Unsolved Shootings Spotlight Uganda As Region’s Leader in Gun Crime

Recent shootings have focused attention on Uganda’s status as the region’s leader in gun crime and arms trafficking. Illegal firearms are plentiful, and many Ugandans worry that daily life is unsafe.

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Unsolved Shootings Spotlight Uganda As Region’s Leader in Gun Crime

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Mariam Namubiru, 8, sits on the floor of her home in the spot where she was shot in November. Police say they need the bullet, which remains lodged in her head, to pursue the shooter, but doctors say removing it could jeopardize Mariam’s eyesight.

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KAMPALA, UGANDA — Lukia Namutesi heard the pop of a bullet through her roof, then the screaming.

Her daughter was on the floor, blood gushing from her head.

And four months later, with the bullet, the key piece of evidence, permanently lodged in 8–year-old Mariam Namubiru’s brain, police say they still don’t have a suspect.

“No one heard any sounds of gun shots,” says Emilian Kayima, a spokesman for the Kampala Metropolitan police. “There was not any political scuffle in the area or its neighborhood to suspect that it perhaps strayed from a police gun. So it seems like someone stood on top of the house and shot through the roof, which is also most unlikely.”

“We can’t come up with any conclusion until we have the bullet to help us start investigations,” he says.

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Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda

Lukia Namutesi shows the scars that her daughter, Mariam, sustained from a surgery she had after a stray bullet embedded in her brain. Police say they don’t have any leads on the shooter.

Uganda has, by far, the highest rate of gun violence in East Africa, according to a 2016 report by the intergovernmental Regional Centre on Small Arms and Light Weapons. Between 2010 and 2014 there were 34,512 recorded armed crimes in Uganda, 33 percent more than neighboring Burundi, the second-ranked for armed crimes in the region. In Rwanda, during that same time frame, there were only 421 recorded armed crimes.

Other data shows that armed crime is on the uptick in Uganda. There was a more than 20 percent increase in the number of gun-related homicides between 2013 and 2014, according to the national 2014 Annual Crime Report.

None of this is a surprise to experts who research arms trafficking. Uganda is, in many ways, a center stage for small weapons movement, including firearms that originated in Uganda and those that come from other places.

When Idi Amin’s violent rule ended in 1979, military armories in northern Uganda were raided and weapons dispersed into the region. Armed conflicts brought more weapons as militant leader Alice Lakwena led an armed insurgency in the 1980s and Joseph Kony continued that conflict with his Lord’s Resistance Army, which barbarized portions of the country and stole children to fill out its ranks.  Since then, the Allied Democratic Forces militant group has spilled from the Democratic Republic of Congo into eastern Uganda.  Other organized armed efforts have occurred in Uganda’s northeastern Karamoja region.

“All these groups possessed guns, a very few of which we believe could still be in civilians’ hands,” Kayima says.

Arms trafficking could also be feeding Uganda’s violent trend. South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both countries with ongoing violence, border Uganda. Western Kenya, on Uganda’s opposite border, has also experienced instability.

“There is an increasing supply of guns traded at the Uganda borders with those countries, so it sometimes becomes difficult to monitor all broader areas,” Kayima says.

There is an increasing supply of guns traded at the Uganda borders with those countries, so it sometimes becomes difficult to monitor all broader areas.

The government destroys illegally-held firearms when they’re found, but they’re so plentiful that many Ugandans worry that daily life isn’t safe.

In mid-March, police spokesman Andrew Felix Kaweesi, a top-ranking officer in the Uganda police force, was gunned down near his home in a Kampala suburb, along with his driver and bodyguard. All three men died.

Local news reports state that several suspects are in police custody, but Kayima declined to comment on that investigation.

Miraculously, Mariam, the 8-year-old girl, is fine, doctors say. But removing the bullet in her head could damage her eyesight, says Dr. Michael Muhumuza, a neurosurgeon at Mulago National Referral Hospital who was part of the team who worked on the girl. He advises that it should stay put, perhaps for the rest of her life.

In exchange for her vision, Mariam gives up a chance to find the shooter.


Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.