The Uganda police force that lost its way in the ideological thicket

Wednesday November 8 2017

Uganda police officer keep guard on the drive way to the home of Kizza Besigye.

Uganda police officer keep guard on the drive way to the home of opposition leader, Kizza Besigye, in Kasangati, a Kampala suburb on February 20, 2016. PHOTO | AFP 

By FREDRICK GOLOOBA-MUTEBI
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The Uganda Police Force is going through a rather rough patch at the moment. Last week a crop of senior officers were arrested by agents from a sister security agency and arraigned before court.

There is nothing new in the police being at the receiving end of bad publicity. Going through rough patches has become something of a habit for the force. And for some strange reason, they have usually acted as though they enjoy the resulting notoriety, or as if it does not really bother them, for they keep doing those very things for which significant sections of the general public chastise or ridicule them.

If they are not roughing up opposition politicians in an effort to prevent them from doing the same things for which they provide protection for government supporters, such as holding joint rallies against eliminating the presidential age limit from the Constitution, they are lobbing tear gas canisters or firing live bullets into crowds that they could use other, non-aggressive means to bring to order.

If they are not tossing members of the public whom they have arrested for whatever reason onto their pickup trucks like sacks of potatoes or into vans meant for transporting their dogs, they will be ordering them to undress and lie down, sometimes on top of each other, even if there is enough space to sit.

If they are not beating the daylights out of members of the public using truncheons and the butts of their guns for holding “illegal protests,” they will be telling critics of the government not to assemble anywhere without permission, because they cannot guarantee their security.

Meanwhile they are pretty good at guaranteeing the security of government supporters wherever and whenever they may choose to assemble and say whatever they like, however inflammatory and potentially inciting of violence, provided it is all directed at the government’s opponents.

Of late local media, mainstream and marginal alike, are trotting out graphic stories of kidnaps, extortion and torture. In these times of “citizen journalism” via social media, it is difficult to tell which claims are valid and which ones are fake news. However, they all testify to things not being quite right.

As a result of all the brutality and partisanship, they have become the subject of dismissal as a “regime police force.”

This is not how things were meant to be following the coming to power of the enlightened Yoweri Museveni and his “revolutionary” political outfit, the National Resistance Movement. They promised Ugandans freedom from harassment and oppression.

Three decades ago it would have been impossible to imagine a police officer serving a Museveni government shooting randomly at or flogging unarmed civilians, whatever offence they might have been accused of committing.

Before the change of government, being beaten, even shot upon the slightest provocation were things Ugandans had long come to expect from army, intelligence and police officers.

Complaining out loud was out of the question. But then we are talking of a Uganda that was ruled by the “dictatorial governments” of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, which the whole world had come to associate, for the most part deservedly, with lack of respect for human rights. Which brings up the question: What happened for things to look as though we are returning to the old days? There are numerous theories about it.

It is said by those who claim to know that, whatever its problems at the time, the police force that Museveni inherited was highly professional in many respects, with well-developed capacities in a number of domains, among them, intelligence gathering, investigation, and respect for procedure.

One story has it that, when the former insurgents took over the government, they were shocked by the amount of information Special Branch had collected on their wartime activities. Well, eventually Special Branch was disbanded and with it went its veteran agents who were replaced by people with inferior skill sets. This is how critics explain why the force struggles with investigations.

Also, for many years, the police earned themselves the reputation of being not too keen on the new government, and were known to vote for opposition groups during presidential elections. There are numerous stories of whole barracks returning only a handful of votes for candidate Museveni while voting massively for whichever candidates were running against him.

Eventually, the president diagnosed the problem as ‘“ideological disorientation.” Soon enough, he found a cure: Reshaping the force by bringing in new, “ideologically sound” personnel from the military and other sister agencies, a phenomenon Ugandans dubbed “militarising the police.”

Meanwhile, the mass entry of the ideologues continued to deplete the force of whatever professional elements had remained.

It would be dishonest to suggest that in 30 years nothing good has happened. At least the force is far better funded and equipped today than at any one time during the years leading to Museveni’s accession to power.

That said, it would seem as though the ideological fix that was intended to shape the force into one that was “fit for purpose” went a little too far in trying to cure its officers of ideological disorientation. The reshaping may have cut too deep.

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