Plainclothes Paramilitary Beat Kampala Protesters
NOTE: THIS VERSION IS SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT THAN "KIBOKO SPEAK OUT"
The day before April 17, they were called. The orders were vague, but orders are to be followed. They were to report to Kampala's Central Police Station the next morning for a job that would take some hours.
They arrived at Kampala's Central Police Station, were photographed and identified, and given breakfast of bread and milk tea.
"We were taken to a room down stairs and given sticks to beat whoever was violent," said one member of the Kiboko Squad, who refused to reveal his name. His large body dwarfed the purchased-on-a-budget metal chair in a small take-away eatery. Sweat emanated from every pore of his shaved skull, collecting in his temples, dripping off his sizable earlobes.
"We didn't aim at beating just anyone, but in case they were a suspect, we just beat them," he continued.
"I don't know where they got the sticks from," said a second Kiboko Squad member. A boxer by trade, his strength was written all over him -- as was the reason behind his recruitment -- his biceps burgeoned from beneath the edges of his mesh florescent yellow tank top. He also refused to give his name.
"They told us not beat up the leaders of the Opposition [Political Party] but small people because they were causing the chaos," said the second squad member through a translator.
Just a few days earlier, a riot in the city lead to the death of five people -- four Ugandans and an Indian who was lynched by a mob. President Museveni planned to give away a quarter -- 7,100 hectares -- of Mabira Forest to an Indian firm called Metha to grow sugar cane. Some members of Cabinet and Parliament opposed the decision, and the conflict took on the additional dimension of party politics as well as racial undertones.
A primarily online and SMS campaign was launched, and over 10,000 people gathered causing chaos in Kampala.
They couldn't allow this to happen again. Not with the Queen of England planning to visit in November. The historic CHOGM conference is expected to bring an unprecedented number of dignitaries, boost the Ugandan Shilling and increase tourism.
Museveni refused to back down on the Mabira Forrest give away. Another demonstration was planned.
Phone calls were made. A Kiboko Squad formed.
The next day, the day canes ruled Kampala, the Kiboko Squad gathered: they were a group of plain-clothes civilians who roamed Kampala Road indiscriminately beating people with sticks to effectively quell the demonstration.
They came from the Taxi Park, the busy hub of transport. They came from the ranks of the Police, a khaki colored menace known for a low number of reported incidents of torture and a high number of reported torture victims. They came from the boxing ring near the poorest of poor parts of Kampala. They came from Kampala Road, where they stood guard at ATMs and directed traffic. They came from previous paramilitary squads, last years' Black Mambas.
The Kiboko denied doing harm to anyone but thieves.
However, they indiscriminately caned anyone how crossed above Kampala road. Among the injured were several journalists. They moved as a trained and prepared unit around the streets, inspiring fear in civilians. Every time the crowd dared above Kampala Road, the main thoroughfare, the Kiboko launched into action. They chased civilians away, beating whoever was unlucky enough to fall within reign of their sticks. The men with canes effectively cowered the crowd, reigning them back like cattle.
Someone nicknamed "Backfire," who has been previously identified by the Ugandan press as Juma Semakula, ruled the group. However, Mr. Semakula was unwilling to comment for this article, as were most of the squad members.
"It's private," one member after another repeated upon a request for an interview.
They performed crowd control until people slowly went back to whichever corner of the city they had come from, and then the Kiboko walked down to the end of Kampala Road, sat one of the few grassy medians in the city, smoked cigarettes and threatened the journalists until they left.
They later dispersed into the city, slipping back into their ordinary jobs. Waiting to be called upon again should the occasion arise.
Without uniforms licenses or badges but with clear direction and coordination, the rag-tag bunch inspired fear in many a Kampala citizen.
Currently, the Ugandan Human Rights Commission is investigating the semi-vigilante group and will release a report at the end of the month.
Though the exact genesis of the Kiboko Squad remains hazy, the first member said in defense, "Police officers could be stoned by the public, or maybe a police officer can get annoyed and triggered to take the life of a culprit. So the Kiboko solve this problem. We came to agree that it was better to use sticks and whips than tear gas and live ammo. Someone came up with the idea of forming a small group of whippers who can beat up those strikers."
One Squad member identified DPC Emmanuel Muheirwe as the source of his order call to order, who has since denied association with the paramilitia. The same member also implied that nothing ended with Muheirwe.
"Suggestions always come from the top brass," he said.
President Museveni, though he denied ordering the squad's creation, approved of its activities. When asked about the Kiboko during a meeting of Asian Business Men after the riots, Museveni said, "I salute the Ugandans who stood by justice and opposed the criminals." With this statement, he effectively endorsed the paramilitary squad -- regardless of its genesis -- and the pseudo-lawlessness that cowered Kampala citizens April 17.
Squad members, however, agreed the civilians were not randomly targeted, and insisted they only went after criminals. "We didn't do any harm. No one was seriously beaten, except for one thief trying to steal a motorcycle and a phone," he said. "He was given twenty strokes, but he was a thief."
Additionally, he insisted, "We were not terrorizing Kampala, only protecting the property of some rich people around. One man with an internet café gave a member a Ush 50,000 note ($23). That's not terrorism. We kept peace. People who don't want peace say we are terrorizing."
Members of the squad insisted they were also there for general security, "because people become ruthless, so we were to beat them and scare them. We were there to prevent hooliganism," said the second squad member.
"We were whipping thieves out of the area," the first man corroborated, claiming he was not paid for his duties but performed them anyway out of civic grace.
The other Kiboko Squad member also claimed to work without pay. He said, however, "I enjoyed the work because in one way or another I was trying to create peace."