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Opinion: Do all lives matter? Who will speak out for the ‘small’ people?

Ivan Okuda: I am intrigued though by the continuance of the trend of silence, oh dear, sorry, I meant less concern, about the plight of ‘small’ people who become collateral damage in these episodes of violent political processes.

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COMMENTARY | IVAN OKUDA

Musician and Kyaddondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine continues, as does his Mityana Municipality counterpart Francis Zaake, to wallow in pain after they were beastly butchered by Uganda’s perennially rascal security agencies. Libraries of ink have been written about everything wrong with what happened.

What I find shocking and disappointing is the President Museveni’s unwritten approval, condoning and abetting of this barefaced criminality. In all his statements on the Arua election, the president has neither expressed remorse, empathized with families of victims nor promised to take action on his officers who undoubtedly acted with more force than was necessary from the facts emerging.

This isn’t so surprising, especially seeing how Museveni loves to chest thump after every murderous episode as we saw with Kasese, Kayunga, Walk-to-Work, the war in the North and East wherein the army admittedly committed gross violations of human rights of civilians.

That mistakes may have been made isn’t a matter of concern for the Old Man with the hat. Perhaps, the president is happy with the actions of his officers which in a country of violent politics achieve the shock doctrine mission of scaring lesser people from taking on the state while also breaking the spirit of rising stars like Bobi Wine.

I am intrigued though by the continuance of the trend of silence, oh dear, sorry, I meant less concern, about the plight of ‘small’ people who become collateral damage in these episodes of violent political processes. There are men and women and men rotting away in West Nile. They were among those battered by security officers. One reportedly is in dire need of surgery.

Ivan Okuda Lawyer and Journalist

In his calculation, the cost of bad publicity measured against the long term aim of beating opponents to submission while sending a message to their followers, is bearable. After all, he has previously hailed the NRM as masters of violence.

For a regime that got power through violence and hasn’t been shy to apply doses of the same to maintain a grip on power, forcefulness is a time tested method.

Students of Uganda’s political and constitutional history will appreciate that the character of the Ugandan state and its attitude towards opposition hasn’t fundamentally changed right from colonial time. This perhaps calls for a deeper study of the evolution of Ugandan, nay, post-colonial African state.

That is beside the point though. It’s humbling that Ugandans across the political divide have voiced their concern and demanded for fair treatment of the two MPs. I am intrigued though by the continuance of the trend of silence, oh dear, sorry, I meant less concern, about the plight of ‘small’ people who become collateral damage in these episodes of violent political processes.

My acquaintance the indomitable Higenyi Kemba, of the Uganda People’s Congress, this week brought to our attention the plight of women and men who are rotting away in West Nile. They were among those battered by security officers. One reportedly is in dire need of surgery.

Except a few mentions in the media, none of these people has got the kind of attention the two MPs received. Understandably so.

No hash tag. No mention on the big radio and TV talk shows in Kampala. No parliament suspended to establish their condition. No Prime Minister statement on their fate. No Twitter and Facebook campaign. Just a mention in passing in our news pages. No headline.

Therein lies the crisis of our society. A society where the house of justice has private wings, VIP rooms and commoner sections. Of course, we don’t expect everyone to get the same attention for the world isn’t equal or even fair but I dare say we fall short of the bare minimum when it comes to the ‘small’ people. A few anecdotes will suffice.

A few years ago, a source in Opposition FDC got me rare access to Ndolo Military Prison in DR Congo where activist Sam Mugumya is to this day detained without charge. We did the interview that got published in Sunday Monitor.

Mugumya, however, is one of the most selfless people of our generation. He, at the end of the interview, requested that I look into the situation of other Ugandans detained with him because the media and NGOs were speaking about his issue as though it was an isolated case. I asked him to compile names and get a little more detail. He did. We published the story in Daily Monitor under the headline, “37 Ugandans rot away in Congo jail.” That is almost the most a journalist can do.

There hasn’t been mention of the plight of these Ugandans, many of them Baganda muslims. They continue to languish in Congo. Some have been there for six years.

Before Mugumya was detained there these Ugandans had spent up to three years in the military facility. Not FDC, not the media, not our human rights NGOs, not our diplomatic officers had, at least in public, raised voice. Sam’s arrest attracted media attention, key opposition figures matching to the DR Congo embassy in Kampala and constant efforts in and out of Uganda to secure him.

The other 36 Ugandans, who had no name recognition, weren’t as lucky. Who, I ask, will speak out for people like those? Who will start a Twitter campaign for them? Oops! Tweets about them won’t attract 1,200 retweets.

A tweet about Mugumya will. An effort to fight for the rights of these 37 Ugandans won’t get you a media mention or catch the eye of the donor. If you are a journalist, perhaps, their story won’t get you a headline. Mugumya’s story will. If you are Uganda’s Ambassador to Congo, visiting these 37 Ugandans won’t catch the eye of Amnesty International. Visiting Mugumya will. He is a recognizable quantity. Therein, lies the moral crisis of our society. Does every life matter?

Another example. Last year we at the Monitor investigated a spate of killings in Teso sub region, mainly inspired by land conflicts, politics and business and published a series titled: “Blood, Guns and Politics in Teso.” For the tens of days I camped in Soroti speaking to people, I touched, felt and smelt the monster of injustice in built in our society.

There was a high profile family which met the president to discuss the murder of their elderly mother. We in the media gave the case attention. Human rights lawyers did their best to get justice. Uganda Human Rights Commission made visits to the family. NGOs too. Then reality dawned. The reality of ‘small’ people.

There were families that had more scary tales of injustice, murders with impunity and state officials covering up or even involved. None of them had caught the attention of the president, media, NGOs. Yes, no Twitter campaign for them. No hash tag. No ‘Free Okello’ tee-shirts. No mention in the inside pages of our papers. Who, I dare ask, will speak out and act for these people, the ‘small’ people? Does every life matter? I could give 1993 more examples but these drive the point home.

And so, as I listen to our talk shows, retweet tweets and imbibe passion on Facebook about our beloved MPs paying the price of third world politics of violence, my heart and mind go out to the ‘small’ people who aren’t part of this conversation. That woman, mother, sister, aunt, spouse to someone who was reportedly was bleeding from her private regions while in court in Gulu or the young man Kemba reports, has a bullet lodged in his body. Or the orphans of Bobi’s driver and their widowed mother who won’t be lucky to have Bishops, ‘social media influencers’, NGOs, lawyers, journalists and MPs speaking about justice for them.

The many who have suffered the brunt of injustice with no one to talk to, no one to profile their plight are an indictment on us, as a society. I must, as a matter of disclaimer though, hasten to add that I know a few people in our media, NGO, human rights law and even government who will do anything possible, and do so whenever duty to humanity calls, to extend a hand to our ‘small’ people.

Maria Burnett, at Human Rights Watch, my mentor and friend Ladislous Rwakafuuzi, Nicholas Opiyo, the golden-hearted Jackie Asiimwe, Eunice Musiime, Andrew Karamagi, Eron Kiiza, police officers like Asan Kasingye, my colleagues Stephen Kafeero, Abubaker Lubowa at Daily Monitor and so many others who have their hearts in the right place and recognize that all lives matter, and each day, in the course of their jobs, try to do something, however small, to make a difference.

Thing though is, the culture of our media, NGOs, human rights law practice, opposition politicians, social media campaigns, is constructed around recognizable quantities. The ‘small’ people, by and large are out on their own, living like birds in space, lucky to get a tree to perch on when dawn strikes. Does every life matter? Let’s look in the mirror. There lies the answer.

Ivan Okuda is a lawyer and journalist with Daily Monitor

This article was originally published on Okuda’s Facebook page.

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