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The police you don’t know

By Jude Kagoro

Re-interpreting the Uganda Police Force

In the course of a six-month pre-field work preparation phase for research on the police practices in Uganda, I sat in my office at Bremen University in Germany reviewing articles on the force in the major Ugandan newspapers. In sum, the newspapers presented three main perspectives. That the Uganda police is politicised, militarised, and violence-centric.

However, four months of closer contact and immersion in the force’s activities both at stations and in field operations—coupled with a series of in-depth interviews—reveals that the three perspectives offered by the press overshadow the every-day realities and do not give a complete picture of the Uganda police. To that end, this article is not necessarily an anti-thesis of the dominant media perspectives, but an attempt to widen the scope on the police force debate.

I will briefly highlight on the day-to-day activities of the police, present an overview of some improvements and then elucidate on a rather unique aspect of “branding” that has enhanced police’s symbolic value.

A classic metaphor that has been widely used by cognitive psychologists goes as follows: “A drunken man was looking for his car keys under the street lights. When a woman passing by asks him if he dropped his keys by the street lights, the drunken man answers, ‘no, but the light is better here.” Similarly, the journalistic understanding of the police force is like the drunken man, using easy and pre-conceived arguments that resonate with idealistic and western-centric perspectives of Africa, thus largely ignoring the positive trends and every-day activities of the force that have little or nothing to do with politicisation, militarisation or violence.

Discovering the Real Day-to-Day Police

Before presenting a general picture of the underrepresented perspectives on the police, let me begin with an eye-opening anecdote to highlight the day-to-day activities of the force.

In November 2013, I embark on my first day of field work at Jinja road police station. After an impressively quick clearance from the DPC, I head to the traffic office finding two police officers—one female and one male—preparing to go to the field. Drawing on my pre-conceived consciousness, I make the hurried judgment that the two were heading to the street to control traffic. This assumption immediately collapses when the two invite me to go along to Mulago hospital. At the hospital, we head to the mortuary from where the officers were to trace for the postmortem reports of those who had died in traffic accidents. To the relief of the officers most of the reports are retrieved following a rather laborious search. Next, the three of us head to the wards to check on admitted victims of traffic accidents.

As a student of social interactions and the symbolism embedded in body language, this encounter struck me in several ways. First, at the mortuary, the officers tirelessly searched through piles of documents and were visibly distressed at the thought that some of their victims’ files could have been misplaced. In one particular case, the female officer displayed extreme emotions of content on discovering that one of the previously unidentified victim’s bodies had been claimed by relatives. Her worry had been that the victim would be buried at a mass grave.

The officer quickly followed up the case by making frantic confirmation phone calls to relatives’ numbers on file at the mortuary. This incident clearly showed that the officer had developed a subconscious connection with the victim. Obviously, the officer was not simply following protocol—to her, the victim was more than just a number but was a human being who deserved a decent burial.

Second, I noticed that the sight of the police officers was a source instant relief to the admitted traffic accident victims. The victims explained their state of health and asked several questions in regard to the suspected traffic offenders and the progress of their cases. To the victims, the officers were a symbol of authority that embodies hope and justice. Following my intense immersion in the police’s activities, I discovered that such hospital visits are in fact a core activity of the traffic police. Obviously, these visits have nothing to do with politicisation, militarisation or violence.

The General Picture

In general, empirical evidence shows that the police’s capacity in the maintenance of order, enforcement of law, prevention and detection of crime has greatly improved. On a daily basis the police resolve societal and family disputes, patrol the streets, apprehend law breakers, organise the traffic and restrain drunk and over speeding drivers in a more orderly manner than before. A day-to-day observation at both rural and urban police stations shows that people report cases/crimes in massive numbers—a sign of increased confidence in the force.

At the stations, the police-populace interactions seem cordial and information regarding procedure relatively clear. For instance, at every station visited there is information stuck on the wall illustrating that police bond is free of charge. Mobile telephone numbers of each of the middle-level and senior-level officers are stuck on their office doors. Thus, the officers can be reached by both complainants/suspects and fellow colleagues in line of duty. Moreover, almost every morning, the OC CIID at different police stations holds the “suspects parade.” At the parade, the suspects that are in police custody are updated on the progress of their cases.

More broadly, the appointment of Gen. Kale Kayihura as IGP has in many ways transformed the police force. Kayihura has re-branded the force and enabled it to become a priority in terms of funding. Since his appointment in 2005, the police budget has grown by 300% (from 75 billion to 303 billion). Besides, he managed to negotiate with the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) to allow the police retain all none tax revenues such as traffic fines.

In turn, capital investments have blossomed. Police headquarters have moved from rented premises to a new state of art building constructed at the cost of 9.9 billion Uganda shillings. The new headquarters reflect the enhanced status and the symbolic value of the force. Additionally, the number of vital police instruments, including modern breathalysers (to fight drink driving), speed guns (to control over speeding), Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs), ambulances, patrol pick-ups, troop carriers, saloon cars and motorcycles has significantly grown. These instruments have profoundly improved the force’s capacity to police society.

Though some may interpret increased funding as a strategy of strengthening regime security, this interpretation overlooks the broader picture that the same funding aids in the production of law and order—a primary function of any sovereign state.

That said, the police numbers have grown from 3000 in 1986 to about 43,668 at present putting the police: population ratio at 1: 709 vis-a-vis the United Nations recommended ratio of 1:500. The increase in police numbers has augmented police strength, visibility and penetrative ability of society. There is police presence even in areas such as northern Uganda and Karamoja that had over the years been affected by civil war and insurgences—five or so years ago it was the military doing police duties in these areas.

A day-to-day observation, especially in rural areas, shows that the police force is gradually being viewed as a symbolic custodian of social stability and moral structures. In some measure, a shared understanding is being formulated that the force embodies responsibility for community cohesion and social control. People are beginning to turn to the police even in complex cases such as witchcraft and other myth ridden situations. Thus, it can be said that the force has come to be viewed as a defender of the moral structure and an institution that reasserts a sense of social control.

As a strategy to improve police-populace relations and general awareness of citizens’ rights and obligations, the police adopted the philosophy of “community policing”. In 2010, Gen. Kayihura together with a community in Muyenga established a community policing model popularly referred to as the “Muyenga Model.” This model gives communities greater voice in setting up local priorities vis-à-vis crime. Thus, the model is premised on a collective understanding between the community and the police in the management of law and order. The model has now been extended to other parts of Uganda including Karamoja, Mbale, Jinja, Bushenyi, Gulu and Arua. At a psychosocial level, the community policing strategy works two-fold. On one hand, it reduces the social distance between the police and the communities while on the other aiding the police-populace joint fighting of crime and disorder.

Police Force Branding

As earlier mentioned, a new “police brand” is gradually being created. This brand is intended to depart from the image of an ineffective and unresponsive police force of the old days. For a start, the intellectual quality in the force has greatly been improved. The police force has over the last seven or so years recruited several young university graduates. Consequently, majority of the police stations across the country are headed by graduates. This trend has profoundly transformed the quality of relations between the citizens and the force. Moreover, gender dynamics within the police have been improved. Besides the recruitment of young female graduates, a number have been assigned strategic and sensitive duties. For example, at the time of writing this article, at Jinja road police station alone, the OC Station, the OC Traffic, OC CID, OC Child Protection Unit and OC Minor Crimes are all female.

The new police brand is architectured on the increasing visibility of the police in public social platforms. For instance, on New Year’s Eve, the police Operations Commander for Kampala Metropolitan, Sam Omara, took to preaching the word of God at Nakivubo stadium exciting the congregation. In the same vein, in February this year, the IGP, Gen. Kale Kayihura joined musicians on stage in a grand show at the launch of community policing in partnership with leading Ugandan artistes in Kabalagala. At this launch a number of prominent Ugandan musicians performed for a huge crowd for free. Based on the fact that musicians are always looking to maximise their celebrity standing, their involvement at the launch shows that the police brand carries some form of psychosocial value. These social activities among others cannot be seen as “just events,” but have a long term effect on the sub-consciousness of the populace.

To that end, the police force has attracted partnerships with private business enterprises, including the multinational communication company, Mobile Telecommunication Network (MTN). These companies have constructed several police posts, especially in and around Kampala city. Though this can be seen as a gesture of corporate social responsibility, the engraining of companies’ logos on the posts is also an indicator that the police brand carries a socio-economic value.

In sum, it is evident that the Uganda police force is not only about politicisation, militarisation and violence. In fact, the core of what comprises the police is to be found in the day-to-day activities of the force. The police force has over the last ten years made some tremendous improvements and its psychosocial value across the country, especially in rural areas enhanced.


Dr. Jude Kagoro if Post-doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS) at the University of Bremen in Germany or

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