Dispatch

The Myth of ‘Stray Bullets’ in Uganda

A year ago, the state shot to death scores of citizens. No one has been held accountable.

By , a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda.
A Ugandan police officer stands at the doorway of a bullet-riddled house.
A Ugandan police officer stands at the doorway of a bullet-riddled house in Kisenyi, a suburb of Kampala, Uganda, on April 28, 2018. Isaac Kasamani/AFP via Getty Images)

KAMPALA, Uganda—In 2018, during protests in the capital, I arrived at the spot where a man had been shot to death just an hour before. Locals showed me pictures of his bloodstained body; the police would later say he was killed by a “stray bullet.” But it already looked as though nothing had happened at all. Boda boda drivers leaned on their motorcycles. Women bent over charcoal stoves. Young men gathered around Ludo boards, slapping down pieces with a familiar clack.

State violence has become normalized in Uganda’s capital. Exactly a year ago, on Nov. 18, 2020, opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known as “Bobi Wine,” was arrested in the country’s eastern district of Luuka for violating COVID-19 rules while campaigning for the presidency against incumbent President Yoweri Museveni. In the ensuing unrest, with nationwide protests, police and soldiers killed at least 54 people—many of whom weren’t even protesting. Yet no security officers have been prosecuted for their actions, and no compensation has been paid. There are only the quiet tears of victims’ families and, if you know where to look, the bullet holes in the walls.

This has all happened before. When Museveni, then a rebel soldier, was sworn in as president 35 years ago, he said “no regime has the right to kill any citizen.” But since then, he has regularly crushed urban unrest with brutality. His security forces killed at least 40 people in the “Buganda riots” of 2009, at least nine people in the “walk-to-work” protests of 2011, and at least six people after Wine’s first arrest in 2018.

KAMPALA, Uganda—In 2018, during protests in the capital, I arrived at the spot where a man had been shot to death just an hour before. Locals showed me pictures of his bloodstained body; the police would later say he was killed by a “stray bullet.” But it already looked as though nothing had happened at all. Boda boda drivers leaned on their motorcycles. Women bent over charcoal stoves. Young men gathered around Ludo boards, slapping down pieces with a familiar clack.

State violence has become normalized in Uganda’s capital. Exactly a year ago, on Nov. 18, 2020, opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, known as “Bobi Wine,” was arrested in the country’s eastern district of Luuka for violating COVID-19 rules while campaigning for the presidency against incumbent President Yoweri Museveni. In the ensuing unrest, with nationwide protests, police and soldiers killed at least 54 people—many of whom weren’t even protesting. Yet no security officers have been prosecuted for their actions, and no compensation has been paid. There are only the quiet tears of victims’ families and, if you know where to look, the bullet holes in the walls.

This has all happened before. When Museveni, then a rebel soldier, was sworn in as president 35 years ago, he said “no regime has the right to kill any citizen.” But since then, he has regularly crushed urban unrest with brutality. His security forces killed at least 40 people in the “Buganda riots” of 2009, at least nine people in the “walk-to-work” protests of 2011, and at least six people after Wine’s first arrest in 2018.

Last week, I met Hajara Nakitto, whose 15-year-old son Amos Ssegawa was killed during last year’s protests. He was a bright boy, she said, who liked soccer and dancing. His school had been closed due to the pandemic, so he was helping her in the clothes shop where she worked. They closed early to escape the chaos downtown and were walking to a taxi park when an army vehicle sped past. A soldier shot Ssegawa in the head.

The state has done nothing to help Nakitto despite video evidence of what happened. She paid for her son’s burial and post-mortem. Every day for a week, she went to police headquarters seeking compensation, sometimes walking seven miles since she could not afford transportation fares. When she finally met a senior officer, he told her to go to court. She did, but the hearing has been postponed twice because the judge was on leave. In April, she even staged a lone protest outside parliament and met with Rebecca Kadaga, then speaker of parliament. Now, when she calls the numbers she was given, no one answers.

Nakitto was away from the shop so often that she lost her job. She had no money left for rent, so her landlord kicked her out and seized her belongings. “Ever since I lost my child, no one [from the government] has come out to help,” she told me in the village where she now stays with relatives. “It has always been me looking for them.”


Museveni’s regime, fearful of an Arab Spring-style uprising, views almost all protests as illegitimate. It is almost impossible for a large crowd to gather in a city square or march down the street because such assemblies require police permission that is rarely granted. When protests erupt, they are diffuse, abrupt, and chaotic, signaled by the smoke of burning tires wafting from makeshift roadblocks.

The state treats all protests as riots, so riots are what they get. During last November’s nationwide protests, for instance, crowds threw stones, shook down motorists, and damaged property; one man attacked a policewoman with a hammer. In Luuka, where Wine was arrested, young men nearly put a rock through my windshield.

But although some protesters were violent, nowhere did they appear to have guns. Security personnel responded with live ammunition and disproportionate force. “This is a war-like situation,” said an army spokesperson, as soldiers and plainclothes gunmen joined police on the streets.

At such moments, the state effectively declares war on the city and anyone who calls it home. Many people killed in these situations are not protesting at all but simply running errands or completing humdrum chores—a fact documented repeatedly by outlets like Human Rights Watch and the Daily Monitor, a local newspaper.

Violence is not the Ugandan state misfiring: It is simply what the state does.

In Uganda, you can be shot while delivering food, collecting rent, looking for bread, going for a haircut, changing money, buying water, hiding in a shop, washing clothes, sleeping in your house, standing in your garden, stepping into a restaurant, traveling to a football match, or even while watching a news story about the state crushing protests. You can be shot while making an obscene gesture, standing with your hands in the air, begging for mercy, or being pushed into a prison cell. You can nearly suffocate as a 1-day-old baby because police have fired tear gas into the room where you sleep. You can be an 82-year-old grandmother and die from breathing problems after tear gas canisters land outside your hospital ward.

Suffering, wrote poet W.H. Auden, “takes place / while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.” But in the postcolonial metropolis, designed around patterns of exclusion, there is no space for indifferent bystanders. The poor in Kampala “walk dully” into gunfire because there are bills to pay and children to feed and an economy that allows for no pause.

Sophie Kusasira, a food vendor in Kalerwe Market, was shot to death during last year’s riots when she went to collect payment from a customer. Nuulu Nabuuma, another food vendor, died while purchasing supplies—something she did every afternoon, according to her neighbor. “Her neighbors tried to tell her not to go to the main road, but she had nothing to sell the next day. … She was shot in the back of the head,” the neighbor told the Daily Monitor.

These stories cannot be hidden. Museveni himself said 32 of the 54 people killed last November were actually “rioters” (which does not, of course, justify shooting them). An internal government report leaked to the Daily Monitor suggests only 11 victims were “rioting.” The rest, officials said, were hit by “stray bullets”—the favorite excuse of a guilty state. On a basic level, that is untrue. A BBC investigation using hundreds of fragments of mobile phone footage shows security forces firing indiscriminately.

The myth of “stray bullets” is misleading in a deeper sense too. Uganda is a starkly unequal country. Three decades of neoliberal policymaking have failed to create enough jobs and concentrated economic power in the elites who cluster around the president. Protest killings are an extension of the mundane violence the state inflicts daily to control and dispossess the poor. The state and its agents wield force to grab land, bludgeon fishermen, and chase street traders. They have killed at least a dozen people for violating COVID-19 curfews. Violence is not the Ugandan state misfiring: It is simply what the state does.


A month after last year’s killings, prominent human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo met colleagues in a Kampala restaurant. Together, he said, they had collected evidence of 138 fatal shootings—far higher than the official death toll of 54. As they ate lunch, plainclothes security personnel burst in, blindfolded them, and drove them away in an unmarked van. The authorities held Opiyo for eight days on money laundering charges (which were later dropped) and have since shut down Chapter Four Uganda, the rights group he leads.

The government’s reaction to the killings has been “typical,” he told me this month: “a half-hearted admission of excesses, an empty promise to investigate, a blame game of the dead, and a mischaracterization of them as ‘rioters,’ ‘saboteurs,’ and all manner of adjectives. And then the world moves on.”

Spokespersons for the police and the criminal investigations department, which investigated the killings, both declined to comment for this story. Chris Baryomunsi, the country’s information minister, told me investigations into last November’s killings are “ongoing.” Only after a full report is released will compensation be paid or officers potentially prosecuted, he added, without giving a date.

“In the blame game, the person who originated all this is the person who defied and breached the regulations,” Baryomunsi said, defending the arrest of Wine for drawing crowds larger than the 200 people stipulated by COVID-19 rules. “It’s very unfortunate and regrettable that in such a situation, stray bullets end up hitting innocent bystanders.”

But the thing about bullets is they do not go astray. They strike exactly where the guns are pointing.

Liam Taylor is a freelance journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. He has reported widely from Africa for the Economist and has also written for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the Christian Science Monitor, and African Business magazine, among other publications.

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