Upon formation around mid-2018, People Power political pressure group was quick to ring-fence their paraphernalia as a way of symbolism and identity for what had become an opposition front that appealed to mainly the youth.
Coming from the Age Limit amendment saga that had turned chaotic where the color red had been famous with ribbons, caps, and attires, People Power found it easier to assimilate themselves with the same as they made their symbols. They emerged with a red beret, red overall, and ribbons among others.
Going to the Arua Municipality by-elections the same year which was marred with violence and death, the symbols had already taken shape and were idealistic to the pressure group as they later became significant to them in the campaign.
When the formation later became distinct, the leadership launched the red beret as their main symbol, and during the crowded event at their headquarters in Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb they ordered their supporters to begin using the attire among others.
Many youths embraced the stylish wear which they donned during party ceremonies, attracting multitudes of throngs to the political formation.
“It is very stylish and we have had a look at the South African political group led by Mr Julius Malema and that is what we want too,” Robert Kyagulanyi alias Bobi Wine would say in one of the media interviews when asked what inspired their style.
But it was long before the government through the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) would move to clamp down on the wear with a policy to gazette the red-beret among other symbols as part of the military stores. This intentional decision on the government side was interpreted by many political analysts and opposition stalwarts as another form of political blockage on a new thriving force at the time.
On September 18, 2019, the Government of Uganda through the then Minister of Defense Adolf Mwesige published in the National Gazette indicating that red berets, ankle and ranger boots in black colors among other items are part of the accessories, Insignia and marks of the army in as far as section 160 of the UPDF Act is concerned.
“The dress code for the UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Forces) has been gazetted. The action was endorsed by the top organs of the army which also commended the dress committee for concluding the task assigned to it years back,” Richard Karemire said in a statement at the time.
“It manifests the commitment to define the identity and outlook of a professional army as well as adhering to the EAC (East African Community) protocols,” the statement added.
In October 2020, the Police and Army went ahead to raid NUP offices in Kamwokya in search of the gazetted attires, and many items were confiscated saying they were being used unlawfully.
The leadership at Kamwokya indicated that more than 300, 000 signatures were meant to use in the nomination of their candidate in the presidential elections whose campaigns were slated a few days later.
Last month, this publication observed the media briefings at the Kamwokya headquarters most of the leaders of the party were donned red berets.
Many of them drove away after the function with the berets on their heads and it was difficult to establish whether the law still exists.
Col Deo Akiiki, the deputy army spokesperson says the directive to gazette the red beret as part of the military store still stands and more measures to strengthen the existing law on the red beret and other military stores.
“We have been arrested and we would like to warn all those that use the red beret to stay warned and know that the long arm of the law will catch up with them. I called the enforcement arms to do their job,” Col Akiiki says.
Months after the gazetting of the red beret, Ivan Bwoohe, a constitutional lawyer challenged the government gazettement of Red Berets. He dragged the government to the Civil Division of the High Court for gazetting the berets as military attires seeking a declaration that the said gazette is illegal and amounts to abuse of the law.
“The notice has grave consequences as it aims to criminalize the wearing of red berets by citizens, black boots illegally included in the Notice published in the gazette extraordinary Volume CX.No.46 as per the section 160 and 164 of the UPDF Act,” Bwoohe reads part of the application.
Mr Benjamin Katana, a constitutional lawyer told this publication in an interview for this story that the Beret does not have the features that appear on military wear and that is why it has been difficult for the laws to be enforced.
“What the law talks about is the insignia and what we have on the red beret is very far from what is on the UPDF cap for instance. Can you imagine the overall was also classified as part of the military stores? Tell me which military wing wears an overall as a military store, it is just a draconian law like many others that have been formed to destabilize a vibrant force within the opposition,” Mr Katana said.
What the law says
Section 119 (1) of the UPDF Act 2005 stipulates that “Any person found under unlawful possession of any equipment ordinarily being the monopoly of the Defence Forces and other classified stores as prescribed, is subject to military law and can be tried in military courts as appropriate. The offense carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment when convicted.”
Also, Section 160 of the UPDF Act 2005 stipulates that “The minister shall, by notice published in the Gazette, declare and make known the marks when applied to any arms, clothing, equipment, vehicle, aircraft, or boat shall donate them as property of the state.
Section 160 (2) (c), “If any person unlawfully receives, possesses, sells or delivers any army clothing, equipment, vehicle, aircraft, or boat bearing a mark referred to in Subsection (1) or forbidden by or under this act to be sold, pledged or otherwise disposal of, commits an offense and is, on conviction, liable to imprisonment for life.”
That notwithstanding, Attorney General William Byaruhanga authored an opinion to the Minister of Internal Affairs on April 26, 2019, which was copied to, among others, the Inspector General of Police, pointing out that there is also no law barring people from wearing red berets.
In 2021, the Makindye-based General Court Martial convicted Mr Richard Tiriganya and Mr Alex Kadyama residents of Mukingo Village, Nakawa division, and Makerere Kivulu in Kampala respectively who were arrested during the November 2020 riots on charges related to wearing red berets.
Rubaga North Councilor James Mubiru was also charged for the unauthorized wearing of the army uniform preserved for the armed forces by Lt.General Andrew Gutti. Mubiru was found wearing a red beret in 2021. And many other supporters are still victims of the same.
To date, the National Unity Platform (NUP) led by Kyagulanyi Ssentamu Robert alias Bobi Wine and his supporters have continued to use the red beret even after the Uganda People’s Defence Force UPDF came out to put a gazette on the attire as a military uniform in 2019.
On Tuesday, June 13, 2023, during a press conference held at the NUP headquarters in Kamwokya, Bobi Wine and other party leaders welcomed new supporters who defected from other political parties which included the National Resistance Movement NRM and UPC from different parts of the country and each one of these were given a t-shirt and a red beret.
Mr Alex Waiswa Mufumbiro, the NUP deputy spokesperson told this publication in an interview that they have continued to wear the red beret because the law was bred out of, “ill intentions.”
“Even when our people are still languishing in prisons, it is because of impunity but this law is vague and was brought on bad intentions. They just wanted to stifle our operations which they couldn’t handle at the time and could easily clutch any straw because they were drowning,” Mr Mufumbiro says.