Ugandan student ruffles feathers with homemade tear gas

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KAMPALA, Uganda

Cooking up something like homemade tear gas usually ends in a visit from the police. However, for one Ugandan science student, his unusual work with noxious chemicals has earned him an invitation to meet the country’s president.

Mugarura Samuel, a 23-year-old third-year science undergraduate at Makerere University in Kampala raised eyebrows — and drew the attention of the security forces — with his DIY experiments trying to make a less-toxic version of imported tear gas.

Mugarura — who insists he is an innovator — told Anadolu Agency: “I have always wanted to be a soldier from my childhood; I grew up fighting and using military toys.”

In high school his dreams changed and Mugarura worked hard to become a doctor, taking up physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.

But after missing out on a place to study medicine, he was admitted to a science course at Makerere University.

In a strange twist of fate, Makerere — ranked fourth best in Africa by The Times Higher Education — is also known for clashes between police and students during protests over tuition-fee rises and university policies.

In what has become something of an annual ritual, students fight running battles with police. One 2014 protest saw violence rage for four days.

Mugarura recalled the spent tear gas canisters that were strewn all over campus. Curious, he picked one canister up, took it home to study the ingredients and “discovered I could come out with the exact [same] product”.

Frustrated with his course in chemistry and botany and tiring of lab work on disease and infections, he said he wanted something more “viable”.

DIY tear gas

With his childhood dream of joining the military still intact, the science student said he thought: “I should do something that can make me more relevant if I were to join the military or security agency.”

Starting with theoretical research for a month, Mugarura broke down the toxic ingredients in the tear gas canister. Finding potassium nitrate, potassium chloride and sodium hydrogen carbonate, he studied every ingredient and its specific heat capacity then tried to find substitutes.

“I know tear gas irritates; it makes you throw up and affects the skin, so I got hot pepper, dried [it] and pounded it into powder,” he said. “Since sodium hydrogen carbonate is toxic, I substituted it with baking powder and used the pink color used in clothes because of its strength and vibrancy.”

Mugarura argued his “tear gas” was less toxic than that used by the Ugandan police.

He was quick to reveal that he soon saw some dramatic results with his homemade bio-weapon. “I just added in two other components in the tear gas formula. I reduced the quantity and tested it on rats — in a minute the rats were gone. It taught me something, so I wrote down the formula.”

The experiment has so far cost Mugarura a little over $1,000 of his own money. “I couldn’t ask my parents to finance me because it’s rather expensive for them,” he said and added: “They have been encouraging me instead of saying: ‘Get your own money and make your nonsense.’”

Mugarura is confident Uganda can start not only making its own less-toxic tear gas but gain bargaining power with foreign countries.

Over the years, Uganda has imported tear gas from China, South Africa and Egypt to quell demonstrations, especially those by opposition politicians.

The most publicly known importations included 2011’s pre-election purchases of high-tech anti-riot gear and tear gas vehicles supplied by a Chinese firm.

Police attention

A former Ugandan intelligence official speaking anonymously told Anadolu Agency 10 days before last February’s election that another consignment of tear gas had been imported from South Africa.

However, Mugarura’s zeal unsurprisingly also earned him the attention of the authorities.

When he held a public demonstration of his work last month, police called him a criminal and threatened to arrest him, sparking fear among Mugarura’s peers and lecturers at Makerere University’s College of Natural Sciences.

A statement from the university seen by Anadolu Agency read: “The tear gas innovation is not an official project of any department at the College of Natural Sciences.”

However, things are looking up for Mugarura. At a news conference last week, Uganda’s top police officer, Gen. Kale Kayihura, asked that Mugarura be left alone, even adding he was interested in meeting the young man himself.

A Makerere University spokeswoman, Rita Namisango, also told Anadolu Agency the college’s vice chancellor had noted the budding scientist’s work and would encourage him as “this is what universities are for”.

But word of Mugarura’s unusual interests has gone even higher — all the way to Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni.

A source at State House, who preferred to remain anonymous due to restrictions on talking to the media, told Anadolu Agency that a meeting with the president, who had “intimated he will support Mugarura”, had been organized.

The source added: “Mugarura has not broken any law; he is just an adventurous student who was carrying out a class demonstration. There’s nothing criminal with what he is doing.”

Not content with riot control, Mugarura is taking advantage of his new liberty to experiment. Sensing an opportunity to exploit Uganda’s natural resources, he said: “I hope to come out with a very good design of a nuclear bomb, because here we have uranium.”

   ©  Alleastafrica and  Anadolu Agency

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