After going for three weeks without electricity, residents of Bugembe, a suburb in Jinja, took to the streets yesterday, engaging the police in running battles.
Life at the busy trading centre came to a standstill for over four hours as the police fired tear gas canisters into the demonstrating crowds.
When matters seemed to totally get out of hand, the police fired live bullets in the air—as the rioters responded with more stones. Traffic was held up, with vehicles snaking for miles and causing a jam, as the Jinja-Iganga highway was rendered impassable.
When the police, led by the district commander, Mr Jonathan Musinguzi, finally managed to restore order, two officers, Yasiin Karuhanga and Rashid Terijja, had sustained injuries and were undergoing treatment at Jinja Hospital.
According to the residents, Umeme, the electricity distribution company, took away two transformers from the area three weeks ago, plunging it into darkness.
“We don’t know why these people have held the contract for this long,” shouted a rioter. “They have very poor customer care services. How can they disconnect people, offer no explanation and yet they come here delivering bills? What do they want us to pay for?”
Another in the crowd told this newspaper, “After the first week people came here moving house to house with a book demanding Shs20,000 before we could get power back. We paid the money but we don’t see the power.”
However, an official with Umeme, Mr Julius Bulamu, dismissed the claims.
“None of our staff has gone out on such a mission. We don’t ask people to pay money in such a way. All cash payments are made to this office. It is possible these kamyufus (impostors) could have done that,” he said.
Mr Bulamu added that replacing the transformers had taken long because it is a capital investment. “When we isolate an area it is not that easy to connect them back. I cannot commit myself on when the transformer will be replaced but it is being worked on.”
The transformers, noted the official, were overloaded due to illegal connections.
“Many people were using power yet the company at the time of installing the transformer had planned for a particular number of consumers. Legitimate users should have reported the thieves,” he said.
In a phone interview with Umeme’s head of corporate communications, Ms Charlotte Kemigyisha, said: “We removed that transformer seeking system improvement. It is unfortunate it has taken this long but everything is under way to address the issues in this area.”
By last night, an unusual calm had descended on Bugembe with people going about their business but with logs on the roadside still ablaze, a reminder of the day’s earlier events.