee and Greenhalf, 2011). Particularly in Uganda, President Museveni has continuously regarded the youth as ‘lazy, security threats, and vessels of political violence’ (Maganga, 2020). These stereotypes not only demean the youth, but they also undermine their efforts to become better political agents and/or actors. Realistically, without positively and meaningfully engaging the youth in the economic and political domain, the effort and voices will always be undermined.
In the past ten years, the youth in Uganda have essentially been a push factor for political power transition. Despite the youth’s efforts, there is limited published work on this topic, especially in Uganda. Therefore, this article is predominantly based on the review of existing information from newspaper and journal articles, within Uganda and around the world. The article is an applied research because it provides lessons that can help the youth become better political agents. The article is structured as follows: the introduction; the legal frameworks governing civil and political participation; police and its mandate; People Power, Our Power Movement (PP-OPM) and youth struggles for power change; an elaboration of police brutality; and finally, a conclusion and lessons for future politics. For the purpose of this paper, police brutality refers to the cruel and violent ill treatment of civilians by the police. In this case, brutality may be in the form of torturous acts such as beating, plucking of nails, hurting of male genitals, extrajudicial killings, and the use of unnecessary force such as teargas, pepper spray, water cannon, rubber bullets, and live ammunitions against protestors.
Legal Frameworks Governing Civil and Political Participation
Globally, the international and regional legal frameworks on human rights are indispensable in the promotion people’s rights. Uganda is a signatory to various international and regional frameworks governing civil and political participation. The country ratified the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1986, the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1995 (accession(a)), the Optional protocol to the ICCPR in 1995(a), and finally, the 1985 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) in 1986(a). In the African continent, Uganda ratified the 1986 African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter) in 1986. Despite the value attributed to the international and regional laws, the usefulness of ratifying the different frameworks is questioned by the general public because the modern regime has consistently breached the laws, and nothing much is being done to hold Uganda accountable for violating them. Arguably, none of the stated laws can transform Uganda’s civic and political landscape because the leadership is not sternly held accountable.
Overall, Uganda’s political affairs are governed by domestic laws, the main one being the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (hereinafter the Constitution). In relation to the youth and politics, article 38 of the Constitution particularly guarantees each Ugandan “the right to participate in the political affairs of government, individually or through representatives in accordance with the law”. The Constitution further warranties the “freedom to gather and demonstrate together with others peacefully and unarmed”. Generally, the political rights contained in the Constitution align with those outlined in the UDHR, ICCPR and the African Charter to which Uganda is a party. Notwithstanding, despite the existence of the Constitution, so often, issues regarding civil and political rights are determined by those in power, with the Constitution sometimes being altered to favor the interest of those in power.
Another key framework governing specifically civil and political rights is the 2013 Public Management Order (POMA). On the surface, POMA seems to be useful in terms of promoting political rights. However, on implementation, it empowers police to either accept or reject political procession, and has been referenced when violating the political rights of opposition parties (Kagari and Edroma, 2006). From Amnesty International’s (2016) point of view, POMA is inconsistent and incompatible with the Constitution’s rights of equality and freedom from discrimination (article 21), personal liberty (article 23), respect for human dignity and protection from inhuman treatment (article 24), the right to privacy (article 26), the right to a fair hearing (article 28), and freedom of movement (article 29). The way POMA is implemented also contradicts article 21 of the ICCPR, article 11 of the African Charter, and article 20 of the UDHR, which state that everyone has a right to peaceful assembly and association. In terms of implementation, POMA usurp all the international legal frameworks that Uganda is a state party to as well as the Constitution.
Generally, POMA has persistently been used by police to limit political assemblies and the youth’s political struggles. Such legislation is not new because it existed in the postcolonial era (between 1962 and 1986). The suspension of political activities decree, during Amin’s regime (the President of Uganda between 1971 and 1979) permitted police to get away with the abuse of power as long as it was purposely done to maintain public order (Omara, 1987). Like Amin’s decree, which suppressed citizen’s political views and rights, the POMA has equally repressed the political rights of pressure groups and opposition in Uganda. To the public, POMA is largely perceived as a rubber stamp to any opposition activities which opposes or challenges the regime. Comparable to Amin, President Museveni’s political interests are subjected to POMA’s existence because the way it is implemented perpetuates police brutality and instills fear among the public; thus, the opposition find it hard to front their political ambitions.
Police Governance and its Mandate
Police is one of the state security organs in Uganda, and it is mandated to maintain internal security within the country. Its autonomy is derived from section 211 of the Constitution: (a) to protect life and property; (b) to preserve law and order; (c) to prevent and detect crime; and (d) to co-operate with the civilian authority and other security organs established under the Constitution. The police mandate is further classified in the Police Act (1994) as amended by the Police (Amendment) Act (2006). Particularly, section 4 of the Police Act gives the police a mandate to protect life and property, preserve law and order, prevent, and detect crime.
Overall, the police is led by an Inspector General of Police (IGP) and a Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIGP). Both the IGP and the DIGP are appointed by the President, with the approval of parliament, as necessitated by article 213 (2) of the Constitution. Although the Constitution can be seen as a strong legal instrument, part of its Achilles heel (which has essentially led to the dismissal of the Constitution and the prioritization of POMA) is the fact that it does not give a limitation as to who can and cannot be appointed. As a result, given the authority granted to him by the Constitution, Museveni (the current President) is appointing army officers to leading positions of the police institutions. While this may seemingly be a strategy by the President to protect the regime’s interest, the infiltration of army and the extent of their actions, contradicts with article 212 (a) to protect life and property, (b) keeping law and order, (c) defense and detect crime and finally, to cooperate with the civilian authority. Through the appointment of the army into police work, not only has the President made the police instruments of the state machinery, but he also politicized the police and made the institution liable to the regime.
Evidently, since 2001, Uganda has had a chain of army members leading the police including General Katumba Wamala, who led the police between 2001 and 2005. Although Katumba’s reign was decent in terms of its defense of the political rights of the citizens, he established a security agency within the police commonly referred to as ‘Operation Wembley’ to crack down criminals which cost people’s lives and promoted torture. Later, General Edward Kale Kayihura succeeded Katumba from 2005 to 2018. Kale is remembered for leading a brutal police force that was and still is loyal to President Museveni. Kale’s reign unveiled substantial police brutality including murders, extortions, and kidnappings (Oxford Analytica, 2017). His reign completely displayed a lack of patriotism and professionalism as stipulated in article 211(3) of the Constitution. However, following the public outcry of high-level brutality, Museveni replaced Kale with Martin Okoth Ochola, a career police officer, to take on the IGP position. Whereas Ochola was appointed to disguise the misrepresentation of military in police, throughout his reign, Ochola has been and continues to be deputized by senior army officers including Major General Stephen Muzeeyi Sabiti (2018 and 2020) and Major General Paul Lokech (2021 to date), who were also appointed by the President. Since the integration of army into police in 2001, policing strategies in Uganda have been critiqued for being extremely brutal to the extent that the institution has lost public trust.
Not only has President Museveni militarized the police by appointing army generals to lead it, he has created a chain of security groups and military organization governed under the national army known as the Uganda People Defense Force (UPDF) to further enhance his political autocracy. Some of these security groups include: the Special Forces Command, the Local Defense Unit, the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence, the Internal Security Organization, the External Security Organization, the Joint Intelligence Committee, and Political Intelligence Network (Muhereza and Kwesiga, 2020).With these sects of security interfering with police functions, superseding the powers of the police, and concurrently being drawn into the ‘the turmoil of Ugandan politics’, there has been an increase in police violence by those policing the country.
The use of the army to lead the police is not new; history shows that the army was appointed within police during the colonial rule era (between 1894 and 1962). In other words, from the onset of the British rule in Uganda, the police were not a standalone institution but rather an army led body. For example, ex-serviceman John Anthony Beaden served as senior superintendent of police in 1960, and later he became a commanding officer at the Uganda police training school; and Lt Col Bentley Watson James (1946-1949) was appointed by the British as Assistant Commissioner of Police responsible for Buganda (one of the many kingdoms of Uganda). Similar tendencies have been emulated by the post-independence era governments and the current regime. For instance, the very first Inspector General of Police (IGP) in Uganda between 1964 and 1971 was ex-serviceman Lt Col Wilson Erinayo Oryema (Daily Monitor, 2018) who served during Milton Obote’s first rule (1962-1971). Clearly, the appointment of the army into police leading positions by President Museveni is not only a tradition from the colonial and post-independence era, but a measure of sustaining and defending the present regime’s political interests.
Although Nseroko (1993) argues that it is imperative to decentralize the national police system because it helps create stronger ties to communities, based on Bayley’s (1971) argument on police independence, it is impossible to decentralize police that is typically under the governance of army because these are two different security entities with different mandates. Also, the army infiltration into police work implies that the police have to confirm to the President and his subordinates. Supporting Kagari and Edroma’s (2006) argument on police neutrality, with the army overseeing police’s work in the current regime, the manner in which the army is implementing police work has undermined the underlying principles governing democratic policing. By and large, with the army’s presence in police work, the limits between police and army is not unclear, thus this may ruin the police’s allegiance, competence and discipline (if it has not already done so).
People Power, Our Power Movement and Youth Political Struggles
As stated earlier under article 38 of the Constitution, citizens have a right to choose among different political parties to engage in Uganda’s political space. Although there are many different political parties in Uganda, the renowned ones are the National Resistance Movement (NRM), formally known as the National Resistance Army (NRA), founded in 1986, and led by President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni (Museveni). The NRM has been the ruling party for the past 35 years. Asides from the NRM, there is also the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) founded in 2004 by Museveni’s Aide Colonel. Dr. Kiiza Besigye, and the newly created National Unity Platform (NUP) created in 2019 by youth leader, politician and musician Honorable Robert Kyagulanyi better known as Bobi Wine (hereinafter Wine). Wine also leads the People Power, Our Power Movement (PP-OPM), which is not a political party but a political resistance movement. The PP-OPM was founded in 2017 and according to Ford (2019) ‘‘its idea is authenticated in the name itself”. NUP emerged from PP-OPM and they both have a similar goal of ‘revolutionizing Ugandans’ from the alleged ‘monopoly and doctorial rule’ of Uganda’s longest serving President, Museveni. Even though Uganda’s Constitution encourages citizens to freely engage in Uganda’s political processes, trends have changed of over years. The current ruling government has become monopolistic by way of undermining the opposition’s participation.
Efforts to revolutionize Uganda have been underway since 2001, however, these have been marred by police brutality. Nonetheless, the opposition and their supporters, who are mainly the youth, have continued to engage in national political processes. For the past 20 years, the youth have been at the center of Uganda’s political movement either supporting or opposing the ruling government. The youth account for about two-thirds of the 17.2 million registered voters (African report, 2021). Like the FDC which was the very first political threat to President Museveni and gained massive support from the youth between 2011 and 2016, PP-OPM and the NUP continue to gain overwhelming popularity and support both locally and internationally. PP-OPM has a large following and support of urban, poor, rich, unemployed, employed, literate, and illiterate youth. Some of the NUP’s supporters are new, but the majority were followers of the FDC and other opposition political parties. Notably, PP- OPM continue to gain momentum because the youth have been looking for a party that could front their political ambition of revolutionizing the country for a long time. The youth’s political struggles have not only manifested through political protests and riots, but the youth have utilized various avenues to ensure that their voices are hard including: formation of political movements, political activism physically and on social media, defiance, music, and slogans, purposely pinning the regime’s ruthlessness.
To begin with, the youth’s struggles are expressed through the formation of political movements such as the PP-OPM. Through the PP-OPM, Wine and his youth supporters composed the song ‘Tuliyambala engule mu Uganda empya’ meaning ‘we shall wear a crown in the new Uganda’. The song came after Wine ’s house arrest, however, the message in the song has come at the expense of brutality and banning of Wine’s music shows. Regardless of the current regime’s attempts to brutalize and rubber stamp Wine’s music and political struggles, the PP-OPM has not only unveiled how Uganda is an undemocratic nation, but it has also propelled and empowered the youth to intensify political participation more than ever before. Through the PP-OPM, the youth have won parliamentary seats and other ministerial political position at grass root levels. Thus, in the 2021 elections, NUP garnered about 59 parliamentary seats and became the official opposition group in the forthcoming 11th parliament.
In Uganda slogans such as ‘Tukoye’ meaning ‘We are tired’, and ‘Mzee Agende’ directly translating to the ‘Old man should leave’, were common at the time of Besigye’s election campaigns, the 2009 Kabaka riot, and the recent 2019 protest following Wine’s arrest over defying COVID-19 guidelines. A series of protests are deep rooted in citizen’s disappointment with the regime and its subordinates. Much as the use of slogans may be underrated by states, slogans have plunged countries into civil unrest. For instance, in Sudan, young Sudanese women were at the center of the uprising with the slogans “just fall that’s all!”, and “we want a civil state that respects human rights and diversities” (Ahmed, 2019), resulting in a coup d’état that deposed President Omar al-Bashir (Ahmed, 2019; Hassan and Kodouda, 2019).
Furthermore, with the PP-OPM momentum, the youth political struggles are displayed through the formation of political campaigns to sabotage the government’s interest to retain power. For instance, the youth have been particularly vocal about their opposition to the amendment of the Constitution to lift the age limit for presidency. In complete objection of the amendment, Wine, alongside other opposition politicians and other young Ugandans, championed the ‘‘Togikwatako’’ campaign meaning ‘Do not touch [the Constitution]’ (The Independent, 2017). Since 2017, the campaign has attracted the attention of government, the youth both from oppositions and the ruling party, and those in the diaspora. The Togikwatako campaign wielded pressure through riots and protests, and over social media. However, the youth have been met with fierce force by the police and other security forces in civilian clothes. Consequently, hundreds of protestors have been violently arrested and tortured for demonstrating against the plan to amend the Constitution (DW, 2017; The Independent, 2017). Since the launch of the Togikwatako campaign, followers of PP-OPM have been target for police brutality and other forms of harassment such as arrests and detention, killing and kidnapping, and they have become political prisoners. The manner in which government is handling those who are opposing the regime typically signifies greed for power.
In a similar manner, the opposition politicians who supported the ‘Togikwatako’ campaign clashed with NRM supporters in parliament and were consequently met with force and torture from the Special Force Command (Reuters, 2017). Consequently, opposition politicians succumbed to brutality by the Special Force Command. Despite the struggles following the NRM legislators (who are the majority in parliament) and a court ruling of July 26, 2017, the Constitution was amended by scrapping the age limits. The removal of article 102(b) from the Constitution to pave a way for lifelong presidency left remarkable anger mainly among opposition leaders and their predominantly youth supporters The recent amendment implies that without the age limit, Ugandan’s may continue to have life presidents, or further adjustments are likely to surface in favor of those in power (Osiebe, 2020).
Although the youth did not change the NRM legislator’s political decision, the youth devised other measures of impeaching the NRM party and individuals who defied their vows of protecting and defending the Constitution. In protest, whoever supported the amendment was not voted for in the 2021 elections, resulting in a reduction of NRM Members of Parliament (MPs) from a total of 447 in 2016 (Inter Parliamentary Union, 2016) to 336 in 2021. A difference of 111 NRM Parliamentary seats signifies a heavy loss not only to the party but also its master (Barigaba, 2021); this is a clear indication of the youth’s willpower in Uganda’s electoral process. Particularly, in the places where Wine is popularly supported and an area which constitutes the largest number of voters, NRM had a dozen of its ministers (who are simultaneously MPs) replaced by mainly NUP members. This denotes that much as the youth may not have direct power to oust or impeach the regime, they are able to indirectly suppress it powers. According to the Commonwealth youth program, a program which voices youth’s perspective across the world, Wine is regarded as ‘Uganda’s Nelson Mandela’ and a ‘saint’ for change of power.
While the existing political space where youth’s voices are meant to be heard is undermined by political threats and brutality, the youth have resorted to music to further increase and strengthen their willpower. This does not only apply to the opposition alone but some young musicians who still support Museveni’s ideology such as Iryn Namubiru have engaged in songs that praises the regime such as ‘Tubonga nawe’ meaning ‘We are with you’. However, a vast majority of them are releasing songs that directly pin the current regime for its greediness for power and critique political violence (Aljazeera, 2018). For instance, Wine released ‘Dembe’ meaning ‘freedom’, which was specifically against the Constitution amendment, ‘Situka’ meaning ‘arise’, and more recently, ‘Akatego’, a slag that is loosely translated as ‘fear’, in honor of youth political prisoners in Uganda. Other musicians such as Ronald Mayinja released ‘Bunkeke’ meaning ‘tension’. Eddy Kenzo also released ‘System Volongoto’ meaning ‘A trashy government system’. As Sifiso Ntuli states (in a study by Vershbow (2010)), ‘it is easy to understand a message through a song compared to the long political speech’. Principally, music does not solely cause political revolution, rather, it is a channel that steers the public into action.
The youth’s struggles have by far led to calling the President out of his name, with him often being referred to as ‘‘Bosco Katala’’. In the local Luganda dialect, Katala means someone who is ‘backward’, usually from the ‘village’ (African News, 2018). Additionally, according to African News, Bosco is an acronym for Brutality, Oppression, Selfishness, Corruption, and Oligarchism. Calling the President out of his name forced him to threaten the public with penalties for whoever does it. As if this was not enough, the youth have over time engaged in acts of mockery towards the current regime by painting piglets yellow (the color of the current ruling party) and dumping them at the parliament building as part of the jobless-brotherhood movement (Larok, 2017). While the throwing of the pigs was observed as an abuse by the regime, the opposition applauded the action. With significant and sufficient civic education and resources, the youth have the capacity to cause change.
Evidently, as Ojok and Acol (2017) and Yom (2005) posit, the youth’s struggle to end exploitative political power structures through movements and/or campaigns is on the rise. Therefore, the NRM’s argument that opposition leaders are not actively supporting the youth because they have only simply applauded the throwing of pigs, carrying TVs to parliament to oppose government policies on digital transition is vetoed. This argument is disapproved by an array of evidence showing that opposition leaders have taken a step further to lead the youth in political protests, campaigns, and movements. For example, the ‘‘Walk to Work protest’’ was initiated and led by the opposition leader Dr. Colonel Kizza Besigye, in April 2011. The protest left the Colonel with injuries due to pepper spray, rubber bullets, and torture while in police custody (Gatsiounis, 2021). In addition, the ‘‘Togikwatako’’ campaign by Wine and other opposition political leaders (discussed earlier in this article) is another clear trend of political leaders’ support to youth political struggles in the country.
The use of social media to further increase youth’s voices at the same time to pin the government is undebated in Uganda. The use of Twitter and Facebook to challenge the regime (Anguyo, 2021) have recently gained prominence to the extent that the government has repeatedly blocked social media, especially during political riots and elections, and the imposition of social media taxes. Whereas the youth’s efforts have supposedly been sabotaged by government, particularly through the social media taxes, the youth have turned to Virtual Private Network (VPN) to bypass government taxes. As illustrated by the African Report (2021), the youth have explicitly and consistently stated that ‘no amount of degrading acts will stop [them]’. There is plenty of literature on the impact of social media on political outcome (Dellvigna and Ferrara, 2015), which neither government or opposition and their supporters should ignore.
Durham (2000) precisely argues that youth have a vital role to play in the political arena of countries because they are creative Through political movements, the youth have been involved in freedom or independence struggles, mobilizing and campaigning against the autocratic governments. With good coordination, understanding, and enough resources, it is probable that the youth can exert enormous pressure for a change of government. Literature shows a history of endless examples of how young people have plagued political structures, especially in Africa (Ojok and Acol, 2017), and across the world. These include: Sierra Leone, where the disillusioned and unemployed youth played a great role in establishing the revolutionary united front (Mengistu, 2016); an uprising that led to the burning down of the Gabonese parliament in 2016 (BBC News, 2016); the coup that ousted Blaise Compare’s government in Burkina Faso in 2014 (Ojok and Acol, 2017; BBC News, 2014); the 2010 Arab uprising in Tunisia which forced Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali into exile in January 2011 (Yee, 2012); Egypt’s uprising in January 2011 that led to the step down of president Hosni Mubarak; and the latest viral and destructive 2021 riot that manifested as a result of Wine arrest in Uganda which upset the government of Museveni. Others have broken out in Chile, Hong Kong, Ukraine, and Serbia to mention a few (Ekaterina et al. 2020). Youth’s political value should neither be overlooked or underrated because the youth are supposedly key partners in revolutionary struggles most revolts in Africa.
Police Brutality and Youth Struggle
Uganda’s political history holds revolting acts of human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings and torture by burning people with hot metals plastic or tyre just to name a few. The likes of Milton Obote (1966-1971 and 1980-1985), and Idi Amin (1971-1979) left nothing but a legacy of human atrocities. The civil war between Obote and Museveni between 1981 and 1986 was not any better from of the two previous regimes of Obote and Amin. Thousands of people lost lives, with many more being displaced, abducted, arrested, detained and/or running to exile. Although Museveni expressed a high level of democratic supremacy in his early years of power, he was challenged by internal civil upheavals with the worst being that of the Lord Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda and the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the neighboring Congo. While these have been contained over years, Gooloba (2008) contends that there are many reasons accounting for the persistent events of political unrest in Uganda.
The early years of Museveni’s rule in 1986 to the late 1990s exhibited relative peace and tranquility. However, with the restoration of multiparty systems in Uganda through the 2005 referendum (Masengo, 2017), the regime has experienced immense crossing points with the opposition. These encounters have fostered the president to improvise means of protecting his stay in power, thus an increase in security empowerment to foster the regime’s protection. That said, with the powers entrusted to security forces such as the police, Uganda has recorded high levels of unpleasant acts like Amin and Obote’s regime (Fabricius, 2020). Like Obote’s opponents who perceived the police as a state-owned institution (Willetts, 1975), the current regime’s opponents and the modern police concede the contemporary police as state governed and conformist to the regime.
Recent opposition presidential contenders and their predominantly youth supporters have nothing to tell but a legacy of police brutality. The regime has empowered the police to protect its political ambitions as opposed to fulfilling its mandate and protecting citizens. As Bertelsmann Stiftung BTI (2020) expounds, the regime has exerted a monopoly on the use of force and exercises full control over the entire territory. Consequently, the youth have been victims of police brutality. However, despite the police violence against the youth, they have persistently continued to demand for political change. With the enormous youth’s political zeal, the youth have become key actors that every political party in Uganda would fully rely on to either retain or gain political prominence and/or attain power.
While police brutality in Uganda is not new in the country’s history, trends and methods have changed over time. This section covers some of the incidences of police brutality between 2017 and 2021. Vividly, the President has instigated, and justified brutality of the opposition contenders and the youth as discussed in this section. Following the chaos that erupted in August 2018 in Arua between the opposition supporters of Honorable Kassiano Wadri and the alleged attack of president convoy, Wine and his supporters succumbed to police brutality in form of beating, pepper spray, killing and custody torture (Muhumuza, 2018). Since 2017 (after the Togikwatako campaign) Wine and his youth have been the target of the relentless state harassment and persecution (Fabricius, 2020; The East African, 2020). Repeatedly, Wine and his youth supporters have been beaten (Aljazeera, 2020), and tortured (The Guardian, 2018; BBC News, 2018) to the extent that some have sustained severe injuries and have lost lives (The Independent, 2017; Nangonzi, 2020). Inflicting torture because of people’s political right, views or choice breaches not only the Constitution but also the international and regional laws that Uganda is signatory to.
With the alteration of the Constitution and other national political challenges, protests in the past five years of Museveni’s reign have been manifested in retaliation to dispute the age limit. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, police has reacted with immense use of force to prevent and disperse protestors (Aljazeera News, 2020; Human Rights Watch, 2018). One key recent case of wild protests by the youth, and the worst of its kind in Uganda, was the protest that erupted after Wine’s arrest in November 2020. A massive population of youth stormed the streets demanding for the release of Wine for two days. Although the protestors were peaceful, the police combined with other security forces in civilian and military clothes exerted force on rioters with teargas, water cannons, rubber bullets, batons, sticks, and live bullets (Muhumuza, 2018; Aljazeera, 2018). As a result, 50 civilians lost lives, several sustained wounds, and an unknown number were arrested. Even though section 33 and 34 of the Police Act empower police to stop and disperse processions, section 28 of the same act requires police not to use excessive force.
Lately, there has been immense criticism of police mishandling opposition political assemblies and procession. Far too much force has been used to revolutionary protestors. The conditions under which police addresses riots displays a lot of anger, greed, and a hangover from the previous regimes to meet the regime’s needs. As the African Report (2021) rightly notes, police’s rough response reveals less changes from the past regimes in Uganda. The method applied by modern police resonates well with that of the postcolonial era. Concerns have been highlighted by countries such as the UK and US’. As U.S. Senators Chris Coons et al (2018) have stated, “[A]s members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are gravely concerned about the continued deterioration of democracy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms in Uganda. We are extremely troubled by the beating and arrest’’. Such statements have not resonated well with the President and he has resorted into abusing the western countries for intruding his political affairs. It is not clear yet if the situation will change after the swearing in of the President on 14 May 2021.
Police brutality in Uganda is far beyond beating, slapping, and kicking per se (Muhumuza, 2018). Recently there are reports of custodial torture (Foundation for Human Rights, 2005), castration and nail plucking while in police or prison custody (Ojambo, 2021). These claims have continued to emerge on television stations, social media, and informal storytelling. However, not much has been done by the legislators to discontinue the behavior and investigate the issue. Other forms of custodial brutality include forcing the victim to lie face up with their mouth open while water from a tap gashes into their mouth (Redress Trust (n.d)). In all this, opposition youth have been the main victims. Such acts continue to exist despite article 24 of the Constitution, CAT and the African Charter all prohibiting any form of torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. Arguably, the Constitution alone may not apparently deter such acts, but the public should continue holding government accountable of gross human rights abuses.
Other forms of brutality include the destruction of women’s sensitive parts such as the cutting off nipples (Madaada, a youth NUP mobilizer, was a victim of this during a police scuffle in Arua (Muhumuza, 2018). While human rights activists have condemned such acts of brutality, Parliament is disempowered to carry out their mandate. As Gooloba (2008) rightly states, parliament is rubber stamped, and legislators cannot execute their mandate without intimidations or interference by the state (Chris Coons et al, (2018). Unfortunately, parliament is a key player in the challenges that Uganda is facing; legislators were part and partial of the age limit which has contributed to current political instability in this country.
While the law requires that any person found guilty of torture may obtain a sentence of 15 years of jail and/or a penalty of 7.2 million Uganda shillings (about $1,920), in practice this cannot work because the implementers of torture are regime’s state machinery. Democracy, rule of law and human rights protection in Uganda are undermined by the regime itself; therefore, it is difficult for justice to prevail. Although there are many who have lost lives, the worst and grievous act was the killings of opposition supporters (who are mainly youth) and Wine’s diehards, such as Wine’s bodyguard who was brutally murdered in December, 2020 in Kyengera Kampala suburb (Daily Monitor, January, 2021) and a driver who was deliberately shot in August 2018 in Arua. Despite the demand for redress and justice over these two state killings, nothing has so far been done to punish the killers. While taking over power, Museveni in his ten points program enlisted democracy and security as key for Uganda’s restoration. Yet after 35 years of his rule, extrajudicial killings, kidnapping, unlawful arrests and detention are the order of the day. In other words, the regime itself has fallen short of its ideology. This article cannot exhaust cases of police brutality for the past three years; however, police brutality continues to exist amidst international, regional, and national criticism.
Conclusion and Lessons for Future Politics
Since 2017, the youth political struggles for government transition have left a global landmark for the future politics. It is still too early to tell whether any of the youth efforts through the People Power, Our Power Movement signifies the creation of a new future revolution in the country, but the youth’s tenacity offers hope for political transition. The massive police brutality has prompted the youth’s willpower for political change in Uganda. Following trends of the youth political struggle, government should not contest youth’s political struggles through brutality. Instead, the government should enhance youth’s civic education to enable them to participate in meaningful politics in Uganda. The following lessons can be useful for youth future engagement in politics:
- The youth should remain politically focused, build strong networks and work towards gaining relevant civic skills significant to meaningfully engage with the dominant political elites.
- While the youth are targeted for elections by the political elites, the youth should know that politics is ‘‘a game of win or lose’’. Therefore, the youth should not be swayed by state powers.
- It is important that the youth should invest in support systems and seek to dissolve personal anxieties that may compromise the political move for change in power.
- To be more effective, the youth should forge greater bonds with prospective allies within political systems of power.
- Finally, the youth should become part of the political systems for change and should assess their own standing without being propagated by political groups or leaders.
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