The challenges involved with policing in Uganda predate the countries independence from British colonial rule in 1962. When the country was united, the largest kingdom in the southern ‘Buganda’ region was disinterested in complying with the largely northern-dominated central government. These tensions entrenched themselves into a north/south divide that has led to violent conflicts, (including the 1971 military coup of Idi Amin) and is still present to this day. In this arena of insecurity, new actors such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) with their own agendas have emerged as a source of further insecurity in the region. Today, trust in the government is low, and corruption, chronic under-funding, and politicisation of the police has led to declining police efficacy. While the public’s view of the police is often negative, it is improved since Amin’s era, and is viewed as the primary security provider in the country.
Beyond the police, other government institutions are relied upon for security and justice provision in Uganda. For instance, Local Councils (LCs) play a central role in providing knowledge and insight to the police. A number of informal conflict resolution mechanisms operate through the LC system – for instance, chiefs and religious leaders, may be consulted to settle household affairs (such as disagreements or domestic violence) and land-related conflicts. Beyond their involvement in settling such disputes, local cultural and religious leaders play an important role as contact points for civilians to access politicians, government, and police. Given Uganda’s history with insecurity during political transitions, historically governments have hired what they call ‘crime preventers’ – local community members (often youth) who are trained to “provide security” during elections. Although these groups are officially disbanded after elections, they are still occasionally used by state actors including police. However, they are not seen as being legitimate by the citizenry, as they have been known to commit violence against government dissidents and members of vulnerable groups.
As previously mentioned, the socio-cultural and political impacts of the colonial era are still present in Uganda, and have resulted in various, often ethnically based conflicts. This has been exacerbated by the emergence of the LRA, which has posed the main source of insecurity for the population over the past decades. They have burnt down villages, abducted children, raped, killed, and forced children to kill their parents. In Northern Uganda, this insecurity resulted in the wide displacement of the local population, which in turn led to land-related conflicts.
The decline in police efficiency has been accompanied by rising crime across Uganda, particularly in the mid 2010’s, often from financially-motivated criminal groups, including the formerly-mentioned. “crime preventers”. Violent crimes, including armed robbery, murder, and kidnap for ransom have become more common in Kampala and other urban areas. Crime rates tend to be higher near the border with South Sudan, where weapons may be more easily obtainable. This situation also has led to detrimental issues of human security. including alcoholism and drug abuse (which in turn has led to further issues like rape and defilement). Attacks by both police and vigilantes have made homosexuals particularly vulnerable.
In urban areas, many children and youth have been made homeless due to domestic violence and neglect, only to face brutality and exploitation on the streets. In the Gulu region of Northern Uganda especially, these youth are stigmatized and often form groups that are broadly regarded as criminal – occasionally they are hired to conduct criminal activity for individuals or organizations that wish to remain removed from the crime. Additionally, women in Gulu report feeling unsafe, particularly in the early morning, at night, and during harvest season. The police are commonly viewed to be a source of this insecurity.
Although COP-like policing has existed in some form since Uganda’s independence, there have been few modern innovations. Instead, there has been a continuation and revival of past concepts. The most recent COP-like initiatives introduced in 2014 were described as an effort to move away from colonial models of policing, and to focus on the Local Council level of security provision. This includes LC representatives joining the police on foot and motor patrols at night and conducting joint sensitivity and leadership training with police at schools, in community meetings, and on local radio programs. This programming is primarily focused on creating awareness about law and order, and the role of police.
The police and community also have utilized ICT and newer technology to improve information transfer. Ugandan police have used Twitter since 2016, and are active on Facebook to share stories, investigations, and press statements. In some regions, COP has been harnessed to tap into community knowledge, and is seen as an instrument for education and responsibility, with some surveillance opportunities. Cell phones have been used to communicate directly with police and to provide recordings of criminal acts to police.