By Fred Enanga
In a recent open letter to the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), a former Director of CID, Mr. Herbert Karugaba, made several allegations against the Uganda Police Force.
Mr. Karugaba, along with other former senior police officers, had been invited to a dinner to launch the Centenary Celebrations of the Uganda Police. The open letter was his response to the invitation.
Mr. Karugaba's major grouse with the Police included the manner in which Police has managed incidents of public disorder, the quality of investigations in CID, alleged inadequate training, and welfare of personnel.
Mr. Karugaba pings nostalgia, comparing the good old days when he was in charge, with the current times. He declares that, in his days, he 'never saw tear gas, pepper spray or water cannons deployed even once'.
We are in agreement with Mr. Karugaba on that score.
We, too, struggle to recall any time, during his years of service, when multi-party political dispensation was freely practiced, with a diverse menu of liberal freedoms granted to the citizens.
Having started and matured in service under a repressive regime in 1980, Mr. Karugaba's complaint about the absence of tear gas in his heydays is a valid observation, albeit tinged with an ironic context.
It is a no-brainer that security agencies in a dictatorial and repressive system would find it much easier to pacify and intimidate the population, than they would in an accountable and openly democratic society, like that which currently pertains in Uganda.
In Mr. Karugaba's Police, political opponents and activists, real or perceived, were liquidated, or simply 'disappeared'. Such terminal and lethal solutions to political discourse forced many activists to either go underground, or join the armed resistance.
We do not have statistics on the rate at which Mr. Karugaba's CID successfully investigated and prosecuted these murders and 'disappearances'.
The absence of public dissent or violent demonstrations, as it was in Mr. Karugaba's Police days is, thus, not necessarily symptomatic of a happy and content society.
The fact that Mr. Karugaba's police never deployed teargas or water cannons is not, in itself, proof positive of its professionalism, as Mr. Karugaba would like to have us believe.
It is, instead, testament to the reality that the public would not have dared challenge the Police in Mr. Karugaba's days, on human rights violations and other excesses.
In our case, we believe demos and petitions, conducted in accordance with the law, are a healthy practice in a democracy. That is why we police peaceful demos, and use non-lethal means to restore order when necessary.
Actually, these days the demands on the police are constant, compelling and often competing thus making it a challenge to deploy the skills and resources to achieve civility, order, and security which society requires.
We concede that the transition from a repressive police system, to a people-oriented Police in a democracy, has not been an easy ride. The old type of policing was relinquished and the community policing approach adopted to meet new challenges. Good leadership that is visionary, open-minded, of good judgment, and courageous enough to tackle calculated risks and make difficult decisions provides for this.
The decisive moment was in the promulgation of the 1995 Constitution, and, naturally, the opening up of the multi-party political space in 2005. As of today the political landscape is characterized by infighting and factional differences linked to succession battles between party loyalists and those linked to the faction. The faction usually emerges with emphasis on democratic change to help the situation although the hope dies out faster than it was conceived, thus causing the faction to adopt the culture of non-violent means that easily degenerates into violence as a likelihood of settling conflicts within the political party.
Such freedoms inevitably come with unique challenges that test the very definition and limits of democracy.
In the case of managing public order, the Police came into conflict with a vocal minority who believed that their freedoms of expression and association are absolute, and that the law gave them the right to do whatever they wished, whenever they wanted to.
They believed that they could, for instance, call any public rally or hold a procession on any public road, or at whatever location and at whatever time they wished; regardless of whether such activities inordinately inconvenienced other persons.
The Police took a different position: that such freedoms and rights should be exercised responsibly, with due regard to other people's rights. The enactment of the Public Order Management Act put a stop to that debate.
Mr. Karugaba accuses the CID of being unprofessional, and points out that all cases from political unrest have not resulted in any criminal charge being proved in a court of law.
Fact check: in 2011 alone, Police preferred charges against 149 persons on cases resulting from incidents of public disorder. Of these case, 113 suspects were convicted 'in courts of law'.
It is evident that in some countries where there is lack of effective police action to contain, prevent, and investigate political activities have led to relentless and revenge attacks sanctioned by the political leaders. Such violence has claimed lives of citizens and left many supporters homeless due to a breakdown in the democratic systems.
Similar narrative as Mr. Karugaba's has been offered by some political actors, no doubt pushing a specific agenda. Mr. Karugaba could have done well to check the facts with us, before regurgitating the same chorus.
There are various game-changing developments in CID that Mr. Karugaba might not have been aware, or deliberately chose to ignore, when accusing the CID of unprofessional investigations.
We no longer send our forensic samples to labs abroad for analysis. In fact, other countries now send their samples to the State-of-the-Art Regional Forensics Referral Lab in Naguru, Kampala.
Each Police station in the country now has a well-equipped and dedicated Scenes-of-Crime team, and not the ill-kitted region-based one-man-team of earlier years.
The training regime, and areas of expertise, have been expanded. Officers, in larger numbers than ever before, are attending professional courses, locally and abroad, to enhance their investigative skills.
Crime has drastically reduced in volume and crime rate, even as the population has exponentially increased, while conviction rates in criminal cases is at record high levels.
These, we believe, are indicators of a positively functioning criminal investigative function of the Police.
The welfare has improved with several initiatives that include the Police duty free shop with factory prices, an Exodus SACCO with 22,000 members, NAADS poultry projects in several barracks, Garment factory, a Canine clinic at Nagalama. Others include a National Cancer Diagnostic center at Kololo, a fully-fledged Police Headquarters and thousands of housing and residential units, food production in police farms, and an improved transport fleet to mention a few areas.
Mr. Karugaba throws a litany of other sweeping statements and accusations, none of which is backed by any slice of evidence.
These accusations include such reckless statements like 'the Police has turned from a law enforcement agency (to) a highly militarized squad specifically aimed at controlling the grey area between ‘crime’ and ‘polities’'. These, we shall, respectfully, let pass.
In our present experience, unlike Mr. Karugaba's times, democracy is not just a catch phrase: it exists in the structure and the institutions that keep the Police in check, as they do with the rest of the Executive.
In the history of our country, there has not been a time that the Police has been as held to account for its actions, as it is now.
Parliament routinely grills Police management, literally auditing and questioning every step we make. Any failure or overreach is publicly highlighted and punished.
Police actions have been challenged in Court, and where applicable, sanctions have been applied.
We have in-house quality control mechanism that works. These initiatives did not exist a few years ago.
Clearly, the Police Force has evolved in tune with the times, and in line with the demands and expectations of a democratic society.
Quite literary, Mr. Karugaba missed the fun and challenges that go with policing a democratic society.
In retrospect, perhaps the missed dinner would have been a fantastic opportunity for Mr. Karugaba to catch up with accurate developments in the Police, and exchange ideas with the current management and erstwhile colleagues who honoured the invitation.
The writer is the Public Relations Officer of the Uganda Police Force