The pictures of vicious local defence units (LDUs) battering elderly women in downtown Kampala broke our hearts.
Seeing their faces contort in excruciating pain gave me goose pimples. I was enraged. I was angry at the pain and humiliation these “poor and vulnerable” mothers went through. No amount of face-saving by the Chief of defence forces would soothe their pain – and mine.
This was at the beginning of the 14-day lockdown, where directives were outrageously vague – requiring two separate “clarification addresses” to make sense of them. As counsel Nicholas Opiyo would remark, the president was a “rumbling grandfather” not “keen on details,” and neither reflective of the impact of his decisions on people’s lives.
These underprivileged vendors of foodstuffs had come to the streets on the understanding that the president had allowed food to continue being sold. These are women you would never expect to deliberately break Museveni’s directives. They were on the streets because Museveni had allowed them – or so they thought.
Unable to run faster than their otherwise youthful pursuers while at the same time holding onto their only merchandise, the green-suited gum- booted enforcers hammered them with the ferocity of a wounded cobra. Huffing and puffing as they hit their hapless victims, it was painful to watch our grandmothers cry.
Their pain became our pain. We cried. But coerced into the belief that these “wretched of the earth” mothers risked the lives of the entire country by keeping on the streets (not the wealthy travellers who came in unquarantined), our anguish would die inside us. We turned away from our TV screens shaking our heads in disbelief.
But there was more coming. Hundreds of other grannies – some actually homeless, others simply stranded without transport home – would be arrested for “disrespecting” Museveni’s 7.00 o’clock curfew.
Later, we would see pictures of another elderly grandmother on her knees begging not to impound the motorbike of a boda boda rider who had risked taking her to hospital. With her medical records in hand, our God- blessed robotic officer insisted on a letter from Museveni’s very-corrupt district emissary, the RDC.
Without it, the bike was actually impounded, and returned only later. If her condition was fatal, she would have joined the countless expectant mothers– that have lost their lives in this blighted lockdown.
Summarizing this plight, one social media commenter would say after the president returned to clear his infinite obfuscations, that “it didn’t matter what the president said, but what the LDUs understood.”
This tweep vividly captured the LDU perception in the country: regime- blessed bloodsucking monster. If they were not seen breaking into people’s homes and brutalising them for not switching off their lights, they would be seen ordering people seated on their verandas to enter inside. Again, the president had to return and offer guidance on this one.
Then a typical Machiavellian circus started: “these are bad apples in service”; “there are rogue elements among LDUs.” “There are People Power supporters sabotaging from inside.” “They will be tried and sentenced.” Indeed, in front of the cameras, they were tried and remanded. But this circus is complete utter nonsense.
We have been here before: there are no bad apples or rogue elements in our security agencies. See, the military (including police, UPDF, LDUs and any other gun-wielding forces) remain the most stringently disciplined institution in the country. As the well-known slogan goes, “order ya jeshi ni moja.” It is unthinkable that soldiers in uniform under current Uganda –junior recruits for that – would be stupid enough to implement non-issued orders or simply overstep their orders.
Like we saw with “Nigerian” military police battering protestors and journalists on the streets of Kampala, the LDU brutality is simply part of the script. But as the Machiavellian game goes, the government has to turn saintly after its dark orders have been executed.
To save face, it sacrifices its foot-soldiers executing them in public in a tactical spectacle of atonement and justice. We have been here before – and my friend, Reuters photographer James Akena, is still in a wheelchair.
But whose children are these dark-hearted angels? From whose wombs did they come? No, they come from the bowels of the beast. These are children of our system: impoverished by the same system, and now called upon into dirty work, and for a small stipend, they are turned into heartless fighting machines.
When they first emerged (or re-emerged recently) LDUs, together with other machines – street cameras – were promoted as protectors of the wananchi. But in truth, like our ordinary-still-colonial police, whose sole job is to protect the powerful/exploiters, LDUs are the more mechanised version.
Robotic, ruthless and ready-to-impress their master, their orders include monitoring potential protests against power, and decisively responding. COVID-19 has potential for anti-government protest, and thus, the message has to be sent early enough.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.