disaster preparedness

I first remember hearing about it after Columbine — suddenly high schools were locking doors, installing metal detectors and running emergency drills that involved organized cringing in corners, under desks and behind teachers who bravely assured us that it was all “just in case.” Then came weapons of mass destruction, September 11 and Katrina. Everyone, from parents to pundits, was talking about it: disaster preparedness. Being ready for something you’re not sure will ever happen, preparing for the what-ifs. Attempting to manage the, by definition, unmanageable.

Yesterday’s Daily Monitor headline announced that Ugandan Police Chief Kale Kayihura has asked for 8.8 billion shillings to buy anti-riot equipment to “subdue crowds effectively” over the next year. Some, like the Minister of State for Internal Affairs, might hold this up as an exemplary instance of disaster preparedness. Kayihura wants to buy 4000 arms, 1000 pistols, teargas and batons, a request that “seems to be out of the realization that there could be a lot of violence.”

Well, yeah. Last month’s highly-publicized Mabira riots are enough to make anyone responsible for ensuring civil order nervous. Still, I would argue that most of the clashes between police and public have been caused by trigger-happy armed officials attacking generally nonviolent demonstrators, rather than by angry mobs.

Case(s) in point: a peaceful protest at Gulu University, Besigye’s release from Luzira prison (and most FDC rallies), any public appearance of the Black Mambas, and my favorite, the Democratic Party gathering that never happened — where police spent a night hiding in a nearby village with tear gas, ready to “subdue” a crowd that never materialized.

A stitch in time saves nine, and all that, but the balance sheet here suggests that the best course of action for a government worried about violent protests might be twofold: first, to reign in a police force whose use of teargas and batons has proven overeager at its most mild, and second, to address the legitimate concerns of the protesters rather than spending $5 million to “effectively subdue” its citizens.