Inside five years of Okoth-Ochola’s police force

Inspector General of Police John Martins Okoth-Ochola

What you need to know:

  • IGP Okoth-Ochola’s leadership has realised a reduction in the number of victims of crime from 667 people per 100,000 before he took over, to 524 in 2022.

Five years down the road, a hoped-for change in policing under Inspector General of Police (IGP) John Martins Okoth-Ochola remains unfulfilled, with critics saying the Force remains stuck in its corrupt ways, hamstrung by staff welfare issues, human rights abuse, rising crime and is still a tool for political repression of the ruling party’s opponents. 
As such, on the day the mild-mannered Okoth-Ochola marked five years in office, there was no cake cutting. 

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On March 15, it was typically very quiet inside police headquarters. The 64-year-old amiable police chief, who is the oldest Inspector General of Police in Uganda’s history, remained locked up in his office, going through files and piles of paperwork, given the archetypical bureaucrat he is. 
In the police yard, there were comparatively loud celebrations of what police officers described as a milestone. 
As part of the ‘festivities’ in the yard was an occasion to hand over 21 new service trucks, including; riot control vehicles and armoured personnel carriers. The Force has recently acquired 65 of such vehicles
It is one of the biggest acquisitions of equipment in the police’s history, and possibly an indicator of where Okoth-Ochola’s priorities lie.

          “This is very expensive equipment,” remarked Deputy Inspector General of Police, Maj Gen Geoffrey Katsigazi Tumusiime, who represented his scholarly boss at the handover event. 

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The procurement of armoured and anti-riot equipment in huge numbers came as a surprise to many members of the public, who had viewed Okoth-Ochola as a more accommodating officer. Many had hoped that he would emphasise staff welfare, the improvement of appallingly derelict police barracks countrywide, the tackling of corruption in the Force and low pay.
There was also a belief then that this was a real chance for Uganda to restore Uganda’s police to its past self as a proper law and order civil institution, rebuild the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID) and reconstitute the Special Branch, and reinstate pillar departments.
But hopes that the new police chief, a career officer with a background in criminal investigations, would steer clear of the muscular methods of his predecessor appear to have been premature. 
Documents from the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development show that the police budget has increased by 40 percent since Okoth-Ochola took over from Gen Kale Kayihura in March 2018. 
Much of the increase has gone towards arming the police and consolidating its increasingly paramilitary posture. The police budget increased from Shs611 billion in the Financial Year 2017/2018 to Shs975 billion this financial year. 
That figure would exceed the Shs1 trillion mark if one accounted for money received under supplementary budgets.   
For the last two financial years, the police annual budget has been above a trillion shillings.
Police brutality
According to the government rating in its ministerial statements, the police ‘best performance’ over the last five years shows in the crack-down on legitimate civil protests and demonstrations. The police have registered an average success rate of 95 percent to this end. 
For every 10 protests organised by either civil society or political opponents of the sitting National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime, Okoth-Ochola’s police stopped or prevented nine from taking place. 
This, in spite of Uganda’s Constitution and other laws which protect the fundamental human right to freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly, among other inalienable rights.
In one of its bloodiest clamp-downs designed to assure the NRM’s dominance of Uganda’s political space, the police, in collaboration with suspected army special forces, literally shot down the November 25, 2020 protests in Kampala. 
Those protests (and others held during that general election period) were set off by the violent arrest of National Unity Platform leader Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, who was campaigning for president in the middle-eastern Uganda district of Luuka. 
After the tear gas and plumes of smoke from burning car tyres had cleared, the official count reported 54 people dead from gunshot wounds. 
Independent observers put the toll at more than 100 killed.
Hundreds of others were gravely injured and hospitalised.
Today, it is almost impossible for the Opposition to either convene a public meeting, intra-party conference or hold a rally without attracting immediate and violent police interruption. Other high-handed actions, including the suspected abduction of regime opponents, are still associated with the police.
The police chief gets a reprieve for this state of affairs from Mr Joel Ssenyonyi, the spokesperson of  the Opposition National Unity Platform party. Mr Ssenyonyi placed the blame on President Museveni’s increased posting of soldiers to key police positions. 
“Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be fully in charge. It is his military deputies and assistants who have the authority. His hands are tied. He has spoken about these things like abductions and torture, but they continue,” Mr Ssenyonyi said.
Dr Jude Kagoro, an expert in security and author of the revealing book, Inside an African Police Force, suggests that Okoth-Ochola has done his best given that he became police chief at a difficult time.
The Force appeared to be in disarray when the new chief arrived. Assistant Inspector of General of Police Andrew Felix Kaweesi had just been assassinated, while Gen Kale Kayihura, whom many officers regarded as a mentor, had been summarily sacked. 
Gen Kayihura was facing trial before the Army General Court Martial for crimes related to allegations of compromising national security.
There were also real fears that the police had degenerated into a criminal organisation with rogue officers running extortion and protection rackets across the  country.
“The confidence levels of police officers were very low,” Dr Kagoro said, adding that other security agencies immediately seized the opportunity to usurp policing duties.
Indeed, nowadays, soldiers can be seen carrying out even the most mundane of police functions, having also been drafted into the sphere of politically-motivated policing by the incumbent regime, observers note.  
Dr Kagoro observes that the events which followed the change of guard at the top, including President Museveni’s insertion of several high-ranking military officers into key positions in the police, isolated the IGP and tied his hands. 
“He has tried given the circumstances on the ground,” he said.
Changing policing
But despite existing challenges and echoes of political interference, Okoth-Ochola’s admirers take the more charitable view that he is reviving the necessary bureaucracy required for police officers to function as expected, Dr Kagoro said.
And a former Deputy Inspector General of Police agrees. Mr Julius Odwe noted, in an interview with the Daily Monitor,  that the IGP knows what to do, but the drawback is that he “is so quiet and over-delegates his tasks”. 
“He is reserved. He is well trained. He knows the law. The only challenge is he delegates his duties so often. If the duties aren’t done well, it [comes back] to you who delegated,” Mr Odwe said. 
Mr Odwe cares about the Force and keeps in touch. During the wave of insecurity marked by the notorious machete murders in Masaka and other  parts of central region two years ago. Mr Odwe said that he regularly consulted with Mr Ochola and found him to be a good listener.  
In a February 2019 address to regional police commander, the police chief spoke about his grand plans to transform Uganda’s police.
“Transformation of the Uganda Police Force into a modern professional, service-oriented, pro-people and effective institution entails team work, positive mental orientation, patriotism for the nation, exertion of authority, proper judgement of situations, discipline, timely response to complaints, capacity building, and addressing the welfare of the police personnel,” he said.
To that end, he spoke of a “provision of a sense of belonging and direction to the personnel, good customer care, and safeguard of equipment, result-oriented policing and putting in place functional systems so that the institution operates in an organised manner”.
He rallied his subordinates with the revelation that in his first meeting with President Museveni upon being appointed police chief, he was advised to rebuild the CID and the Directorate of Crime Intelligence so that police operations become intelligence-led. 
This army-style approach to police work has taken root, especially so with military officers being appointed to lead the so-called crime intelligence departments.
Mr Okoth-Ochola also said that he brought to the president’s attention areas where he needed help so as to transform the police. 
Similarly, at the annual Police Council meeting in Naguru, in 2019, the new boss told colleagues that he had raised issues regarding inadequate human resources, funding, accommodation for officers, feeding of officers in operations, and training, house rent for officers operating outside barracks and maintenance of the police fleet with the president as being key factors for the transformation to occur.
Although the IGP didn’t respond to this newspaper’s request for an interview about his five years at the helm, his media team furnished us with a summary of his brief this far.
According to the brief, IGP Okoth-Ochola’s leadership has realised a reduction in the number of victims of crime from 667 people per 100,000 before he took over, to 524 in 2022.
During the 26th Police Council meeting, the Minister of Internal Affairs, who also doubles as the Chairman of the police authority, Maj Gen (rtd) Kahinda Otafiire, acknowledged these achievements, noting that Mr Ochola has done well in bringing positive change to the Force.
“I am grateful for your effort. So far so good. The new regime; the Ochola regime, has brought a bit of sanity in the police,” Maj Gen Otafiire said. “I can see a big improvement.”
But the deputy secretary general at the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change political party, Mr Harold Kaija, suggests not much has changed in the broad motivation of the police under President Museveni. 
“The general policing hasn’t changed from that of [Mr] Kayihura. He has a military deputy and many other soldiers in influential directorates. The police are as overzealous as it was before. You saw what happened in Mityana District when they tear-gassed the area Member of Parliament for talking to her constituents,” Mr Kaija said. 
Mr Kaija said the incumbent IGP,  like his predecessor, is focused on regime protection at whatever cost, including the blatant violation of human rights. 
“We thought that [Mr] Ochola, being a career police officer, would spend a lot of resources on improving the welfare of his officers. [But instead] you hear of the fraud issues in the Police Exodus Sacco (police cooperative). Police officers are ill-equipped [to serve and protect citizens], and their accommodation is still deplorable,” he said. 
Under Mr Ochola, he said, police posts in rural areas which offered a measure of security to ordinary people, were closed. 
“The police aren’t meant for us, but the junta. The ministers are guarded by more police officers than some sub-counties,” he said.     
He also accused IGP Ochola of falling behind on community policing, a strategy which was being embraced by the country as a useful weapon against crime. 
“That community policing programme is now dead,” he said, adding that police officers no longer meet the community to account for their services.
There appears to be an overload of manpower around Kampala capital and the surrounding metropolitan districts. In contrast, far-flung outposts in the provinces are desperately short of men and logistics. 
Routine functions like security patrols and proper CID fieldwork are almost unheard on account of either insufficient ‘boots on the ground’, no fuel, or a dire lack of vehicles in the countryside. 
But police spokesperson, Senior Commissioner of Police Fred Enanga, maintains that the reduction in crime rate noticed in the early years was due to Okoth-Ochola’s imaginative changes.  
“This was achieved through re-organisation of CID and implementation of community policing strategies,” Mr Enanga said.
It should, however, be recalled that three of the past five years had Ugandans essentially confined to their homes under coronavirus pandemic lockdown protocols. This would presuppose that even criminals found themselves constrained given the closed environment.
In the first year of the new order, 238,746 cases were registered, signifying a drop of three percent from the Kayihura days. When the lockdown was fully lifted, the 2022 annual crime report said 231,653 cases were recorded, which is 7,083 cases lower than the total cases registered in 2017. 
Beyond the cases registered, the new leadership continues to do poorly on the submission of case files for onward prosecution in court and in securing convictions. 
For instance, a year before he took over, around 73,000 cases were taken to court in 2017 of which 22,200 convictions were secured. Up to 90,700 cases remain unresolved and are pending investigations. 
Last year 68,400 cases were taken to court out of which there were 10,600 convictions, which is half of the total convictions secured in 2017.  At least 136,500 cases were pending investigation last year. 
Traffic accidents and fatalities were reduced by three percent in this first year, but they have since bounced back to past highs despite more proactive traffic policing.
At least 13,200 accidents were registered in 2017, of which 3,500 people died. Last year, road traffic accidents rose to 20,300 with 4,534 deaths.
A big fraction of the police development budget in the last five years has been spent on re-tooling the Force, relegating much-needed infrastructure improvements (barracks renovations and expansion, spreading the Force’s footprint, among others) to the fringes.
Top among the police spending on development projects in the last five years is the CCTV camera project. 
The Command Centre at Naguru, which houses the CCTV camera project has been a particularly heavy investment. Currently, phases I and II of the CCTV camera project and monitoring centres are operational in all cities, municipalities and highways in the country.
In the same period, 1,906 vehicles, including fire tenders, riot control vehicles and ambulances. This brings the number of the police vehicle fleet to 11,132. The volatile Karamoja is one of the areas which received military-grade armoured fighting vehicles given the unique security requirements of the sub-region wracked as it is by armed cattle rustling and violent crime.
Mr Enanga underlines improvements in the quality of forensic services and fingerprinting of guns in the possession of police, prison, Uganda People’s Defence Forces and other security agencies to nearly 98 percent as another progressive development. 
“[He has] built the capacity of the forensic lab to support investigation with scientific evidence by equipping it with the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, DNA [analysis], Cogent Automated Biometric Identification System and scene of crime officer kits,” Mr Enanga said. 
The second priority has been human resource administration and training. More than Shs1 trillion has been spent on  in the last five years. 
Mr Enanga said 11,276 officers were recruited and trained, bringing the police strength to around 54,000.
“During that period, police trained 22,040 in-service personnel under several refresher and specialised courses,” Mr Enanga said.
Welfare wishes
Still, being a career officer, it had been anticipated inside the Force that attention to welfare would be more pronounced under the post-Kayihura administration. 
However, the budget for police welfare has drastically dropped from Shs80 billion in 2018 when IGP Ochola took over to just Shs5 billion in the 2022/2023 financial year, according to Finance ministry documents.
The accommodation crisis persists, and is actually getting out of control. 
After the police recruited 11,000 officers in five years, the housing shortage increased to 35,000 units.  And the existing 9,200 housing units are in desperate shape, falling apart and should be condemned in many cases. Barracks across the country suffer from terrible sewage and waste disposal, making them susceptible to disease outbreaks.
Mr Enanga said 585 houses have been built and 5,410 unipots installed but this barely scratches the surface of the housing crisis.
It is true that the leadership raised the food issue, manpower inadequacies, vehicle shortages and accommodation during a Police Council meeting attended by President Museveni. But the commander-in-chief’s response may have dampened optimism. 
The president is reported to have instead proposed a reduction in the number of police officers sitting at sub-county posts to just 20 men. He also suggested that police should use bicycles to get around. Bicycles were last used for policing in Uganda by the colonial police department more than half a century ago.
There also appears to be a relative stagnation with the police witnessing the fewest promotions and salary increments in the last 23 years over the Ochola period. Only 773 senior officers have been promoted while 3,400 junior officers were promoted to various ranks. Except police scientists, who got salary enhancement alongside colleagues in government, non-scientists (junior officers) have got a salary increment only once.
It is a mixed bag for the quiet man who replaced the aggressive and action-packed Kayihura order with his own version of a firm, and sometimes understated approach.
Mr Enanga sees a sea change with welfare issues being addressed, partly through reforming the Exodus Sacco and Police Savings Association Limited, which were suffering from numerous accountability challenges. 
“Police Exodus Sacco management was re-organised and structures put in place to enable its continuity in giving out of credit facilities,” he said. 
Corruption cancer
Graft, both inside the police and in its relations with the general public only seems to get worse.
Almost every annual report on government corruption issued by public and private agencies marks the Uganda police out as the most graft-ridden institution in the country. Same findings have been made in recent reports on human rights abuse produced by the Uganda Human Rights Commission and other rights defenders.
According to reports by the Inspectorate of Government in the last five years, the police have remained the most corrupt institution in Uganda.
“This is according to the Fourth National Integrity Survey Report, which ranked the general police as the worst department in extorting money from members of the public in the form of bribery. The general duties police, standing at 70 per cent overall, was followed by the traffic police department at 67 per cent and the Criminal Investigations Directorate (CID),” the Inspectorate report released in 2022 reads in part.
Similar surveys carried out by Transparency International in the same period have also shown that the police remains firmly perched atop the list of the most corrupt institutions.
As with Gen Kayihura, IGP Okoth-Ochola may discover that the Uganda Police Force has a life of its own.