By Patricia Munabi.

President Museveni recently stunned the country when he put on a brave face and appeared to condemn the horrendous torture that has frequently been meted out on civilians by security personnel. The background to the President’s remorseful address to the nation is a rather painful one; the 2021 general election wherein he was declared winner was marked by wanton violence and gross human rights violations. 

 Up to this day, fathers and mothers of this nation are nursing wounds, and families’ graveyards bear evidence of what went wrong in the election. Some families are still searching for their missing relatives while some are yet to heal from the torture they were subjected to. In many ways, the election brought out the worst of our society and reminded all and sundry that our democratic journey still has a long way to go.

It goes without saying that a political culture of violence, whatever shape and form it takes; citizen-to-citizen or citizens-against-the-State or the State-against-citizens adds no value to the growth and development of our democratic experiment. It de-legitimizes the State and for Ugandans slightly over 40 years old, it brings back sordid memories of our troublesome past where men in uniform, ordinarily hired and paid to protect life and property, become prey on fellow citizens. 

For us at the Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE), it is even more disconcerting given that women suffer the consequences of this culture of brutality more. FOWODE has since inception been advocating for increased women’s participation in leadership broadly and in politics specifically.

Although the number of women in politics has grown over the years, the challenges women face are immense. We are committed to closing the gender gap in our political landscape but our efforts are dampened by the kind of violence witnessed before and after the 2021 election as more women are scared off politics because it is not only a dirty game but one that leaves them as widows as their young children’s lives are claimed by the State.

It is against this background that we welcome the President’s admonition of the excesses of some of the rogue security officers. As commander-in-chief, his voice of reason adds value to the call for restraint and accountability on the part of these officers who choose the evil path over the law and human rights.

Whereas the President has in the recent past also been at fault by encouraging these acts of torture, such as when he publicly praised officers who tortured one of the presidential candidates in Arua District, it is abundantly clear now that our brothers and sisters in security agencies, many of whom pay the ultimate price and sacrifice so much to ensure that we are all safe, should brace themselves for some form of accountability. It is good that the leadership of the Uganda Police Force is now happy to pass the mantle of accountability to individual officers who violate the letter and spirit of the laws against torture. 

Accordingly, we urge the President to go beyond the rhetoric and televised addresses condemning these human rights violations. As the fountain of honor, he should ensure that officers against whom there is evidence of torture crimes are brought to book. More importantly, families of victims of the government’s excesses should be supported in all ways possible to heal and even be compensated.

Yes, there is the option of them going to court but access to legal aid remains a tall order for many of these indigent would-be litigants. When successful after a marathon trial in the courts of law, getting paid the damages they are awarded by the courts is another nightmare. Some get discouraged while others die without ever getting justice.

Therefore, the President should have a 360-degree outlook to this issue if he is truly committed to fixing it and consider instituting a commission of inquiry akin to the 1986 Justice Arthur Oder commission into human rights abuses. It is not enough, we contend, to condemn torture. Accountability must be the cornerstone of this atonement by the State and more importantly, supporting victims to heal should be paramount.

Patricia Munabi is the Executive Director Forum for Women in Democracy

This article was first published in The Daily Monitor of 22nd August 2021 pg.31