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Kampala Losing Patience With Corrupt Police

Fresh bid to stamp out graft in the force, but some suggest low salaries are largely to blame.
By Bill Oketch

Police authorities in Kampala say that a recent series of cases in which officers have been caught abusing their position shows that they are serious about cracking down on corruption in public office.

Others, however, fear that the government is fighting a losing battle and warn that low pay makes police officers vulnerable to graft.

The Police Professional Standards Unit, PPSU, which implements discipline in the force, apprehended six traffic officers in July for allegedly extorting money from drivers on the Kampala-Gulu highway at night.

PPSU commander John Ndungutse reported that nearly 600,000 Uganda shillings (270 US dollars) were discovered on the officers.

The suspects, all attached to Kawempe police station in north Kampala, were caught at the Mutugga Trading Centre, not far from the capital.

Ndungutse says that those arrested have been suspended from duty while the case is investigated. They will appear before a special court set up by the PPSU for disciplinary hearings and Ndungutse said that, if found guilty, the men will probably be fined and dismissed from the force.

These arrests are the latest in a series of attempts to crack down on police abuses.
In December 2009, the inspector general of police, Kale Kayihura, ordered the arrest of the police commander for Kiboga district, William Kawuka, for allegedly extorting money from members of the public and detaining people in his office.

This followed the arrest of Hassan Ali Inziku, the police commander for Oyam district, for allegedly soliciting a bribe of one million Ugandan shillings (440 dollars) in return for releasing a suspect.

Both men have been dismissed from the force, and could be required to appear in court to answer the allegations against them, although a possible date for a hearing has not been confirmed.

Judith Nabakooba, spokeswoman for the police in Kampala, says the rules governing corruption in the police force are unequivocal.

“The standing order is that any police officer who is found guilty of corruption must be sacked,” she said. “Some are even prosecuted and taken to prison.”

The Ugandan parliament launched a sweeping probe of the police force in October 2007, which was ranked by the Inspectorate of Government, an independent body, as the most corrupt institution in the country.

The parliamentary investigation prompted a public inquiry which contributed towards the establishment of an anti-corruption court in the country - and Nabakooba says that since its launch, fewer officers who abuse their position are escaping justice.

But this has not deterred some within the force from breaking the law. The Inspectorate of Government suggests that corrupt practices are most common within the Criminal Investigations Department, CID, and the traffic police.

The acting resident district commissioner of Otuke, Godfrey Aluma, says that he has witnessed examples of police corruption himself.

“There was one day when I saw a traffic officer stop a bus and pretend to be checking the vehicle,” he said. “I saw him ask the bus conductor for some money and the conductor handed over 10,000 Ugandan shillings (5 dollars). I came out of the bus and asked him what the money was for. The man didn’t say anything and so I confiscated the money.”

Alfred Bitawire, the regional police commander for central-northern Uganda, admits that officers often exploit the ignorance of the public in order to extort money from them.

He said that police corruption is an extremely serious problem, since it breeds corruption elsewhere.

“Police officers are not supposed to be corrupt,” he told IWPR. “The police are not supposed to commit crimes. If a police officer commits a crime, he is not called a police officer. He is called a criminal.”

Of particular concern are the numerous reports that officers ask suspected criminals to pay for police bond, which should be free.

A police bond, which applies to less serious offences, permits a suspect to leave custody, as long as he promises to return when asked to do so.

In a bid to curb this kind of abuse, posters have been put at every police station in the country, stating clearly that a police bond is free.

Aluma believes that one of the chief reasons for corruption within the force is the fact that officers are not paid very well. “People complain that the police are corrupt because of low pay and the high cost of living,” he said.

Steps to improve conditions for officers need to be taken in tandem with more rigorous efforts to combat wayward officers, some analysts say.

“As much as many people may be patriotic when they join the police force, there is no patriotism in poverty,” said one officer, who wished to remain anonymous.

Dan Okello, chairman of the opposition Uganda People’s Congress in Lira, agreed that poor pay lies at the heart of the problem.

Okello added that officers were often deployed temptingly close to sources of extra money, providing them with an opportunity to supplement their meagre salary through extortion and other criminal activities.

“If policemen were adequately paid and given allowances, corruption would be eliminated from the force,” he said.

Bill Oketch is an IWPR-trained reporter.

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