Lectures

When ‘a People’s War’ Turns Against Them: Reflections on Uganda’s ‘War of the Wananchi’ against COVID-19

This article is part of the series:

Introduction

“This is a people’s war”, declared President Museveni after the country’s first COVID-19 case, adding, “I have come here to lead the war of the wananchi [against Covid-19]”[1]. When COVID-19 became a reality in Uganda, the government announced ‘a war of the wananchi[2](“a people’s war”) against the virus through a series of incremental measures. However, what started as ‘a people’s war’ began to look like a war against ‘the people.’ With the incumbent President facing a critical election in early 2021, the truths over COVID-19 in Uganda became highly contested, as measures announced in the name of the people against COVID-19 began to double as interventions against the spread of COVID-19, and interventions to limit activities of political opposition. This latter mutation would join a general trend of securitization to earmark Uganda’s experience – and the key lesson it offers.

In what follows, I ask: What kind of ‘war’ was this going to be, and how exactly would ordinary citizens – the people – be entangled in it? I consider three core aspects that came to be at the heart of these measures. First, I examine the proposition of physical distancing as the ultimate goal to prevent the spread of the virus and how it might corroborate with descriptions of “war.” Second, I consider how lockdown measures were implemented in ways that seriously compromised the welfare of the wananchi. And finally, I discuss how such measures, when enforced at gunpoint, actually lead to unnecessary deaths of the very wananchi that these measures were supposed to protect.

Uganda: COVID-19 Measures as War Measures

It is true that all over the world, governments exploited the COVID-19 problem to reproduce the state’s monopoly of violence and “war”, as seen in the general naming of COVID-19 restrictions as “war time” measures. In his March 16, 2020 speech, President Emmanuel Macron reminded citizens that France was at war[3]. In Italy, the Commissioner for COVID-19 assured Italians that he was looking for the best “ammunition to make [Italy] win [the] war sooner and better than the others.”[4]. The then U.S. President Donald Trump insisted that the United States was “at war [with] an invisible enemy” before declaring himself “a war time President.”[5] In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged his government to act swiftly “like any war time government”[6].

However, while the medico-health global threat announced by the World Health Organization was widely approached by nation-states militarily through securitization, the deliberate politicization of COVID-19 measures in Uganda added another layer of complexity and contestation of truths about COVID-19. The government’s COVID-19 response straddled securitizing a medico-health threat and gaining leverage against political opposition. The result was to further aid people’s contestation of the state’s COVID-19 measures in Uganda.   

Uganda approached the COVID-19 pandemic as a security threat, and launched a “war” against the virus. Reminiscent of the official account of the 1980-1986 guerrilla war that brought the current government into power, Ugandans were told that this would be ‘a war of the wananchi’ against COVID-19.’[7] The measures devised were not only conceived as embodying a war against an invisible virus; they were also enforced with military might.

The measures announced by Uganda’s government unfolded in four phases. The first set of these measures, issued on March 18, 2020, saw a month-long closing down of all mass gathering places: schools, religious places, bars, discos, and so on. Weddings and funerals were limited to immediate family members, while overseas travel was severely restricted. All returning nationals were to be subjected to a mandatory, self-paid quarantine of 14 days[8]. The second set of measures, issued on March 22nd, involved the closure of passenger entry into and exit from Uganda, limiting transport by land, air and sea to cargo and officially authorized planes[9]. The third phase, issued on March 25th, saw the suspension of public transport and non-food markets for two weeks[10], while the fourth phase, issued on March 30th, launched the country into lockdown mode: movement of people by all means of transport was banned for 14 days – save for vehicles of “essential services”[11] and special circumstances authorized by Residence District Commissioners (RDCs); non-food shops, malls, garages and lodges were also closed for the same period. Gatherings of more than five people were banned, and a curfew was ordered across the country, from 19:00hrs to 06:30hrs[12]. On April 14, 2020, which was when the lockdown which began on March 30th was supposed to expire, the President instead extended all measures for another 21 days[13].

This article is a reflection on the first phase of these measures, issued and announced by the President between March 18, 2020 and March 30, 2020. During this period, numerous questions emerged: How was a ‘war of the wananchi’ against COVID-19 to be fought, given that the enemy — the virus — seeks refuge in the same bodies of the wananchi? How would the welfare of the “poor and vulnerable” be guaranteed? If guns were to be deployed (as they were), how could it be certain these guns wouldn’t be turned against the very wananchi?

Whose Measures, Whose War?

To begin with physical/social distancing, the efficacy of this practice in curtailing the virus’ spread was widely accepted within official circles in Uganda. The Ministry of Health was relentless with its donor-funded messages, and later launched the Tonsembelela (‘Don’t come near me’) campaign. But beyond the talk, what was actually done during this first phase was to routinely police the streets: to do whatever was militarily possible to keep the wananchi unofficially quarantined in their ghettos. In this way, the official mantra of “social distancing” easily bordered on “a euphemism for protecting the elite from the disease ridden wananchi.”[14] In reality, ordinary citizens remained tragically exposed to the virus: in their ghettos; at their overcrowded workplaces; and on equally overcrowded “public transport” (until these were suspended on March 25th without offering alternatives, leading to untold suffering for many).

The second dilemma related to how the wretched wananchi, those who could not survive a day without working, were to survive if confined to their homes. On March 30th, when the lockdown was announced, the government also announced its plan to offer food relief to the most affected, while at the same time criminalizing citizens, particularly targeting members of political opposition, who had already started distributing food aid. The president declared that police would arrest anyone found distributing food to others, and charge them with “attempted murder.” This announcement marked the first attempt to politicize the already securitized response to the pandemic (later to be joined by an openly selective enforcement of rules on curfew and gathering restrictions).

From the very beginning, there were no clear guidelines to determine who qualified for food relief, what kind of food would be distributed, and the frequency of distribution. These are matters that were never resolved. Despite the parliamentary directive to halt food distribution until a national relief strategy was devised[15], food distribution went on as planned, limited to Kampala and Wakiso, beginning on April 4, 2020.[16] The President argued that people in rural areas have gardens, while saying nothing about the landless in cities and towns outside of Kampala and Wakiso.[17] Not only was the question of food relief turned into an avenue to gain political leverage, with the ruling party criminalizing charitable gestures of political opposition; equally vital, food relief became an avenue for government officials to fleece billions from public coffers[18] with huge amounts of wastage. Food relief itself became a weapon against hungry wananchi, as most of the food was “unfit for human consumption” – a euphemism for poisonous[19]. This led one citizen to lament: “These people will kill us before COVID-19 kills us!”[20]

The final point I would like to explore in this brief essay is the question of methods. With the announcement of a lockdown on March 30th, a crisis emerged when many ordinary citizens found themselves to be the target in its enforcement, especially the curfew declared from 19:00hrs to 06:30hrs. Uganda’s notorious armed unit, the Local Defense Unit (LDUs), went on a shooting spree, killing many in the process. In one extreme but not exceptional case, a group of security officers rounded up a whole village and brutalized everyone in it, injuring many. As their images went viral, the police responded by admitting what happened, arresting 14 of its officers[21]. In an accompanying statement, the police, in a rare show of graphic detail, clarified that the “incident occurred on the 2nd /4/2020, at around 8pm, on a rainy evening, at Lorokwo West village, Elegu Town Council in Amuru District. The patrollers targeted the area due to much congestion and an uncontrolled setting of makeshift structures. Using a heavy handed approach to disperse the occupants, the patrollers kicked doors open and dragged the occupants out and some fell in the muddy surfaces. Several vulnerable women and a few men were injured in the process.”[22] As of early July 2020, it was reported that LDUs had killed more Ugandans than COVID-19.[23]

Conclusion

When the WHO announced COVID-19 as a medico-health problem, as a global pandemic, many countries, including Uganda, responded by securitizing and militarizing their responses. Like many, Uganda announced a “war”, and branded it ‘a war of the wananchi’ against COVID-19. In the first instance, the contestation of truths over COVID-19 in Uganda was fueled by the state’s own version of securitization when increasingly, measures announced in the name of the people turned against the very people they were supposed to guard against the virus. COVID-19 measures particularly increased the vulnerabilities faced by those wananchi who live in impoverished areas. It puzzled many that measures were announced in the name of protecting people against COVID-19 when excessive brutality and murders at the hand state security personnel would also be carried out in the name of COVID-19. In the second instance, COVID-19 measures in Uganda, in the midst of a critical presidential election, were now doubling both as preventive mechanisms against COVID-19, and as avenues to gain political leverage against political opposition. In this sense, the key lesson from Uganda’s experience with COVID-19 is not only to be found in its reckless securitization of responses to the pandemic; even more important is that Uganda’s experience boldly highlights how pandemic responses can be politicizing, used by the ruling party to achieve its own goals while the lives of many citizens are put on the line.     


Adventino Banjwa is a Ph.D. Fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, Makerere University. His current research broadly focuses on movements to rethink the constitution of the political in postcolonial Uganda, and how the experience of such movements can inspire contemporary efforts to decolonize the postcolonial state. Email: adventino88@gmail.comTwitter: @adventino88


Notes

[1]Bwire J., 2020. “What Museveni told Ugandans after country’s first confirmed virus case”. Daily Monitor. Available: https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/What-Museveni-told-Ugandans-country-first-confirmed-virus-case/688334-5500578-ktrnoez/index.html

[2]This is a Swahili word, generally meaning ordinary citizens

[3]The President’s “We are at War” speech of March 16 2020, is available here: https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2020/03/16/adresse-aux-francais-covid19.

[4]Adriana Iaria. “We are not at ‘War’ with Covid-19. Concerns from Italy’s ‘frontline’. ICRC, Available: https://blogs.icrc.org/law-and-policy/2020/04/09/not-at-war-covid-19-italy/

[5]The Guardian. “‘Inivible enemy’: Trump says he is ‘wartime president’ in corona virus battle – video”. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2020/mar/23/invisible-enemy-trump-says-he-is-wartime-president-in-coronavirus-battle-video

[6]The Guardian News: “‘This enemy can be deadly’: Boris Johnson invokes wartime language”. The Guardian: Available. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/17/enemy-deadly-boris-johnson-invokes-wartime-language-coronavirus

[7]What Museveni told Ugandans after country’s first confirmed virus case, op. cit.

[8]Museveni Y.K, 2020a. Address on the Corona virus (COVID 19.) Guidelines on avoiding the pandemic. Available: https://www.yowerikmuseveni.com/address-corona-virus-covid-19-guidelines-avoiding-pandemic

[9]Museveni Y.K., 2020b. Additional guidelines on the COVID-19 (corona virus) preventive measures. Available: https://www.yowerikmuseveni.com/additional-guidelines-covid-19-corona-virus-preventive-measures

[10]Museveni Y.K., 2020c. Address on COVID-19 virus and additional guidelines on preventive measures. Available: https://www.yowerikmuseveni.com/address-covid-19-virus-and-additional-guidelines-preventive-measures

[11]See Museveni Y.K., 2020d. More guidelines on COVID19, preventive measures and the need for a shut down. Available: https://www.yowerikmuseveni.com/more-guidelines-covid19-preventive-measures-and-need-shut-down The following were categorized as the essential services: “the medical, agriculture and veterinary, telecommunication, door-to-door delivery, financial institutions, all media, Private Security companies, cleaning services, garbage collection, fire-brigade, fuel stations, water departments and some KCCA staff…”.

[12]More guidelines on COVID19, preventive measures and the need for a shut down, op.cit.

[13]Museveni Y.K., 2020e. Fourth address on COVID19. Available: https://www.yowerikmuseveni.com/fourth-address-covid19

[14]see Firoze Manji’s comment in Organizing in the time of Covid-19: Experiences of Uganda, op.cit.

[15]see the speaker’s comment below: https://twitter.com/Parliament_Ug/status/1245708430591119363

[16]The Prime Minister issued directives. Available: https://twitter.com/RuhakanaR/status/1245363149009825794

[17]Observer: https://twitter.com/observerug/status/1246144095203938309

[18]Monitor Reporter 2020. “Alleged stolen Covid-19 relief items found at Owor’s home”. Daily Monitor. Available: https://www.monitor.co.ug/News/National/Alleged-stolen-Covid-19-relief-items-Oworis-home-Nakalema/688334-5520756-12q6bbh/index.html. See also: Uganda Times 2020. Uganda Parliament Silently gives itself 10Bn Covid-19 Money. Available: https://ugandatimes.ug/uganda-parliament-silently-gives-itself-10bn-covid-19-money/

[19]Kenneth Kazibwe 2020. “UNBS withholds 100 tonnes of Covid-19 relief food over poor quality”. Nile Post. Available: https://nilepost.co.ug/2020/04/19/unbs-withholds-100-tonnes-of-covid-19-relief-food-over-poor-quality/

[20]Tweet from Emmanuel Oluka in response to the NTV news regarding the unfitness for human consumption of distributed food items. See: https://twitter.com/ema_oluka/status/1250510638775967744

[21]Uganda Police Force. 14 security officers arrested for excessive use of force. Available: https://www.upf.go.ug/14-security-officers-arrested-for-excessive-use-of-force/

[22]14 security officers arrested for excessive use of force, op.cit

[23]see: Kiggundu E., 2020. “Shoot to Kill: LDUs kill more Ugandans than coronavirus as lockdown bites”. Nile Post, Available:  https://nilepost.co.ug/2020/07/14/shoot-to-kill-ldus-kill-more-ugandans-than-coronavirus-as-lockdown-bites/


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