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Key findings
  • A majority of Ugandans say the police “often” or “always” use excessive force in managing protests (57%) and in dealing with suspected criminals (54%).
  • Only about one in five citizens (22%) say the police “often” or “always” operate in a professional manner and respect all citizens’ rights; about twice as many (42%) assert that such behaviour is rare or unheard of.
  • At least half of Ugandans say they felt unsafe while walking in their neighbourhood (54%) and feared crime in their home (50%) during the previous year, including more than one-third who experienced these fears at least “several times.” Poor citizens are far more likely to be affected by such insecurity than their better-off counterparts.
  • About one in five citizens (19%) say they requested police assistance during the previous year. More than twice as many (41%) encountered the police in other situations, such as at checkpoints, during identity checks or traffic stops, or during an investigation.
  • Three-fourths (75%) of citizens say “most” or “all” police are corrupt – by far the worst rating among key government institutions the survey asked about.

In his 1986 inauguration speech, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni stated, “No regime has a right to kill any citizen of this country, or to beat any citizen at a roadblock” (Monitor, 2018). Yet under his 36-year tenure, the Uganda Police Force has frequently been accused of brutalising the very citizens it is meant to protect.

During the 2021 election campaign, security forces killed at least 54 people, some of them – but not all – protesting the arrest by presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (better known as Bobi Wine) on allegations of violating COVID-19 guidelines (Amnesty International, 2020a). At least 40 people were killed by security forces during the “Buganda riots” in 2009, nine during the “walk-to-work” protests in 2011, and at least six following Bobi Wine’s first arrest in 2018 (Foreign Policy, 2021).

During the COVID-19 lockdown, security forces were accused of killing and abusing people while purporting to enforce pandemic restrictions (BBC News, 2020; Anadolu Agency, 2021). Even now, the media continues to report numerous cases of police repression, especially against journalists, political activists, and opposition political figures and supporters (Human Rights Watch, 2015). A recent report by the Human Rights Network of Journalists cited the Uganda Police Force and the national army as the leading perpetrators of violence against journalists in Uganda (Kamurungi, 2021).

Often the misdeeds and callous behaviours of men in uniform go unpunished. For example, none of the security personnel implicated in the killings of citizens during the aforementioned protests has been held accountable (Human Rights Watch, 2012, 2016; Nyeko, 2021). And some critics contend that Uganda’s laws on the use of force by police officers are permissive and protect the police (Kiconco, 2018; The Law on Police Use of Force Worldwide, 2021).

Who is to blame? A few police officers or the Uganda Police Force as a whole? What do ordinary Ugandans say about their police?

This dispatch reports on a special survey module included in the Afrobarometer Round 9 (2021/2022) questionnaire to explore Africans’ experiences and assessments of police professionalism.

In Uganda, a majority of citizens say that police officers frequently use excessive force when dealing with protesters and suspected criminals and fail to act in a professional manner or respect citizens’ rights. Opposition party supporters and residents in the Central region and Kampala – an opposition stronghold and the center of many political protests – are particularly likely to see police abuses of protesters as a common occurrence.

While the government receives favourable ratings on reducing crime, Uganda’s police are widely perceived as corrupt and enjoy relatively weak public trust. Among citizens who encountered the police last year, a majority say they had to pay a bribe to obtain assistance or avoid problems.

Makanga Ronald Kakumba

Makanga Ronald Kakumba is a research associate for Hatchile Consult Ltd., Afrobarometer’s national partner in Uganda.