By Okot Benard Kasozi (Published 22nd July 2016)
An abridged version of this article was published as the “Letter of the Day” in the Daily Monitor newspaper, 14th July 2016.
It is worrying that, within two weeks, Ugandans experienced two fatal episodes of indiscriminate shootings by UPDF soldiers. These left over 10 citizens dead and others seriously injured at the Makindye Military Police Barracks in Kampala and in Mpumudde in Jinja district.
This generates a debate about mental health and sustainable peacebuilding, and raises questions on the relationship between mental health, indiscipline, human rights, and prosecution. Furthermore, it also makes me wonder how these shootings connect with a number of incidents in which former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abductees in the north have reportedly brutally harmed family or community members using machetes years after their escape or rescue. As such, the question of unaddressed trauma, war stress, and peaceful ways of resolving conflicts is very critical.
I’m grateful that the Government of the Republic of Uganda, through the National Resistance Movement (NRM), has championed numerous reforms in the army, including its profound professionalization that has raised the level of discipline in the army as opposed to past governments or the character of the National Resistance Army (NRA) immediately after 1986, where some soldiers would violate rights of civilian populations. However, I feel that “software” reforms that acknowledge the psychosocial wellbeing of the soldiers are paramount to complement and consolidate the current established reforms.
One may say that the recurrent violence and shootings by the UPDF soldiers are symptoms of unaddressed psychosocial issues within the Force, manifested by disabling the ability and competence of the soldiers to control their temperament/anger. Many of our soldiers have been involved in numerous battles with rebels and peacekeeping missions, which predispose them to suffer from post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD), depression, and other psychosocial traumas that require mental health interventions, such as psychotherapy, to support their conditions. Such tormenting pressures often force sufferers to cope negatively and engage in reckless risk-taking endeavors such as un-lawful or unprotected sexual behaviors, alcohol and drug abuse that often precipitate self-destructive and violent behaviors such as committing suicide or displacing aggression on to others, just as in the indiscriminate shooting cases.
Exhaustion and combat-related stress can potentially cripple the army because of the destructive impact to the sufferers, and the functionality and credibility of the institution. However, in the army, the problem is mostly considered as indiscipline that requires punitive redress without necessarily understanding the root causes so as to offer appropriate remedies such as psychosocial interventions.
As a professional psychosocial trauma rehabilitator and researcher, I recommend the following to the UPDF: Implement comprehensive army reforms by including psychosocial and mental health rehabilitation as a critical component in the army’s health system; Regularly conduct mental health assessments of soldiers to ensure wellbeing of the army for effective productivity and efficacy; Conduct regular investigations to identify root causes of emotional outbursts and alcohol/drug abuse to offer relevant support; Appreciate not only punitive means, but also appropriate care and support to soldiers and veterans; Hire trained and experienced professionals to be deployed in army rehabilitation institutions, barracks, and special missions so that social workers, psychologists and psychiatric professionals are a core part of the team; Design appropriate leave plans to ensure effective self-care; Remember that prosecuting the perpetrators of indiscipline without examining the root causes may not be the solution or a guarantee of non-repetition.
The writer (Okot Benard Kasozi) works for RLP as Senior Psychosocial Research and Advocacy Officer under the Conflict, Transitional Justice and Governance Programme