In the digital age, where being accurate is all too often relegated to a distant second, to begin with this story, it can be difficult for public authorities to be heard, as they attempt to correct unreliable information, which may have been shared several thousand times over, in a space of a few minutes.
This is where the Rwanda National Police (RNP), inevitably found itself, after a young mother died, reportedly shot by police, as they tried to carry out an arrest.
In Ngera, Nyaruguru, in Southern Rwanda, a child will now grow up without a mother. Social media is in no doubt that the police are to blame, after all, the bullet that killed the child’s mother was from a policeman’s gun. That much at least is beyond dispute.
But according to the police report, which KTPress was able to cross check with eyewitnesses, including local government officials, the crowd surrounding the police officer who fired the bullet that killed the young woman, bears more responsibility for her death, than the policeman who pulled the trigger. The young woman herself was not among those sought by the police, when they were called in support of the local authority officers.
The moment that would lead to her death, began routinely enough. As they have done on several other occasions before, around 5.30pm, two local government officials, in Ngera, Nyaruguru, were inspecting local drinking holes, this, a regular exercise to combat the trade in illegal brews. At a search in one bar, they found a drumful of the brew, the owner of which was eighteen-year-old, Jean-Claude Sibomana.
The officials duly went to detain Sibomana. The young man however, resisted, supported by several of his drinking friends and acquaintances. The officials then called in for support of their own, which included the Ngera Executive Secretary, Pierre Uwimana, whom they informed of the aggression of the now still small crowd.
According to Uwimana, he determined that the best way of calming the situation was to call for the local police. Two police officers, a sergeant and junior officer, came to make the arrest. As the police arrived, there were attempts to conceal the containers of the illegal brew, with Sibomana trying to make a quick getaway.
But he was detained, and as the officials had taken photographs of all the containers, during the inspection of the premises, the police felt they had sufficient evidence to charge him. Sibomana was put under arrest, handcuffed and led towards a waiting vehicle, to be taken away. That should have been that.
By now, however, a crowd of around fifty men and women had gathered, and were remonstrating with the police, and the local leaders, demanding that they release their prisoner.
What Uwimana described as a scene of chaos ensued, with a few individuals, emboldened by the alcohol they had consumed, manhandling the police, and dragging them away from the vehicle, in an attempt to release Sibomana.
Several people among the crowd, who had a vantage point on a hill, had armed themselves with rocks, with which they reportedly began to hurl at the two police officers.
Uwimana also observed at least one man who was carrying a machete. A young local woman who did not want to be identified, witnessing the stone throwing attack, saw one individual take a large rock, with which proceeded to directly attack the police officers, causing a superficial head injury to one of them and a long gash on other’s upper arm.
At this moment, some among the crowd felt their friends had gone too far, and upbraided them for the attack on the police, to no avail.
The two officers, and local government officials, continued to be pelted with stones. Some people continued to try to drag the prisoner away from the hands of the police. Others, including a former local defence officer, named Majyambere, reportedly grabbed the armed officer from behind, apparently attempting to wrest the gun away from him.
The officer, who was struggling to free himself from his assailants, began to fire over the heads of the crowd, trying to disperse them, and free himself. In the struggle, at least two shots went into the crowd, rather than over their heads.
One bullet hit 19 year old Esperance Yankurije, who fell to the ground, bleeding profusely. Another young woman was also hit, but her injuries were not life threatening.
There was little that could be done for Yankurije, who reportedly died almost instantly. Uwimana, and other officials attempted to take the injured woman to a local clinic, but they themselves were being threatened by the crowd, and took refuge in their cars.
As well as an independent investigation, there is an internal police enquiry, to determine whether its officers followed operating procedures, as stipulated in their Standard Operating Procedures manual (SOP).
As in all cases where police have discharged a firearm in a public space, or any such case involving members of the public, an investigation into the incident, is automatically begun, by officers of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB). It is that investigation which will determine the details of the circumstances leading to Yankurije’s death.
Among other things, the RNP’s internal enquiry looks at whether the officer’s decision to discharge his firearm, can be deemed “reasonable” under the circumstances.
According to the relevant section in the SOP, “the reasonableness inquiry refers to whether officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting him or her, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.”
Contrary to some media reports, the young woman did not have a child with her, during the fracas that ended in her death, it was ascertained only later, that she leaves a young child, who will now grow up orphaned.
The Rwanda authorities are not alone in having to battle against illegal brews. The near epidemic is an East Africa wide problem.
Often mixed with different chemicals that are hazardous to health, illegal brews have been put on a par with illegal drugs, causing harm to those who use them, especially among the young. As well as slow deterioration of health, and capacity to function normally, there have been several recorded deaths, resulting from chemicals used in the brews’ fermentation processes.
“If there is one thing that seems to drive people out of their senses, it is these illicit brews. It is difficult to say what chemicals are mixed in them, because these change from time to time, but they are a health hazard, with many who consume ending up in need of medical help. And they lead to constant bar brawls, fights between neighbours, domestic violence…The harm they cause is incalculable” said RNP spokesperson, Commissioner John Bosco Kabera.
Like illegal drugs, traders of these brews can make a considerable amount of money. The Eastern Province has been particularly affected. Middlemen carry their merchandise across Rwanda-Uganda border, and have been known to unleash deadly violence, when confronted by the police.
In most cases however, certainly on the Rwandan side of the border, even under the influence of these brews, people have shown respect for their local leaders and community police, and when caught, resigned themselves to arrest and went quietly.
“This was a sad tragedy that was completely preventable” insisted Commissioner Kabera, “attacking the police, or even local government officials, while carrying out their duties, is unacceptable, under any circumstances, and drunkenness is no excuse.”
“There is always due process, and people have the opportunity to legally challenge their arrest, if they feel it was in any way unwarranted, but we remind people to cooperate with their local leaders, and all law enforcement officers, in the first instance” he added.