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Soldiers point guns while riding military vehicles down a street where a pile of material is burning
Ugandan soldiers shoot at demonstrators during riots in Kampala sparked by the arrest of opposition leader Kizza Besigye in 2011. Marc Hofer/AFP via Getty Images

The roots of pre-election carnage by Uganda security forces

For two days in November 2020, Uganda witnessed some of the most violent riots in a decade. The riots were triggered by the arrest of opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, who is challenging the incumbent Yoweri Museveni in the February 14 2021 election. Authorities alleged that Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, had consistently disregarded COVID-19 related election campaign guidelines limiting gatherings to no more than 200 people.

In the violence that ensued, contingents of heavily armed police and the army responded with tear gas and live ammunition, resulting in the death of at least 45 people. Eleven members of the security forces were also reportedly injured during the riots.

The lethal use of force to break up a riot provoked national and international condemnation. It also raised questions around the standard applied by Uganda’s security forces in quelling this and similarly deadly riots in the past.

The blanket and indiscriminate use of firearms and live ammunition led directly to the carnage witnessed in only two days. This violent response of police and army units reinforces my view that Uganda must overhaul its national legal framework on the use of force and firearms during law enforcement. The current framework contains highly permissive and ambiguous standards which enable law enforcement actors to use excessive force with no clear lines of accountability.

The framework doesn’t address Uganda’s long-standing reliance on the army for strictly law enforcement tasks. Army officers deployed in this way are obliged to obey the orders of their superior working in collaboration with the officer in charge of the civil power. This is highly unlikely given the record of past brutally executed joint law enforcement tasks.

It’s now time that the country enacted laws in keeping with international standards, such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms. It needs to redefine the relationship between police and military during law enforcement.

Use of force and firearms

The right to life is protected under Uganda’s constitution. This protection was recently buttressed by Uganda’s Constitutional Court, which declared as unconstitutional the wide latitude given to law enforcers under Uganda’s Police Act.

The act previously empowered police to do “all things necessary” when dispersing unlawful assemblies. It granted immunity for any death or injury caused in the process, while condoning police brutality. The Police Act has not yet been amended to reflect the Constitutional Court’s ruling.

According to UN principles on the use of force and firearms, lethal use of firearms must be restricted to instances of an imminent threat of death or serious injury. Moreover, intentional use of lethal force even in such cases should only be when strictly unavoidable and in order to protect life. These principles require that law enforcement operations must be carefully planned to avoid use of force or use it as a last resort and employ the least harmful means necessary, to minimise damage and risk to bystanders and preserve human life.

But Uganda’s security minister, General Elly Tumwine – a top army general – has asserted that security forces have a right to shoot and kill in a situation where an offender displays a “certain level of violence”. He did not set out where the boundaries lie.

There have been dissenting voices, even among top administrators in Uganda. For example, the Police Director of Operations went on record with an apology and admission of error. He acknowledged that the use of live bullets to disperse crowds was unlawful and that police should have used tear gas instead.

Historical army clout

The right to life is the most relevant right during law enforcement operations and must not be arbitrarily deprived. JR Thackrah, a scholar of joint police and military operations in counter terrorism, has noted that,

“An army may kill in the execution of its normal functions but the function of the police is fulfilled by apprehending and bringing to account.”

Unfortunately, in Uganda’s context, this distinction is not always apparent. This poses challenges for the application of human rights standards during joint police and military law enforcement operations.

Under Uganda’s constitution and the Uganda People’s Defence Forces Act, the army can be called upon to “assist the civilian authority” in an emergency. Emergencies include a riot or a disturbance of the peace which the authorities can’t bring under control. Past inquiries into joint undertakings suggest domination and intimidation of the Uganda Police by the army. The army also reportedly disregards civilian laws and procedures.

This ultimately undermines the police leadership in its law enforcement role. Cumulatively, it undermines the distinction between use of force standards and protocols that must be applied during peacetime versus during war time.

The way forward

Under Uganda’s constitution the national army is subordinate to civilian authority. In practice, however, this isn’t the case. When the military is deployed during peacetime law enforcement operations, for instance, there is no statutory requirement that the army receives appropriate equipment and applies standards of training and doctrine which are in line with human rights standards fit for peacetime contexts.

By comparison, in some jurisdictions like South Africa, military personnel deployed for law enforcement tasks in co-operation with the police must by law undergo appropriate training. They are also given equipment suitable for this role. This serves to re-orient them from enemy combat roles to peacetime roles.

In such contexts they are also explicitly bound by the same limits on the use of force as the South African police.

Uganda’s Defence Forces Act could be amended to ensure such a requirement. This oversight could also ensure that mechanisms are in place to protect and maintain the police’s lead role during joint law enforcement operations.

Along with this, the police should receive more training and equipment including protective equipment in order to facilitate de-escalated and graduated use of force. Whereas the police have recently developed a handbook on the use of force and firearms, this is not enough. The guidelines must be debated and incorporated in a comprehensive enforceable legal statute.

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