Friday, April 29, 2011

How (not) to manage a crowd

Today has been quite bizarre.  Like half the population of the world (or at least those with TV or internet access) I have been watching the British Royal Wedding.  The Brits may not be great at cooking - though they are getting better - and our weather is pretty awful but, by jingo, we do a good royal wedding!  All the ingredients were in place: impeccable timing, wonderful frocks and lots of cute children in the crowds to make inaudible comments on TV.  Good thing the wedding wasn't in Kampala.  Although the weather would have been a great deal better, the ceremony would have started two hours late, the cars would have broken down because they'd never been serviced, or would have been weaving in and out to avoid huge potholes, and the horses would have bolted because they hadn't been fed.  Kate's dress would have fallen apart at the seams before she even got to the aisle and Westminster Abbey would be a semi-ruin because the builders had sold off the cement to their mates and used cassava flour to stick the stones together instead.  However, the British Establishment being in charge, the whole wedding day went like a dream.  The crowd were led gently and courteously to where they should be by polite respectful policemen.  Nobody pushed, nobody shoved and nobody decided to test out the latest brand of boys' crowd control toys.

Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away, things were a bit different.  It all started yesterday.  Some of you may have picked up details from the media but, in a nutshell, here is what happened.  We ourselves were not eyewitnesses, so our information is taken from newspapers like the 'The Independent' and 'Daily Monitor' which, unlike most other newspapers here, are not owned by the government.  You can find links to these papers and to others on the right hand column.

The Opposition Leader, Kizza Besigye, has been leading walk-to-work protests every Monday and Thursday, together with the leaders of all the other main opposition parties, in support for the poor of Uganda who are seriously affected by rising food and fuel prices.  Price rises are occurring at the same time as many Ugandans have serious concerns about some recent government decisions about expenditure on fighter planes and the President's swearing-in.  Each time they try to walk, they are arrested.  Yesterday, Besigye, having just been released from jail again on bail, drove through Kampala apparently to go to the bank.  He is currently nursing a large bandage on his arm as a result of being shot by police a few days ago, I'm not sure whether by a rubber or live bullet.   

As his car neared one of the main junctions, it apparently attracted a crowd of supporters.  The police, who shadow Besigye everywhere he goes these days, stopped his car, smashed the windows with hammers and rifle butts and sprayed a gas 'of unknown toxicity' directly at him in the close confines of the car.  Some reports say four cans of teargas and pepper spray were emptied into the car as well as 'obnoxious spray'.  We watched the video of this and we could see the police firing directly into the car at Besigye at pointblank range.  He was not obstructing them in anyway, but simply had his head down to avoid injury.  The CID officer who was apparently leading this attack is reported to be a devout Christian with a degree in social administration.  Unable to see, Besgiye was pulled from the car, manhandled, arrested and thrown into the back of a pick up truck.  He was taken to court in quite a bad condition but released because of concerns about his health.  The State represented by five lawyers protested that 'there was no medical evidence to prove the medical condition of Dr Besigye.'  He was apparently blinded by the gas, his skin was burnt and he had difficulty breathing.  He spent the rest of the day in hospital.  He is still reported to be in a bad way.

Absolutely predictably, the city erupted today.  It was almost as if the police had deliberately provoked the population by their actions the previous day.  From our office window we could hear the sounds of gunfire across the city.  Some was teargas but, as usual, live bullets were also used.  Plumes of smoke rose into the air from burning tyres wherever we looked.  We took refuge at home only to discover that our own neighbourhood was also erupting.  Indeed, there has been trouble in towns across Uganda, by the sound of it.  So, we sat tight and watched the Royal Wedding, a good remedy for the jitters!

Ugandan policemen are not good at managing crowds - except for one senior officer who, a few days ago accompanied Olara Otunno, another Opposition leader, on his walk, apparently to keep him safe.  Sadly, he was then suspended from duty.  However, all the other officers seem to over-react at the drop of a hat, shoot at bystanders and generally cause mayhem.  They seem to get away with it.  Recent casualties include a two year old shot dead while she played in front of her house. By no stretch of the imagination could she be considered a threat to anyone.  Wild spraying of crowds with gunfire, indiscriminate use of tear gas and pepper spray, violent beating of anyone in the way with truncheons or whatever comes to hand appear to be the order of the day.

My solution to the inadequacies of Ugandan policing is to send a contingent along to the next Royal Wedding.  There they will learn to be nice, help old ladies across the road and stop little children from being crushed.  Of course, they will have to leave their toys at home: no more big boys' guns for half-educated semi-trained thugs.  Give them a union jack to wave instead, I say!

You may also be interested in a recent post Through a child's eyes, which deals with related issues.

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