Corrupt cops: Why highway drama won’t put a brake on them

Wednesday February 15 2017

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi  

By Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

Last week saw the exit of 198 officers from the Rwanda National Police. The news broke following a Cabinet meeting during which their sacking was sanctioned. It was not the first time dozens of police officers were being fired simultaneously. It is an annual event.

There was a time when photos of those who had been ejected would appear in the country’s newspapers in what seemed to be a “naming and shaming” exercise.

These days, that no longer happens. Nor are the names of the affected officers released to the media. Still, the factors behind the sackings are broadly the same, differing only in nuance here and there.

And still, whenever news of sackings breaks, it evokes surprise while also reassuring the public that, as far as the police are concerned, someone is always watching. It may be one of the reasons why, among state organs, the Rwanda National Police is one of the most trusted and respected.

Most corrupt elements

Strangely enough, it is also among those perceived by significant numbers of members of the public as having the most corrupt elements within its ranks.

This has been one of the findings of corruption perception investigations by Transparency Rwanda over the years. In some respects, the results of the investigations strike observers as odd, given that Rwanda has the least corrupt police force in the East African region.

Interestingly, each time Transparency Rwanda has put out its findings, the police leadership has promised to intensify anti-corruption measures and weed out corrupt officers. This year’s sackings, like those before them, testify to the leadership’s capacity to combine issuing warnings with taking necessary punitive action against those who are caught.

A striking aspect of the sackings is who actually gets the boot. In some countries, it would probably be only the small fry. Here, however, the net captures some really large ones.

For example, this year those who were sent home included a superintendent, four chief inspectors, 23 inspectors, 38 assistant inspectors, 65 non-commissioned officers, and 67 constables. The general charge was “professional malpractice.” That could mean general indiscipline, or engagement in corruption and other criminal offences.

Interestingly, ejection from the force is not the only punishment they suffered. According to media reports, before the matter went before the Cabinet, the officers had been prosecuted and sentenced to varying jail terms. Thereafter, there was no option of returning to uniform, thanks to the police code of conduct.

Police sources emphasised how the dismissal was meant to ensure force discipline and professionalism, while also enforcing the national policy of zero tolerance for corruption.

All this is impressive. However, it raises a rather difficult question. Given that large numbers of officers are sacked every year for engaging in corruption, why has the vice not been eliminated? The answer, it seems to me, is unlikely to be arrived at without in-depth research.

What is clear, however, is that were the police and the government to let down their guard, the Rwanda National Police would almost certainly degenerate to the level of their counterparts elsewhere in the region.

There are a million illustrations of degeneration that one could pick from any of the other members of the East African Community. My favourites, however, come from Kenya, where of late some effort has been put into trying to combat extortion of bribes on the country’s highways.

Kenyan media have produced tonnes of reports on the sheer creativity with which traffic police approach the task of gathering bribes from motorists.

The least sophisticated and most used, is the straightforward receipt of cash in hand, which is pocketed, passed on to a colleague, or stashed into a polythene bag hidden nearby.

This and other discoveries seem to have led to the conclusion in anti-corruption circles that the best way to fight the vice is on the highways. The result has seen high drama in some cases. Police officers whom undercover agents spot taking bribes are grabbed, sometimes on camera, and dragged to police stations together with their loot.

A funny video clip on social media shows a gaggle of undercover agents chasing after a female officer who, upon realising that she is in trouble, runs off into a maize field, only to be caught and brought back to the highway, trembling and wailing, and bundled into a waiting vehicle.

Caught in the drama

Not too long ago, the degeneration caught the eye of President Uhuru Kenyatta. Apparently, while on a visit to the port city of Mombasa, his motorcade got caught up in a freak jam. It turned out that the jam had been created artificially by a couple of traffic officers who had stopped a commuter taxi and solicited money from the driver. It happened as the president sat there, watching.

He went on to rail against corruption in the police and to urge the police leadership to do something to rid the force of such elements.

Both the highway drama and President Kenyatta’s reaction are certainly interesting ways of tackling the degeneration. The question is whether they can work, and how long for. The Rwanda case suggests that it takes far more than direct action on highways and presidential sermonising to keep the corruption monster in check.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]