Notes From Kampala: The First Note in a Series of Reflections and First Hand Accounts From a Law Student’s Summer in Uganda

By Reta Raymond
Associate Special Features Editor

Kampala, Uganda (Photo by Reta Raymond)

I’m a second-year law student from Syracuse University and was fortunate enough to have spent the summer in Kampala, Uganda to work in the area of human rights law. I worked for a small Ugandan law firm that works on a variety of public interest constitutional matters, human rights issues, and also represents the three-time presidential candidate, Dr. Kizza Besigye. In addition, I worked for another human rights organization and volunteered at an orphanage. While in Kampala I lived at a guesthouse adjacent to the orphanage where I volunteered. The orphanage generates desperately needed income, as the government does not support organizations caring for the nearly two million orphans in Uganda.

I came to Uganda at a turbulent time. Two weeks earlier the police responded to the month-long protests with live ammunition and tear gas. Unfortunately, these events were largely unreported or downplayed by the international media. I decided to keep a journal of my experiences in Uganda, detailing the issues that were plaguing Ugandan society. The most striking of these issues include high rates of child abandonment, structural problems in the law, pervasive corruption, state-condoned police brutality, separation of power issues, and executive power breaches. This series of articles will serve to highlight some of these issues, raise awareness, and give a voice to the Ugandans who are fighting so hard for change.

The capital city of Kampala is constantly bustling, from the claustrophobic markets to the ever-present traffic jams. The old second-hand cars and stripped-down Volkswagen Vanagon taxi buses spew black exhaust, which combine with the burning trash to pollute the air to a near asphyxiating degree. Due to the electric company’s mismanagement, the city often loses power for hours at a time, even in the center of the city. For a city that only has twelve hours of daylight but many residents who travel by motorcycle, it can be rather dangerous speeding through the city without streetlights. However, Kampala is generally safe and there is a strong presence of police in full military attire who carry assault rifles. The police presence is particularly heavy in the center of the city, as there are dozens in the Constitutional Square, although they are usually sleeping in the grass. But where the police fail, the lynch mobs usually pick up the slack.

For example, one morning around 7:30 a.m. a colleague arrived at the office and told us to look out the window. There was a mob after a man who had tried to steal a car. The mob of fifteen to twenty people had partially stripped the thief of his clothing, which they do to humiliate the man, and were beating him with their fists and stones. The man lay in a pool of blood in the gutter while the group watched for movement. He feigned death, his only hope for survival. His lack of movement mostly satisfied the mob, but they gave him intermittent blows regardless.

Our office is in the center of the city only two blocks from the Constitutional Square, but it took forty-five minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Once the ambulance pulled up, the driver talked to some of the mob participants but decided to drive away without the man. Some of the onlookers followed the ambulance and demanded it return for the man. Shortly thereafter, a police truck showed up with four or five men with assault rifles, who restrained the mob and eventually ordered the ambulance to take the man away. By that time, the man had been lying in a pool of blood for an hour. My colleagues and I watched as the ambulance was sent in the direction of Mulago Hospital, the government-run hospital, and the truck of officers went in a different direction. If the man survived the incident, he would probably not face any criminal charges.

In the aftermath, some of my colleagues joked about how “gangster” they are in Uganda and voiced their opinions on the mob mentality. It seemed clear that mob violence increases when there are larger societal problems; it is really a result of displaced anger. There is no rationale for killing a would-be car thief otherwise.

Many Ugandans feel that President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, lacks legitimacy. In April, the opposition parties led a peaceful “Walk-to-Work” campaign to protest high commodity and fuel prices. The military responded with liberal use of tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, killing at least ten civilians including two children. The government has yet to investigate these deaths. Then in July, Kampala’s taxi drivers, business owners, students, and teachers all went on strike. Uganda seems to face insurmountable problems, but the government’s current responses to these problems have been insufficient and Ugandans are clearly not going to stand for much more.

Author: Impunity Watch Archive