Uganda police walks tight rope 60 years on

Erinayo Wilson Oryema, Gen Kale Kayihura and Martins Okoth Ochola. PHOTOS | FILE

What you need to know:

  • John Baptist Okumu, a retired police officer, who was then a police storekeeper—having joined police on May 1, 1954—recalls that policing was among the noblest professions in the country.

Even after Uganda attained her Independence on October 9, 1962, the Uganda Police Force was still under colonial leadership.

Micheal John Macoun, a British, was still the Inspector General of Police (IGP), although he worked hard to recruit more Africans in police leadership.

By the time he handed over to an African IGP on March 30, 1964, the Force was not only under African leadership but had increased to around 6,000 officers.

On April 1, 1964, Erinayo Wilson Oryema became the first African IGP.

John Baptist Okumu, a retired police officer, who was then a police storekeeper—having joined police on May 1, 1954—recalls that policing was among the noblest professions in the country.

“Every weekend, I could supply each senior officer with at least two kilogrammes of meat,” he recalls.

Although life was good, Oryema had already started seeing signals of a crisis.

Police spokesperson Fred Enanga says Oryema expressed his fears in a senior officers’ conference on August 9, 1962.

“There are bound to be instances of overenthusiastic politicians and others exceeding their zeal by endeavouring to influence police officers, but I look to you all to counteract this by insisting that all who serve under you remain strictly impartial,” Mr Enanga quotes Mr Oryema as having said.

He advised his officers thus: “Report attempts to interfere with the police promptly, and always bearing in mind that their duty is to the people of Uganda as a nation, and to the rule of law.”

Mr Enanga says, like Oryema predicted, the politics of the day made it difficult for the police to operate professionally.

Buganda and the central government led by prime minister Milton Obote had reached a deadlock over a vote on Buyaga and Bugangazzi counties. Mr Obote tightened his grip on security forces to retain power. Security forces were ordered to deal with unauthorised assemblies.

Poor image

November 10, 1964, marked a turn in the police’s image. A minor domestic misunderstanding at Nakulabye in Kampala was thought to be an assembly. Police surrounded a three-mile area. Six people, including two school children, were shot dead.

An inquest by Chris Kantinti, a magistrate, concluded that the victims were innocent. The officer, who led the Nakulabye operation was nevertheless promoted to a regional police commander for eastern region.

The 1966 Crisis saw the police’s stature take a hit. A clash between Obote and Kabaka Mutesa II culminated in a military assault on the palace that forced the latter into exile. Retired Senior Commissioner Kenneth Ojoro, who was making his sixth year in the police, said policing after the crisis was challenging.

“I have witnessed three anarchies in this country. I witnessed total lack of law and order,” Mr Ojoro says.

In 1971, another coup by an army officer, Idi Amin, sank the police further. President Amin wanted things in the police to move in a different direction, but the senior officers were often reluctant.

On February 5, 1971, Mr Oryema was removed as IGP and appointed minister.

The Public Safety Unit (PSU) was established to deal with tasks the regular officers were unwilling to execute.

The PSU was a feared organisation that was infamous for trailing and eliminating people suspected to be anti-government.

Since PSU was a police unit, the entire Uganda Police Force became unpopular. It was condemned and could not be respected by the public.

Revolving door

With police systems failing, there were a succession of police heads. Benjamin Ochieno, with 29 years of experience, could barely make two years at the helm of the police. So did Luke Ofungi and Gabriel Odria.

Kasim Musa Obura struggled with the police management from April 27, 1976, to April 11, 1979, when Amin was overthrown. Obura was arrested on January 22, 1981, prosecuted for crimes. He was convicted and sentenced to death. Aged 60 years, he was executed at Luzira Maximum Prisons on March 15, 1989.

Retired officer Ojoro recalls that when Amin was overthrown, he was the police commander of the eastern region.

“I saw when Amin was going. I was in Mbale. People were looting the town. One police officer remained at the counter of the police and looters would bring their loot and put them at the reception,” Mr Ojoro remembers, adding, “They would tell him to keep his eye on them closely until I went to him and said, ‘you fool leave the counter and run away because we had already lost four officers in the looting.’”

He says they had no clue on how to police when there is totally no peace to keep.

Class of 1980

After the overthrow of Amin, the new government recalled Mr Ofungi on May 15, 1980, to rebuild a police force that had been in disarray. He worked for nearly one year.

That year also saw the recruitment of the first cadets, 26 in number.  These included now Security minister Jim Muhwezi, former security coordinator David Sejusa, former CID director Chris Bakiza, former IGP Cossy Odomel, AIGP (Rtd) Elizabeth Muwanga, among others.

Mr Bakiza recalls that on the list was former IGP Gen Kale Kayihura, but he never reported for training. They were trained in Police College in Dar es Salam in Tanzania.

The group later became a cradle of the new Force. However, some joined the National Resistance Army (NRA) rebellion, while others continued in the government.

The police officers such as John Baptist Okumu enjoyed to work for before and after Independence had become its former self.

Retired deputy IGP Julius Odwe, who joined in 1981, in his statement at the retirement celebration, painted a picture of a struggling officer.

“My first salary was Shs1,655. It could get over within two weeks. I had to learn how to create friends and stock food more than saving money or buying luxuries,” Mr Odwe stated.

Mr Odwe and at least 64 cadets joined the Force, but many couldn’t live within their means.

“This is why within 10 years, almost half of those we started with had all gone. Some due to the lavish lifestyle, while others were involved in crimes,” he says.

Mr Enanga says most of the funds meant for the entire Force were sent to the Special Forces Unit.

“Things started moving in the right direction until another police unit called the Special Force Unit was formed based on similar principals as those of PSU. It became the only well facilitated police unit, other police units were neglected,” he says.

They were also well trained. Gen Kayihura, a former NRA guerrilla, recalls Special Forces were more lethal than the regular army.

“Whenever we would hear that Special Forces are coming, we would know it was going to be a big battle,” Gen Kayihura says.

Enter Museveni

When President Museveni took power in 1986, he couldn’t tolerate many police officers who even battled his rebels in the bush. He trimmed the Force from 10,000 officers to 3,000.

The police recruited officers, especially graduates, to revitalise the Force.

In 1989, Mr Odomel and other senior officers started a new method of policing called community policing.

According to a paper by AIGP (Rtd) Asan Kasingye, in 2008, the new police approach was participatory policing where people who get police services are involved.

Mr Bakiza recalls that the time had started requiring other expertise like in the legal area.

“In 1990, the then IGP David Chevad Psomgen contracted me to start a legal department. I was the first head of the legal department,” he recalls.

With new young officers, the Force sought to carve out a new image through the leadership of Apollo Naris Byekwaso (from December 16, 1990, to April 23, 1992) then IGP Odomel (April 24, 1992, to January 1, 1999). Later on John Kisembo (January 3, 1999, to April 11, 2001).

President Museveni often claimed that the Force lacked the sharpness needed for the modern era.

Kale replaces Katumba

In November 2005, Gen Kayihura replaced him as the IGP. Gen Kayihura joined at the time when the political temperature was high. According to Gen Kayihura, the problems he found in the Force revolved around ideology, manpower and equipment.

In 2006, police had only 572 motor vehicles and during civil disobedience, the police would grab vehicles from other ministries to carry out patrols, especially during riotous situations.

At the time, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) insurgence had come to an end and northern and parts of eastern regions were still under military protection. Karamoja Sub-region too was literary under its own rule. Gen Kayihura assigned his deputy, Mr Odwe, to re-establish rule of law in the Northern and Karamoja regions.

Mr Odwe recalls thus: “We were only able to eat roasted groundnuts and drink water and sleep in Anti Stock Theft Unit huts in Erute County in Lira District.”

The Force’s strength was around 15,000 officers. With such demands, its numbers have since been increased to around 54,000. The Force also has at least 5,000 motor vehicles.

In March 2017, Gen Kayihura was sacked amid allegations of human rights abuses during his regime. His deputy Martins Okoth Ochola took over as the police chief. IGP Ochola was seen as a reformer, who would turn around the institution to one that abides by the rule of law. Indeed, he said human rights was one of his key priorities.

No sooner had IGP Ochola started on the journey to rectify the police than President Museveni appointed army officers in key top positions of the police. Senior police officers said the introduction of soldiers in key positions in reality merged the police with the military.

“These days, a suspect can be arrested for a purely civilian matter and end up in a military facility. The military too can arrest and detain a suspect on a matter that is supposed to be handled by the police. They would later hand over the suspect to police without following any due process,” a senior officer said.

Despite the surge of resources and manpower, the Police Force is still grappling with the challenges the first African IGP, Mr Oryema dreaded—politics.