Police have taken over control at the Masaka Regional Umeme offices following Friday’s protests by traders and opposition activists in Masaka town against persistent power outages.
Running battles between police and protesters paralyzed traffic flow along Kampala road as riot police opened fire and tear gas to disperse the protesters, who responded by pelting the cops with stones.
The protesters, led by Meddie Lutaaya, the Masaka FDC youth leader, and former Masaka municipality parliamentary candidate, Peter Mutesasira, took advantage of a procession by the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) at the launch of its Masaka regional office.
For about a kilometre, the anti-Umeme protesters who were carrying placards denouncing Umeme, marched alongside the UHRC procession, until police officers who were part of the procession noticed them and ordered them away, telling them to take their grievances to Umeme.
The previous day, these protestors had written to the Police about their planned demonstration, but the Masaka district police commander (DPC), Edward Sserunjogi, advised them against the demonstration on grounds that it would cause havoc in the town.
“The route you have chosen for your demonstration is a busy one. You will inconvenience traders as well as motorists in town,” the DPC Edward Sserunjogi reportedly told the demonstrators.
After failing to agree with the organizers of the protests, security officials here are said to have convened an impromptu meeting at which they asked Umeme to dissuade the public from taking part in the protest.
Umeme swiftly moved and hired a mobile public address system that made several rounds around Masaka municipality with messages in which the company was apologizing for the continued blackouts.
The power was immediately switched back on at about 3:30pm, having been off for 30 hours. However, it went off again at dusk and remained off throughout the night, getting back on Friday morning.
As the protesters moved towards the Umeme offices, they were intercepted by riot police personnel that had earlier been deployed at the Umeme offices. This attracted more protesters and, soon, a group that had been as small as six people grew to more than 100.
Masaka DPC Edward Sserunjogi and the southern region police spokesman, Noah Sserunjogi, tried in vain to persuade the crowd to abandon the demonstration, as the people demanded to meet the Masaka Umeme manager for an explanation.
“If we want to talk to the police, we know where to find you. This time, we want to talk to the people in Umeme, and we know that you are not Umeme employees; we shall not listen to you,” a protester shouted at the police officers.
“I don’t know why you are standing in our way because you share our suffering. I operate a photo studio and I have not worked for some days now because of Umeme. How do you expect me to survive?” FDC’s Mutesasira asked the police.
The protesters later agreed to a suggestion that five of them join the police for a meeting with the Masaka Umeme manager, Kirunda Magoola, who was, however, reported out of office.
The police then asked the protesters to return to their homes or workplaces and return to Umeme after one and a half weeks when Magoola is expected back in office. The protesters rejected the proposal.
The ‘peace talks’ later degenerated into chaos when the police opted to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters.
“We have tried to talk to them, but they have refused to understand. We now have no option but to drive them away. No one will blame us,” said the southern regional police commander, Simon Peter Wafana, as he asked the DPC to order police to forcefully disperse the crowd.
The first orders to fire tear gas seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, as majority of the riot police personnel did not respond.
“We are ordering to form up, and you are ignoring our orders. What are you up to?” one of the senior police officers at the scene shouted at the riot police.
After finally driving away the protesters, police asked the Umeme staff to close and return home, putting the premises effectively under the control of police. Three pickup truckloads of riot police personnel were deployed at the premises, and the entrance was barricaded, keeping both staff and the public away.
Meanwhile, the UHRC was angry with the police for sending away the protesters from the organisation’s procession.
“I’m the one who invited them. I asked all groups with grievances to come to the launch. Why did the police push them away?” Willy Agirembabazi, the Masaka regional UHRC manager, told The Observer.