New Openings in the Fight for Police Reform and Ending Torture in Uganda?

 February 20, 2016. © 2016 Human Rights Watch, February 20, 2016.

February 20, 2016. © 2016 Human Rights Watch, February 20, 2016.

By Samuel Cohen

In a shocking move, in March 2018 Uganda dictator Yoweri Museveni removed Kale Kayihura, one of his most fervent supporters and head of the Ugandan police. Under pressure from Ugandans who have accused Kayihura of torture such as beatings and the murder of suspects, Museveni replaced Kayihura with Martin Okoth Ochola, a reformer. With Kayihura gone and Ochola’s new leadership, many are calling on Uganda to actually implement the legislation it passed in 2012 banning torture. Uganda is one of only ten African countries to pass Anti-Torture legislation.

Museveni condemned the use of torture in letters to security chiefs and local media in early 2017 but has barely acted to curb torture until now. The real question now is whether Ochola can end the ingrained practice of torture in the Ugandan police or if he even wants to. Also, will Museveni continue to centralize power in his own hands, as he has done for 32 years ago, especially over the last decade.

Museveni Consolidates Power

Now in his 32nd year as president of Uganda, 73-year-old Yoweri Museveni has continued to consolidate power and taken steps to ensure he remains president for years to come. In 2005 parliament issued a ruling eliminating the presidential term limit. This ruling was recently confirmed by the Ugandan parliament, which abolished age restrictions on the presidency to allow Museveni to run for another term in 2021. Those opposing this move have been met with suppression.

In September 2017 alone, opposition figures like the mayor of Kampala were briefly arrested, Members of Parliament (MPs) were blocked from the debate in parliament, and demonstrations against the new 

law were banned. Museveni has also restricted social media through a law that took effect July 1 which taxes social media users five cents a day in US dollars. The government claims this was done to cut down on "gossip," but it has only hampered the freedoms of communication and speech. 

The Authoritarian Police

Improvements in police behavior came after the inspector general of the police (IGP) General Kale Kayihura was dismissed after 12 years of abuse and corruption.  Under Kayihura, the police were the worst perpetrators of torture in the country. In 2017, 419 cases of police were documented by the Uganda Human Rights Commission compared to 44 cases that year in the military.  Many torture victims are innocent civilians who were beaten until they confessed to crimes they did not commit.  

Between 2012 and 2016 there were 1000 torture allegations against the Ugandan police, many more were suspected to have gone unreported. During this same period, extrajudicial killings of protestors and journalists by police units became common. Under Kayihura, many suspects were tortured before arriving at police stations and before their court dates.  Though Kayihura did shut down some police units like the Rapid Response Unit because of human rights abuses, many officers in these units were moved to other units or locations and continued the same abusive practices.

Museveni vs Kayihura

Kayihura, a known supporter of the president, was accused of turning the police into a partisan force for Museveni, ordering the police to quash protests.   This loyalty did not stop the two from eventually falling out. Museveni wanted to “clean up” the police force because of protests from Ugandan citizens. He wanted to use security cameras to help identify perpetrators of crime and tackle police corruption. When Kayihura refused, Museveni sacked him and replaced him with Deputy IGP Martin Okoth Ochola.

Shortly after Kayighura was fired he was arrested and brought to the Makindye military barracks to await trial. Kayihura has been charged with involvement in organized crimes and killings including the murder of former police spokesperson, Andrew Felix Kaweesi.  Dozens of other senior police officials have been arrested, charged with executing or covering up kidnappings, killings, and extortion. Kayihura has also been questioned about forcing Rwandan refugees, fleeing from the Kagame dictatorship, back to Rwanda. Investigators believe that some members of the police force may have been paid to send back Rwandan opposition figures and refugees with the Kayihura’s approval. These actions enraged Museveni, who has spent years trying to make it appear as if Uganda is a “paradise” for asylum seekers and refugees.

Openings for Reform

Appointing new IGP Martin Okoth Ochola could mark a dramatic shift in how policing is done in Uganda.  Ochola is a sterner and less media hungry inspector. He makes far fewer media statements and has not continued Kayihura's practice of showing up at the scene of crimes before investigators. 

Many argue that a complete overhaul is necessary to rebuild the police forces and create a system of accountability. Ochola has announced some steps he believes will create a more disciplined and effective police force including "sensitizing" the police through workshops with district and division commanders. Ochola has also announced new guidelines to protect the rights of individuals who are arrested. Arrests will now be allowed only after a formal complaint is made and the officer has approval from the unit supervisor or commander. There has been a plethora of cases where arrested individuals have been detained with little evidence and tortured for days before the arrest has even been documented.

Symbolic or Actual Reform?

While there is some hope for genuine reform under Ochola, others are asking whether his reforms are only symbolic.  Why, for example, has  Ochola decided to use the Nalufenya detention facility, where many prisoners were tortured before their court dates, as a police station? Though Ochola has disbanded abusive police units like the Flying Squad, which utilized Nalufenya and other locations to  abuse and torture suspects, some Ugandan media has reported that these abusive units have been incorporated into the new Organized Crime Department. Regardless of whether this is true, Ochola has failed to prosecute some of Uganda’s worst human rights offenders by disbanding these units instead of punishing officers who practiced torture.

Another reason why we can wonder if Ochola is serious about reforming the police is because Ochola’s police force has largely dismissed grievances raised during the recent march to protest violence against women. In the past year, 20 bodies of women have been dumped on the streets of Kampala and many more women have been raped or beaten.

For meaningful police reform to take place in Uganda, a plethora of issues must be addressed. First is creating measures for police accountability.  The Police Disciplinary Court was unable to curb corruption and torture under Kayihura. Now systems must be set up so officers can be held accountable for future abuses. Systems must be put in place to make sure unit supervisors and other high authorities don't turn a blind eye to abuses or allow acts of torture to go underground. Lastly, police officers have become too reliant on torture to force suspects to admit guilt. An organization that has always relied on torture may need to be retaught how to do police work.

Challenge the “status quo” on Torture

It is important to note that Museveni did not remove Kayihura for practicing torture, but because of pressure from human rights groups and Ugandan activists. The activists criticized the government and created bad press for Uganda, Museveni, and the police.

The removal of Kayihura may have opened new avenues for challenging the “status quo on torture” in the police. Another important development has been how Winfred Kiiza, the opposition leader in parliament, has led a delegation of MPs to meet and speak with inmates tortured at Kakika and Mbarara Main Prisons.  The MPs heard stories of inmates tortured and wounded severely. Many innocent people were forced to admit to crimes they did not commit.  Though the Ugandan parliament has not taken any action following the prison visits, it is important that government officials are becoming more aware of police brutality. This could be a first step toward driving systematic change in police conduct. 

It is still too early to judge whether Ochola’s reforms are the beginning of concrete changes in police behavior. His current approach is the closest Uganda has come to actually reforming its police which is why we are cautiously optimistic.  As Ochola moves forward with reforms, human rights activists must remain critical of the Ugandan police and continue the fight to end torture. Regardless, TASSC welcomes these changes as a first step and we hope to see a Uganda where human rights are upheld, and torture is nonexistent.

Samuel is an Advocacy Intern at TASSC in the Summer 2018. He is currently a student at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he is majoring in international relations with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.