Uganda – On Presidents, policing and power

On 4 March, Uganda’s President Museveni made the surprise announcement that he was firing both his Inspector General Police (IGP), Gen. Kale Kayihura, and his Security Minister, Lt Gen. Henry Tumukunde. This came after months of infighting between the two men and their respective agencies, the Uganda Police Force (UPF) and the Internal Security Organization (ISO).

Despite initially dominating headlines, the two-man feud is not the sole reason—or perhaps even a particularly significant reason—for the shake-up. Other factors include the police’s increasing involvement with criminal organisations, public frustration with police incompetence, and perhaps most significant, Museveni’s apparent misgivings about Kayihura’s loyalty.

None of these concerns, even the last, can be remedied through a simple reshuffle. They thus invite further reflection, particularly regarding President Museveni’s past management of security in Uganda, the growing partisanship and impunity of the police force, and what new security strategy Museveni may now adopt.

The rise and decline of the Uganda’s police  

Professionalism in the Ugandan police declined as it became more of a partisan fighting force, a transformation that former IGP Kayihura largely oversaw.

Veteran journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo gives a particularly trenchant analysis of this process, although other observers also offer useful summaries.

In brief, the Ugandan Police Force first underwent a process of professionalization through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. The two IGPs during this period were both career police officers and succeeded in turning the Force from “a mess” into a “boring place”, run in as “technocratic” a manner as it has ever been.

Some analysts contest this reading, noting that the Force, even in the 1990s, was not without controversy. But this initial period of institutional consolidation and professionalization certainly contrasts with what followed.

The first key change came in 2001 with the transition to IGP Wamala who, rather than a professional police officer, was a military man. But it was Kayihura’s accession to the IGP position in 2005 that marked the real watershed. Under his leadership, the Force became increasingly politicized internally and more overtly partisan in its actual policing.

The reasons for the change were multiple. They included Museveni’s frustration with a police force know for voting “badly”.

But the change in policing came alongside a more fundamental shift in the NRM’s overall security strategy.

As Onyango-Obbo argues, by the early 2000s, Museveni was increasingly keen to distance the military from overt partisan activities, easing its metamorphosis into a seemingly more professional force worthy of taking a lead in regional peace-keeping efforts.

This withdrawal of the military left the police to handle partisan issues at home, and this even as the political threat posed by the opposition grew.

This threat, along with Museveni’s personal trust in Kayihura, helps explain why the annual budget for the police exploded under his watch, going from Shs58b (£11.2m) to Shs600b (£115.5m).

Flush with cash, the Police spent some of it on new equipment, thus becoming increasingly militarised. This trend only grew more pronounced following the unprecedented 2011 “walk to work” protests, which Kayihura was instrumental in suppressing.

Ahead of the 2016 elections, Kayihura invested in a new initiative, the build-up of the so-called “crime preventers”, a community policing force that supposedly numbers 12m (but undoubtedly far less). Made up of young, largely untrained recruits, the “crime preventers” have been used in partisan policing efforts, often more as a threat.

Where to from here?

With the transfer to a new IGP, Okola Ochola, some observers are hoping for reform in the police.

Ochola is the first career policeman to serve as IGP since 2001, and his early actions do appear aimed at restoring a degree of professionalism.

Only a few weeks in the job and Ochola has already redeployed seven officers, most of whom were previously deployed to the IGP’s office “as a punishment” due to Kayihura’s distrust of them.

He has also indicated his distaste for the “crime preventers” and declared that he will weed out police officers deemed unfit. These will presumably include many of the younger recruits Kayihura brought in to serve as his loyal base whilst undercutting older, more experienced officers.

Much more needs to be done, of course, to bring about a change in the Police. Some also doubt that this change is likely to occur.

They point, in particular, to Ochola’s new deputy, Brigadier Sabiiti Muzeyi, who they suggest could scupper reform efforts. Muzeyi previously commanded the Military Police and his rapid rise within the UPDF was aided by Museveni’s son, Gen. Muhoozi.

But even if Ochola were to professionalise the police, this would raise fresh questions. Would a more professional force retreat from partisan policing? If it did, who would take over the partisan dirty work?

While it is far too early to say, a more professional police under Ochola could make for a more overtly partisan military, reversing earlier efforts to limit the UPDF’s domestic political interventions.

Only this week, Museveni declared that the crime preventers will now serve under the military and that the new crime preventers team should meet the Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Muhoozi.

Museveni went further, insisting that crime preventers was nothing new and had been part of the National Resistance Army going back to the 1980s.

Even as we contemplate the possibility of another shift in Museveni’s security strategy, one thing about which we can be sure is that security forces will continue to be used for partisan ends. The only change may be which kind of officer—military or police—holds the gun.

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