Here’s one angle reporters could follow in covering Rwenzori rage

Were the coordinated 5 July attacks in the Rwenzori region ethnic or were they the work of an old rebel group such as the ADF or perhaps a new organisation altogether? Much media coverage has focused on this either/or question. Coverage is very likely to be frozen in this formulation. It should not.

Any attack that kills a life is bad enough. A coordinated assault on multiple security and civilian targets across three districts killing upwards of 80 people is doubly bad and requires some editorial imagination to make meaning of it all.

The hint as to where journalists should focus coverage, beyond the utterances of security chiefs and (often clueless) politicians is in President Museveni’s statement in which he declares that the attacks could only happen the way they did because of “a failure of intelligence”.

Yes, it was a failure of intelligence. They question journalists should ask and seek answers to is this: why the failure of intelligence?

The Daily Monitor scratched the thing a bit. I hope the paper, and indeed other outlets, can go all out in the coming days. In the 9 July edition, Daily Monitor picks up the President’s point and notes that the Internal Security Organisation (ISO) “maintains presence in all parts of the country up to the parish level, and it is understood the intelligence audit will look into how its structures could have failed to detect [the attacks].”

The paper quotes former two-time external security chief David Pulkol musing about why intelligence failed. He suggests that ISO agents were busy politicking in a partisan way, promoting President Museveni’s plan to hold on to power, and not focussing on detecting trouble in their backyard.

ISO chief Ronnie Balya is quoted in the same newspaper saying the law as is does not allow for the transfer of gombolola (sub-county)-based agents (or GISOs), hence they have stayed in their areas of operation for far too long and complacency has set in.

Reporters should pick up right there, from Brig. Balya’s point, and do simple straight up interviews primarily of security agents to establish what is ailing the system of intelligence gathering especially within ISO. There is no need to wait for some “intelligence audit” whose contents may never be made public. Journalists could ask several questions:

  1. What does the law actually say about GISOs? Do they serve for life? How are they appointed? What are the minimum qualifications if any? How long on average have GISOs in the Rwenzori area served? Ditto PISOs and DISOs. How much are they paid per month? Are they paid regularly?
  2. What do the individual ISO operatives in the region say about why they did not detect the planning, or if they did, why did they not report to their superiors?
  3. What are the working conditions of an ISO agent, and indeed agents from sister organisations?
  4. If they discovered a group of locals (or ADF-like members) plotting an attack in the coming months, would they report to their superiors or not and why?
  5. How do the different agents i.e. from the police, the military and ISO relate with each other at the parish or gombolola levels? Do they meet regularly? Do they share information regularly? Who vets the information at that level?
  6. Did the lower-cadre agents actually send information on up to their bosses in Kampala and they failed to act? If so, why? Is their inter-agency rivalry?
  7. What changes to intelligence gathering would these lower-cadre agents like to see enacted?

A separate, although related, bit worth pursuing lies in another passage from President Museveni’s statement. He writes: “How did all this start? It started with Mr Charles Mumbere, now HH Omusinga of the Bakonjo, coming to see me some years ago.” Okay, scores killed in a coordinated attack. And the President of Uganda pinpoints the origin. Right or wrong, Mr Museveni’s statement is serious. What does it mean for the omusinga going forward? Having restored the big kingdoms, is Mr Museveni regretting encouraging the smaller ethnic groups to also manufacture their own kings? What effect will the attacks and their immediate aftermath mean for the region’s embrace of Mr Museveni ahead of the 2016 elections? And on and on.

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About Bernard Tabaire

Bernard Tabaire co-founder and Director of Programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence. He is a former managing editor for weekend editions at the Monitor Publications in Kampala and also a columnist with the Saturday Monitor.

View all posts by Bernard Tabaire →

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