By Mukalazi Deus
Research Associate, Democracy and Rule of Law
Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS).
On 27th May 2020, the Kampala Metropolitan Traffic Commander, SSP Norman Musinga issued a circular guiding on traffic during what he termed the Covid 19 period. The statement as has become the norm was circulated through all social media platforms. It’s important to note that this same statement was never officially shared on the official social media platforms of the Uganda Police Force including Facebook and Twitter.
In the circular, the Commander seeks to guide on how private cars should operate after the Presidential address on 19th may which eased the lock down by allowing private cars to get back on the road subject to observation of certain guidelines like carrying not more than three passengers including the driver and the occupants having a face mask on at all times. The cars were to resume on the 26th May 2020 and indeed this happened. The sudden ease of private cars saw a huge constraint on the traffic flow in the City and it was literally paralysed. As a result, many motorists were paralysed, and a good number failed to beat the curfew deadline of 7:00 PM which found them still stuck in traffic on the road. The Police responded by impounding the cars and arresting the motorists.
In the circular, a seemingly frustrated Traffic Commander blamed the traffic jam on what he called excitement, and ‘other motorists had nothing to do in town and just for the sake of getting out (sic) and move around town. Whether this is true or not is immaterial and a subject for another day, but it depicts an attitude of the police towards Ugandans and has a bearing on respect for inherent rights. The Uganda Police force, according to the constitution, shall be among other things professional and its members shall be citizens of Uganda of good character. With due respect to the Commander the tone and language of his circular is unprofessional and depicts Ugandans as people who are idle and wander around aimlessly. On the contrary, I want to believe that the people who stepped out on 26th May are trying to make ends meet. Some were going for crisis meetings at their workplaces where probably many of them were given the sad news of downsizing. Other had to go and seek medical examination and attention that was understandably impossible during the lock down. Some had the anxiety to go and check on their businesses and merchandise they had left unattended to downtown for over 60 days. It was inevitable and expected that the City would register such traffic on such a day. For a Senior Police officer to use such language to label them idle and arrest them for being stuck in jam and therefore unable to beat the curfew hour was a failure on his part not to use his discretion and pragmatically solve the situation.
The Deputy Resident City Commissioner, Nakawa,Mr. Burora Anderson, in a letter written to the Commander volunteered, and rightly so, to point out to him that the traffic jam has been exacerbated by the ongoing construction projects which are ironically aimed at easing traffic flow once completed. It’s important to note that there are construction works going on on John Babiiha Avenue, Clock Tower, Northern Bypass, Nakawa (Spear)-Ntinda and many others which he ought to know better.
Secondly, in the same circular, and perhaps based on the above attitude, the no nonsense senior traffic cop, outlined a number of traffic rules and regulations that they would be enforcing during this time which is well within their powers as per the Road safety Act of 1998 as Amended. However, there was an insensitive guideline given the situation. The move to impound all those vehicles which have not cleared their outstanding express penalty receipts. At a time when people have been under lock down for over two months, I found this “welcome” to the roads insensitive. This is the time when we need to show compassion and understanding to Ugandans and should be devising ways of waiving off certain financial obligations or if we can’t, defer them to a later date.
It’s important for police officers to always remember that they are supposed to guide the citizens and public. It’s a civilian force and this should not be left at the police training school. We should see this exhibited in how police officers deal and communicate with people, more so in situations like this, where covid19 has taken a toll on people’s lives.