By Elias Biryabarema
GULU, Uganda (Reuters) – The killing of Alfred Olango by police officers in the United States this week provoked shock and anger in the Ugandan town he left more than two decades ago to escape poverty and conflict.
The 38-year-old was shot in El Cajon, California, by two officers responding to a report of a mentally unstable man walking in traffic, after he pointed an object at them that turned out to be an electronic cigarette.
It was the latest in a string of shootings of mostly unarmed black men by police officers in the United States that have led to sometimes violent protests.
“He ran away from problems to safety and they treat him like that? Is it because he’s black? Why?” said Olango’s uncle Simon Nyeko in the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, weeping at his home of a few thatched huts at the end of a dirt road.
Family friend Otti Jino, 77, said he was saddened by the killing. “We need our son back here in Uganda to be buried here,” he added.
Olango’s mother, Pamela Benge, who lives in the United States, said on Thursday her son was suffering a mental breakdown when confronted by police. His brother said he had two daughters.
More than two decades earlier, he had fled his village of Koch Goma that was devastated by an insurgency against the government. He initially found refuge in the nearby town of Gulu with extended family. In 1991, he traveled to the United States.
“I don’t see a reason why somebody would shoot an unarmed, innocent man,” said Steven Ojok, 34, a friend of Olango’s from Gulu who now lives in Kampala. He said he had kept in touch with him until two days before his death.Â
He said his last text message from Olango was sent on the Sunday before he died. It read: “You know what, man, I am takingÂ my daughter for dinner.”
Some African officials accused the United States of double standards.
“Do they have a right to give us lectures anymore?” Ugandan government deputy spokesman Shaban Bantariza told Reuters, when asked for comment on Olango’s killing.
“They’re always castigating us and chastisingÂ us for what they call police brutality here, and then the police brutality in their place is incomparable,” he said.
Zimbabwe’s Information Minister Chris Mushohwe took aim at U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr, saying he had condemned Zimbabwe’s security forces for using water cannons on protesters but failed to “talk about the cold-blooded and callous murder of people of his color in his own homeÂ backyard”.
“We want to hear these people, if they are really concerned about human rights and democracy, condemn what is happening in the United States,” the minister said about the black U.S. envoy, in comments reported by Zimbabwe’s Herald newspaper.
In Liberia, a former colony founded by freed slaves from the United States, businesswoman Cynthia Holmes, herself one of a minority of Liberians who are descendants of those slaves, said she was saddened by the killing.
“America is not the place to be right now,” she said in the capital Monrovia, named after former U.S. President James Monroe. “We (black people) are a target.”
Olango had had previous run-ins with the U.S. authorities. After securing permanent residency status, he lost it in 2001 after a conviction for selling cocaine. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to possession of a weapon by a felon. As of 2006, a deportation order was pending.
The federal records say Olango went to the United States because Uganda’s president at the time had threatened to kill his family because his father worked for a previous leader.
His home region in northern Uganda has long been plagued by militants. Most notorious was Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, known for forcing children to bear arms and mutilating victims.
(Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Johannesburg and Alphonso Toweh in Monrovia; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Pravin Char)