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Kayihura and the ‘graveyard’ of our police chiefs: The untold story
Charles Onyango Obbo
Posted: 1 month 1 week

No dismissal of an Inspector General of Police has ever been more discussed or caused excitement like that of Gen Kale Kayihura just more than a week ago. That is because no police force in Africa has been as controversial, and been so mired in partisan politics than Uganda’s during Kayihura’s reign, bar perhaps South Africa’s in the time of apartheid. However, Kayihura was just a cog in the process that brought the Uganda police to the strange place where it is today.

To begin with, I do not buy into the view that the Uganda police was still “anti-people”, “colonial”, and all the epithets NRM militarists like to hurl at it, and that, especially, Kayihura’s appointment was meant to cure that.

True, when the NRM took power in 1986, the police was a mess both operationally and ideologically, but sufficient reforms were undertaken, and within four years of coming to power, the Museveni government had actually changed the Force for the better.

The most professional era of the police was between 1992 and 1999, when John Cossy Odomel was IGP, and it became as technocratic as it ever was between 1999-2001 when John Kisembo was chief. The two Johns succeeded in making the Uganda police a boring place, which is a good thing, and this was a period when some of the most enlightened officers Africa will ever get into police leadership, like the urbane and cerebral Herbert Karugaba led the Criminal Investigations Department.

You just need to see Karugaba’s international career path after he left the Force to know what we missed.

So if we wanted to understand how and why the Uganda police fell down the hole, without dwelling too much on the folly of the men who have led it, and The Man who appointed them, is there a path to that? Yes. Three critical events changed the police force – mostly for the worse.

The first, was the August 1998 terror bomb attacks on the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. It was mind-bending to see how the atmosphere changed in the Uganda security sector. Because, at that time, Uganda was the undisputed regional geopolitical kingpin, it got dramatically sucked into the US-led war against global terrorism.

The anti-terrorism project internationalised the Uganda security services considerably, and brought a new prestige and access to resources (eg training in prestigious Western intelligence programmes, new forms of cooperation with the CIA), the job could no longer go to an Odomel or Kisembo.

It had to go to someone from the belly of the NRM militariat, with Luweero war pedigree.

However, if nothing else had intervened, the Uganda police would have been a lethal Force (dabbling in torture and all that), but benign and having some credibility and competence, as a law enforcement and crime investigation outfit. However, another event threw a spanner in the works.

In August 1998, the so-called Second Congo War started, after then-president Laurent Kabila, who had been helped to fight his way to power in 1997 by a broad coalition, including Rwanda and Uganda, fell out with his backers.

Uganda and Rwanda took to eastern DR Congo where they propped up various proxies, as Kabila stitched together an alliance, including Angola and Zimbabwe, to fight back. The important thing, both for UPDF and the police, is that soon our rogue officers, in cahoots with businessmen, were looting or trading in everything from diamonds, gold, timber, wildlife, and coffee from eastern DRC.

We had intense struggle across the security forces and agencies for leadership, because sections of the Ugandan security system became guards for our DRC bootleggers. It became very important that a lorry carrying illegal DRC timber should not be stopped.

That, really was the end for the high-minded officers, the ones who watch documentaries on the rise and fall of Rome on their DSTv in the evenings, and go to their children’s parent-teacher meetings.

The death blow, however, was to be delivered by one man – Kizza Besigye. Everything changed in Uganda from October 2000 when Dr Besigye announced that he would go for Museveni’s job in the February elections next year.

The lessons, and shock from that election, are what truly led to the militarisation of the police in April 2001, with the appointment of Lt Gen Katumba Wamala as IGP. It was also Dr Besigye’s return from exile on October 26, 2005, to run again in the February 2006 polls, that partly led to the appointment of Kayihura as IGP a few days later in November. Lt Gen Katumba hadn’t played along too well.

And so, next week, we shall look at how Dr Besigye rocked the boat, and by losing all the elections he has run against Museveni, ended up perhaps changing the country more than if he had defeated him and become president.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com.

Twitter@cobbo3