News and Views
A night experiencing Uganda police brutality firsthand
Hello, I had an opportunity to personally experience what I have seen on TV done to Ugandans by an institution supposedly in place to keep law and order. If you are in Uganda, you or your family or friends may probably have gone through this or similar experiences. And if in another part of the world, you may have images of similar brutality from Uganda or some other country, well, I wanted to share with you from a personal experience. I hope the words can help create a mental image of what happened:
It’s 11:30pm on the night of 02nd-07-2012. I set off from a friend’s where I had made a stopover on my way back home. When I realized that the car had jammed, I called up the mechanic to arrange a pick up in the morning. I picked my bags and got on a bodaboda (motorbikes used as taxis around Uganda).
Our ride went for about 7 minutes and then about 40 meters ahead, I saw the ‘’accident ahead’’ signpost, printed in very large red letters, in the middle of the road. My cyclist must have seen exactly what I saw because at my surprise, he suddenly made a u-turn. I asked him why he did that, saying it looked like the police were at the point and therefore no need for us to fear those were thugs. In many parts of the country, robbers have mounted roadblocks, and often bodaboda cyclists have been killed and robbed of their bikes. I intended to convince my mate that we would be safe.
When I insisted to know why he made the u-turn, he told me that the police normally harass them in the night, extracting money from them. What he said confirmed what many of his colleagues had shared with me over a long time. However, his fear was worsened by the fact that he had lost the bike’s registration plate, or so he claimed.
We reached the town we had left behind before the u-turn and he asked me to change to another bodaboda. At this moment two police officers who were following us reached and my cyclist dodged them and sped off. They surrounded me and asked ‘’why did you make a u-turn?” I asked them whether it was me riding or the guy who had just left. At that one of them hit my left part of the head with a fist and the other raised his gun to hit me. Unfortunately, or fortunately, something stopped him. The assault did not only affect my left eye, but also cracked my tooth.
With too much pain and so many tears rolling down my left eye, I told the guys that even if I were a criminal, they had absolutely no right to hit me or handle me the way they did. I had not resisted arrest and therefore no force whatsoever was required. I told them my identification would prove who I am. My efforts were in vain. A crowd started to gather, before the police hauled me onto their bike. They rode to the police post where they continued to harass me.
In the exchange, I presented 2 identification documents and told them I would personally deal with the individual who had hit me. I demanded to know the name of the Officer in Charge, to no avail. The guy who had hit me was recording something in their books. I asked to know his name, responding, ‘’ask your mother”.
They had confiscated my mobile, ordered me to put off my belt, shoes, and everything including my wallet. They ordered me to count the money in the wallet, which I refused to do since I could not see as my left eye was dripping tears. I kept asking for my mobile so I could call up a few people who could get me out. I had learned from experience that in this part of the world, the only way to deal with the system and its operatives is to be a big authority yourself, or know someone high in the ranks or have big money. The rest does not count, and it never matters how priestly you are, the monsters will attack you.
My assailant kept saying he would give me my phone later. That was the only polite way he knew how to deny people their rights. Without speaking to any family or friend, I was thrown into a pigpen, tortured and abused in so many ways. I can not remember how many times I begged to use the toilet, yet throughout the night, I had to force my bladder to be nicer.
When they locked me up, I realized that I had to accept I could do nothing more to secure my release that night, but started planning how to be out of there early in the morning so I could still do everything I planned to do the next day.
The cell had a young man of about 28 or so years , sleeping on 3 pieces of manila paper laid properly on the floor. He had peeped through the bars as I argued with the police for my rights and threatening to act decisively on the individuals. He kept turning on his papers and one would tell he was forcing himself to catch some sleep in a very absurd situation. There was a woman, right in the semblance of an office, near a semblance of a working desk. She was sleeping on a bench, with her very sick and malnourished baby of about 6 months.
The doors and windows were so open yet the baby did not have any warm covering. She coughed throughout, and 3 times I feared she was going to lose her life as I could hear her struggle for breath. Her mother turned on that small bench, placing her whole weight on her that I had to throw a bottle from my cell to wake her up to realize what she was doing to this unlucky feeble body. But who cared, even all the female officers just looked like no other person’s life mattered to them, even a child younger than their own children.
Through the spaces in the bars, I spoke to the female police officer who kept dozing until a replacement came in. I asked her whether they are trained to rudely handle everyone they decide to face, why they would not cautiously use their power, and within the confines of the law. She said ‘’we are different, you are different from your mom, and are different from your sister and brother’’. She laughed when I asked her why she arrested the baby, saying they arrested the mother, prompting me to say, ‘’….and therefore abusing an innocence one’’. She sighed. I could not stop thinking how the police service could possibly be improved to an extent where even the interests of this baby could be taken care of in an event that her parents, or one of them, had to be kept way from the rest of society.
She told me that a communication had come through from the District Police Commander ordering all posts and stations to mount roadblocks in search of 2 men on a bodaboda who had shot, killed and stole around 70 million UGX from a man on the outskirts of Kampala that evening. From the car, I had picked my laptop bag and a large bag that had children’s reading books that I had to deliver to a poor community school the following day. I thought maybe the guys imagined 70Million UGX to be in that bag! When they arrested me, they asked to know what was in the bag, I told them books and they unzipped it and had a glance at them. I kept my eyes on my bags and non of the officers checked them thoroughly. What if I had covered the money with books!!
I spread my legs apart, folded my hands against the door and prepared to beat off the coldness, mosquitoes and sleep through the night. I amassed myself in thoughts, leaving them to come and go and still paying attention to all communication that came in through the radio call. I watched the sad, brutal, hungry and mean faces of the officers as they came in and went, as they whispered outside the tiny, ramshackle building they called their office and cell for their arrestees. I read the writings and wondered about the drawings scratched on the cell walls. I scanned the whole room and thought about what, if it became necessary, I would do to escape my confinement, by breaking through. I planned my decent and lawful ways to my freedom.
As the hours dragged through the night, I wondered why a whole police officer would assault anyone. I thought about the so many images where police and security operatives have under the name of peace and order tortured people and practically killed them. I thought about the cries of so many people whose loved ones have disappeared without trace, I remembered the often talked about times of the demonized Idi Amin and why so many of the things that occurred during his time still occur to this day, no matter how disguised, and how much, we, as a society deny the facts. I remembered a time in England when police officers stopped me, questioned me with intent to get the facts, labored to make sure I understood exactly why they stopped me, and apologized for wasting my time.
I wondered what exactly I had done to deserve this treatment, yet in my mind names like Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Martin Lurther King Junior played forth and back. They were people who had blessed mankind, but the very people they so loved chose to end their lives or torment them in any possible way they could. I thought about community activists and politicians, and common men and women like me who have been so brutally treated, yet still work hard to support their families and communities, pay taxes that support the state machine, including the police, that turns around to torture them.
Before I gave in to sleep, I could see two, sometimes three officers standing outside, looking at me and speaking to each other. Whatever they exchanged! From the 2-3 jackets they wore, you could tell that these men and women were trying to keep warm, and I wondered why they thought the rest of us were animals with tougher skins.
I realized I could not stay awake all night. I had been left in my blue jeans without a belt, no shoes and in my short sleeved black t-shirt. I pulled my hands into the t-shirt and kept standing by the door for some more time. My roommate, to whom I never spoke a single word throughout my stay had folded himself on the ‘’paper mattress’’. There was a very little space left behind his folded legs. I slept on that to give myself a thought that I was sleeping on something. He was snoring, and every time he tried to straiten his legs, they touched something. The discomfort was too much he woke up, gave me one of the papers and asked me to sleep somewhere else.
Although I thought the ‘fight’ with the police was tough, it was tougher with the mosquitoes. I had placed my whole upper body into my t-shirt, but because I have short hair, and my t-shirt was open at the top of my head, the creatures had a feast there, at the feet and any other part that got exposed at any moment. The floor was hard and the cold was extreme for a body that normally sleeps in a warm comfortable bed, and a mind completely unprepared for the ordeal that night.
Just before daybreak, the officer who assaulted me came in to relieve the last person on duty that night. He signed her out and picked the cell keys. When he unlocked it, he signaled me out. He sat me on a chair in front to their working desk. He looked at me for about a minute while my mind kept fitting in the details of my plan for the day, and finally he said ‘’Good morning Mr. Seguya!”
He asked me whether I could self-record my statement, which I affirmed. He went on to ask what exactly happened. I patiently listened to him as he said ‘’I am so sorry Mr. Seguya. The guy I was with last night was my Officer in Charge; we treated you very brutally and tortured you in the cell. I am so sorry’’.
He moved out and came back to call me through the window. We moved under a mango tree and he continued with his apology, this time shading tears. Saying ‘’sometimes we are sent on duty with our personal problems and find ourselves overreacting……you probably know it, but there is no police officer who does not come from a poor family background”. I told him I had decided the previous night to count the incident as one of those things that happen and have nothing to reverse them.
Despite my assurances that I had forgiven him, he tearfully went on ‘’….are you forgiving me from your heart? Our age difference is not big, and we can speak two similar languages and understand each other. If you push this matter further, my whole life will be in trouble. My whole family in the village depends on me, my parents will have no way to survive if I lose my job. Please forgive me.” He went on to ask me whether I could even support his job application at the UN force offices in Entebbe.
I told him the only thing I would ask of him is never to treat another human being the way he treated me, and it should not matter what status that person has in the community, whether they have an education or not, poor or rich. The only thing that should matter is that they are a human being. I however told him that I would not keep quiet about this experience, that I would use it in helping society have a better police force. He later told me that his Officer in Charge wanted to see me.
His actions can be shaken off as actions of one person, but when one puts together other incidents, worse than this, and the fact that the Officer in Charge was present as a person was attacked by his man, and he too almost did a worse with his gun, one realizes that brutality and torture are a cancer that have eaten the entire police force.
I had hoped to secure the release of my three fellow inmates, including the innocent baby. However, I sadly learned that my cellmate had been arrested over theft, and the woman had used a knife to mutilate her old landlady. I laid the matter to rest, it is a society where the mad handle the mad, the mean deal with the mean, and where the poor, hungry, and sad must manage people similar to them, accidentally getting it right sometimes, but losing it much of the time. It’s a social system that needs overhaul. My inmates will have to deal with their consequences, and most likely, they will fairly or unfairly face the law.
When I met the officer in charge, he explained why they mounted the roadblock, told me he had been in the area for only 5 months, asked me to call them whenever I can, and requested me to join them on their community relations outreaches. He told me that my community mobilization skills would be beneficial to the force and the community at large, especially since I am not aligned with any political party. He said he believed I could help change the community from thinking that the police are their enemy. He reminded me of the support channeled to the police from UNESCO Youth Ambassador and wondered whether such support could be continued.
We discussed a number of issues, but told him until the police treat people friendly; the public will always them for enemies. I asked him to let me go so I could not be late for my day’s activities, promising to extend support in any possible way.
2 days later, I still have to deal with the fever, headaches and a cracked took sustained from the incident.
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