Last week, Uganda’s Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions, Joan Kagezi, was gunned down by an unknown assailant on her way home in Kiwatule, a Kampala suburb. The suspected killer melted away on a motorcycle. Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel organisation operating in the Mount Rwenzori region in western Uganda, was blamed by the police for this attack.
Before the incident sunk in, there was a gruesome attack on Garissa University Collage in northeastern Kenya. At the last official count, 148 people were dead and scores injured. The al-Shabaab terror group based in Somalia took responsibility for this attack.
Predictably, there has been serious public outrage and condemnation. Acts of terror are usually carried out for the sake of propaganda. They are surprising and unpredictable. In this vain, they cause a lot of panic, for you never know when the next will occur. It could happen at a wedding, a funeral, a school, a hospital, a place of worship, a shopping mall, at an entertainment centre, or on the road in a traffic jam, etc. It does not matter if you are politically active or not, if you support the government or oppose it. You could end up being a victim because of the indiscriminate nature of terrorism. Terrorism causes a lot of pain to as many people as possible to ensure that society is gravely affected and the world is held hostage.
Perpetrators of terrorism have succeeded in changing the way most of the world appreciates certain fundamental aspects of democracy. One of them is the indelible nature of human rights and civil liberties.
In his book Guantanamo And The Abuse Of Presidential Power, Joseph Margulies details how then US President George Bush and his government fought against the supremacy of the law and abandoned any pretences of the rule of law and respect for human rights protection when dealing with suspected terrorists at its detention centre in Guantanamo.
Similalrly, Jane Mayer in the book, The Dark Side; The Inside Story Of How The War On Terror Turned Into A War On American Ideals, shows how the pursuit of terrorists is increasingly becoming a serious affront to human rights.
The war on terror has divided the US and several other countries. The problem of terrorism is going to lead the 21st Century into the temptation of redefining the way it appreciates democracy and civil liberties. Because of the pain and panic terrorism pauses to the general populace, many States are increasingly receiving both overt and covert support in the way they approach terror suspects. Arbitrary arrests, detention without trial, denial of bail, torture, rendition, etc, are becoming increasingly acceptable and justifiable.
No government in the world will want to appear like it is doing nothing yet its people are under threat and attack by people who spring out of nowhere from time to time, fighting for causes that oftentimes the victims know nothing about.
The trouble is that in this blanket and sweeping approach that the war on terror has taken, many times innocent people are victims. Kenya, for instance, has the habit of indiscriminately arresting people of Somali origin. Muslims and bearded men in many countries are harassed and treated without extra precaution because of association of organisations such as al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and al-Shabab with Islam.
High handedness is seen as an appropriate answer to the cries of the victims of terror attacks because from time to time, people need to see someone punished for the wrongs committed against society. But like John Grisham documented it in his widely acclaimed book, The Innocent Man, many times those arrested and used as ‘examples’ to assuage the pain of society may actually be innocent.
In some cases, many have died in detention without having their day in court to prove their innocence. That is a grave dilemma.
For developing countries like Uganda, the problem is even bigger. If you ‘strengthen’ the laws without caring for the long-standing problem of the officers of the law (the police and judicial officers) being inefficient because of poor motivation, you do no work. They will still act in a way that helps terrorists and criminals.
Secondly, if you accept the position that the State should do everything, including ignoring the law in its pursuit of terrorists, you stand the risk of having some of its opponents thrown in conveniently.
The threat of terror is leading us into the temptation of becoming lawless societies for the sake of our security and wellbeing.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. firstname.lastname@example.org