In May 2012, police issued a terror alert, saying it had got credible information that a suspected terrorist – Andreas Martin Mueller alias Ahmed Khaled was travelling from Mombasa to Kampala aboard a Kalita bus.
However, a year later in October 2013, police was put on the spotlight after it issued another terror alert with similar descriptions, saying Andreas Martin Mueller was travelling from Mombasa to Kampala using the same bus – Kalita, which it had described in 2012.
Days into the claims, Kalita Bus Company came out and refuted the claims, saying the bus which police had said the suspected terrorist was travelling on had not been on the road for more than two weeks as it was undergoing repairs in one of the company’s garage.
The above scenario raised questions about the credibility of police’s terror alerts, with a section of the public questioning how police would be involved in issuing hoax alerts, which not only hurt businesses but also loosens up public confidence in relation to being vigilant whenever an alert is issued.
Issuing terror alerts
It should be noted that a number of alerts – real or imaginary, have been issued by different government security agencies and foreign embassies or missions warning the public of possible terrorist acts.
But one might ask how these alerts are verified or if there is a central point through which they are issued, considering that hoax alerts not only hurt businesses but might encourage laxity among members of the public.
When contacted to clarify on how they verify or issue terror alerts, Erin Truhler, the information officer at the US Embassy in Kampala said their primary responsibility is to provide services to US citizens, key among which is keeping them secure.
“When we receive information about a security threat, the US government evaluates its credibility and after the evaluation, we issue a security message just like how we have previously done,” he said in an email.
Just last week police and the US Embassy in Kampala issued other terror alerts after an attack on a Kenyan university – Garissa University College, where 148 people, among them, security officers and students were killed.
Keeping business in mind
Nonetheless, as security must prevail, a section of business people wonder whether police and the US Embassy are sometimes mindful of the impact of such alerts especially when they are not verified to the economy.
Barbara Vanhelleputte, the chairperson of the Association of Uganda Tour Operators, says the so many alerts, some of which are hoaxes, have had a negative impact on their businesses witnessing a drastic fall of more than 70 per cent in both hotel occupancy and overall safari operations.
Similarly, Amos Wekesa, the Great Lakes Safaris managing director and a tourism enthusiast, shares his frustration with terror alerts, saying “they are just too many and uncoordinated, which might create complacency as well as worsening business losses. Such uncoordinated alerts and travel aisories stifle the economy by keeping away would be opportunities.”
Just like Vanhelleputte, Herbert Byaruhanga the president of Uganda Tourism Association, reveals how a better part of the tourism sector is struggling due to a drop in tourist numbers for fear of being attacked.
A number of bookings, according to Byaruhanga, have been cancelled and this has become a routine as terror alerts continue to be issued.
Byaruhanga also reveals that a number of tour companies, which are struggling have been forced to cut more than 2,000 jobs and others (about 15) forced to close (only this year).
“It is very unfair that some countries are aising others not to come to Uganda. It is affecting the way we do business,” he says.
But amid all this, police say they have a duty to keep Ugandans safe and secure using all means available.
Polly Namaye, the police deputy spokesperson says: “We cannot ignore any alert since we were hit in 2010. We do not want to see a repeat of September 2010.
Importantly, she notes: “Withholding such vital information yet we have a duty to protect people and their property will mean we are failing in our duty.”
Misled by public
But when asked about the hoax terror alerts, specifically the one of Andreas Martin Muelle, Namaye says there is no such a thing as a hoax alert but sometimes they (police) are misled by the public or government security agencies.
“You have seen instances where we have arrested people who wrongly issue false terror alerts.”
“We are usually vigilant and careful but sometimes we are failed by other people,” she says.
In 2013, a Makerere University student was arrested after he issued a hoax alert, which was picked by security agencies and circulated to the public.
Such cases, Namaye says have been a problem to police as they break down the confidence level of police’s alerts.
Getting the context
In neighbouring Kenya, the government has been put on the spot for failing to sufficiently act on a terrorist alert that has been published by the US Embassy days leading to an attack at Garissa University where more than 148 students were killed.
Last year, after the Wastegate terror attack, a number of terror alerts were issued in the period after the attack. However, government, specifically Mr Uhuru Kenyatta, was enraged by the so many alerts warning foreign embassies of trying to sabotage the Kenyan economy through issuing aisory notices. The warning, although good for the economy then, must have relaxed the vigilance with some sections fearing to be victimised over terror alerts.
Thus even when the US issued a terror alert with specific location of attack, the Kenyan government failed to provide the necessary vigilance which resulted in a massive killing of students at Garissa University College.
SOURCE: Daily Monitor