Gun violence: We must ensure it does not become contagious

May 26, 2023

Mary Karooro Okurut

Mary Karooro Okurut
@New Vision

In just about two weeks, we have lost four people in killings by shooting involving members of the security forces, both government-employed and those in the private sector.

On May 2, Pte Wilson Sabiiti, the bodyguard to the state minister for employment and industrial relations Col (rtd) Charles Engola, shot him dead at his home in Kyanja, on the outskirts of Kampala, as he prepared to leave for a cabinet meeting.

Four days letter, still yet-to-be-identified gunmen attacked and shot popular vlogger Ibrahim Tusubira, better known by the aliases Jajja Iculi and Isma Olaxess, dead.

Again, in the same Kyanja neighbourhood. Then Police Constable Ivan Wabwire on May 12, gunned down Uttam Bhandari, a renowned moneylender at Raja Chambers on Parliamentary Avenue in the heart of Kampala city.

The duo apparently had a disagreement over the outstanding loan or interest on it, but we will leave the ongoing police investigations to unearth the facts.

Luckily, the suspect, Wabwire, was intercepted and arrested at Busia customs point as he tried to flee into Kenya.

Separately, unknown armed attackers shot dead private security guard Ben Amaku, who was guarding a medical facility in Arua city in northwestern Uganda, in the early hours of Sunday.

These are cases that were reported to the Police. Perhaps some were not. As I previously noted, the case of minister Engola’s killing was particularly troubling because it was the first time in the history of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) and our mighty Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) that a bodyguard had killed a principal.

There is a growing concern that this contagion of shooting could spread and become a culture. Pte Sabiiti may have been a lone ranger outlaw, but his action in away reflects on the name and reputation of the army which is why it was unsurprising that President Yoweri Museveni, who is the commander-in-chief, described the murder as an “embarrassment” for the UPDF.

Likewise, the shooting dead of Bhandari by a uniformed police officer shows that some elements in our security officers are going rogue. There have been claims in the aftermaths of the sporadic killing episodes that the shooters were either financially distressed or mentally challenged. Neither of these has been qualified. I am not for explaining away or justifying of crimes, particularly of a grave nature that end in the taking of innocent lives as elaborated in examples above.

Therefore, it is imperative that our armed forces reset and assert the traditional command and control over their rank and file. Some flaw red flags have emerged in the aftermath of Bhandari’s shooting. There has been noticeable criticism against the Police and army in the mainstream and on social media concerning the management of forces and handling of weapons.

The President raised similar questions: If true that Police Constable Wabwire had a history of mental illness, why didn’t the law enforcement agency take better care of him, why or how was he able to access a gun, what is the procedure of signing out a gun owned by the State from the armoury, what were the gate-pass protocols at the moneylenders office, why was an armed individual allowed to enter Raja Chambers with a loaded gun instead of depositing it at the gate?

These questions suggest some of these killings were avoidable. Our security forces have generally performed exceptionally well in maintaining law and order at home and protected our national integrity and safeguarded us from external aggression.

It is the reason the UPDF and even Police officers have received international commendation whenever and wherever their boots are deployed on regional missions to keep the peace or stabilise conflict hotspots such as South Sudan and Somalia.

For these and other strategic geopolitical reasons, Uganda has over the years ranked a top consistent “key partner” of our friends and development partners around the world particularly the West.

So, I would be remiss not to say bravo and hooray to men and women in uniform and intelligence services! We are proud of you. Your sacrifices keep us all safe and secure our homeland.

Nonetheless, there is now a challenge at hand that we need to address collectively. These shooting, isolated as they may be, sully the image of the security forces and Government. For decades, the NRM has rightly bragged about its feat of restoring human security in a country where state-inspired violence and murders were commonplace. What our young generation may not know is that in the past, Ugandans went to bed unsure whether they would wake up alive or be arrested or killed.

It is that dreadful memory that the nascent spate of killings resurrects among the older generation. No one wants a return to such trepidation and, worse, spilling of blood. “So, what should be done to remedy the situation?” As a former minister for security, I hazard to propose the following:

  • The armed forces need to act fast and robustly, including revising and enforcing operational protocols. This should be easy as the institutions anchor on discipline and command and control.
  • Regular evaluation of members of the forces for their physical and mental fitness (Maybe we all need it!) for their jobs. Because a number of them experience and observe a range of disturbing occurrences during their professional life and particularly while on the battlefield, it is imperative that they are rendered a tailored psycho-social support to remain in the best of minds for judicious judgement calls in varying circumstances.
  • We require to return family and its value-building role in shaping our society. The criminals in our society are not from space. They are our children, they are our brothers and sisters, our uncles and aunties. Families need to do their fair share in giving to society citizens of integrity, valour and compassion and assist authorities with actionable information.
  • Bolster community engagement. Citizens and government/security forces should not be sitting on islands and talking past each other and living in mutual suspicion and distrust.

The common man and woman requires to be sensitised and given information that can enable them identify rogue behaviour or symptoms of mental illness early enough to aid timely intervention.

In conclusion, the State should tackle the emerging problem of gun violence urgently and decisively because it presents risk to lives and erodes the confidence of citizens in the Government, which is too high a political cost to pay. Let us all work out together to prevent a slide back into the dark past where lives of citizens never mattered. It is possible.

The writer is a Senior Presidential Adviser on Public Relations

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