“He told me not to tell my family anything,” says Mirembe, looking down into the bowl of ice cream she eats slowly as we talk in a cafe in downtown Kampala.
She had been fresh out of university when she interviewed for a job with a charity. But after starting the job she was sexually assaulted by the director, and coerced into continuing to have sex with him to keep the job. He gave her a STI.
When Mirembe, who only agreed to speak under a pseudonym to protect her identity, reported her case to the police, the director countered, launching a case against her. Mirembe was arrested and detained in prison for two months during Uganda’s coronavirus lockdown, and was continually denied access to a lawyer and bail.
In an audio recording shared with VICE World News, the police officer says that he was paid to arrest Mirembe and that if she paid him more the case against her would be dropped. Speaking in Luganda, one of the major languages in Uganda, he can be heard asking Mirembe for sums of between two and three million Ugandan Shillings (about £400 to £600) to drop her case. Laughing, he makes an analogy of a doctor getting paid whether their patient lives or dies.
The officer, along with two others, has been reported to the Uganda Police Professional Standards Commission by Mirembe’s lawyers for invasion of privacy, harassment and illegal phone tapping, allegedly under the instruction of her abuser.
A months-long investigation by VICE World News involving interviews with Ugandan women and girls from across the country has found that police inquiries into cases of sexual and gender-based violence are being hindered by corruption and mismanagement, exposing a system which allows perpetrators to operate with impunity. Of the 20 survivors we spoke to, over half said they experienced corrupt handling of their cases. Gender-based violence, particularly during COVID restrictions, is a huge issue in Uganda, which this week holds its presidential election.
Police officers have failed to investigate cases without being paid “fees”, or “facilitation” payments for costs such as transport, while male perpetrators have paid officials to drop cases which incriminate them. In more extreme cases like Mirembe’s, men with money and power use their privilege to give police instructions to harass, humiliate and even criminalise their victims and those associated with them. In a couple of cases we encountered, these perpetrators are influential figures linked to politics and the church.
While survivors sometimes see their perpetrator pay the police (one woman we interviewed called the police on an abusive partner and his son, who threatened to kill her, but watched the men pay police 10,000 Ugandan Shillings (about £2) to leave the scene) in most instances, it is the actions of the police and judiciary which raise suspicions that money has been exchanged. VICE World News has heard cases of officers telling survivors they have been paid by their perpetrators; survivors seeing their perpetrators go behind closed doors to negotiate with police officers; and, in the cases which get as far as court, survivors’ charge sheets being inexplicably changed, and being told conflicting court dates.
Under Uganda’s coronavirus lockdown, cases of sexual, domestic and other forms of gender-based violence have risen dramatically and serious police investigations are more important than ever. In the first month of lockdown last year, the police said around 3,280 cases were reported. Yet many women continue to feel it is pointless, and often unsafe, to report their cases. Messages coming from the top also offer little assurance: President Yoweri Museveni suggested that domestic violence is not a life-threatening issue in a speech last March about COVID-19 lockdown regulations.
Rose sits with two of her identically dressed children bouncing on her knee at UGANET, a human rights organisation which runs the women’s shelter where we meet. Though the stories of the women and girls here are dark, the atmosphere is warm. Children of all ages run around the yard playing, and the women chat as they cook fresh beans for lunch.
Rose’s ex-partner is a senior judicial officer at Uganda’s High Court, who she is hiding from after years of domestic abuse, death threats, and eventually a physical assault. She found it difficult to report her case due to his connections with law enforcement. On one occasion, he took her to their local police station. Rose, who agreed to speak only under a pseudonym, says he came out of the station with several officers, shouting, “Get her out of my car and embarrass her! You can even detain her!” The officers then started pulling Rose’s dress, arms, and legs, and trying to undress her, until she exited the car and ran away.
“This is a guy who is full of his money, full of his power,” Rose says. “Police, whoever gives them something small for that day is what they go with. Even if you are suffering or crying, they can throw you out or beat you up. They don’t chase the truth, they chase the money.”
After Rose escaped to safety, she wrote a letter to Uganda’s Principal Judge about her case of assault and threatening violence against her ex-partner, which is still under investigation. While Rose is cautiously optimistic about the investigation - officers from the police headquarters went to her husband’s village to take statements - she believes her ex-partner is using his money and influence to weaken her case.
Rose says that officers prevented her main witness from “narrating her whole story,” and she was told that two of her sisters who were also witnesses were paid not to give statements. “My husband was informed that the police were coming from Kampala, so he was able to coach people to testify,” says Rose, who says that her ex-partner called her and said: “If you don't drop that case, you know you cannot win.”
“He doesn't want the public to know that he has failed with managing his home when he's managing public issues,” says Rose.
Judiciary officials did not respond to a request for comment on allegations against their officers made in this story.
In another case implicating both the police and the judiciary, a mother cried as she watched the man who raped her six-year-old daughter be released from a courtroom in northern Uganda with a mere caution. Atim had been told that her child’s case would be heard at 2PM, but it had gone ahead without them earlier that day. The charge sheet had been amended without explanation from “aggravated defilement” to the much lesser charge of “indecent assault”. The amendment included no mention that the victim was a young child, and appeared to have been signed by a magistrate, a state attorney and a police officer.
Over a year later, the family are still waiting for justice. Atim, who agreed to speak only under a pseudonym, said she is convinced that the authorities were paid to release the perpetrator. After the crime was reported, a relative of the perpetrator called the girl’s father offering him money to drop the case. “He said if we refuse to take the money, they might kill us at any time,” she says. But her husband declined, and she believes the perpetrator’s family took the money to the police instead, resulting in his release.
A complaint by the Women’s Pro Bono Initiative about the case has spurred police to issue a warrant for his rearrest, and an investigation into mismanagement of the case by two government departments is ongoing. But Atim argues the police are “just relaxed as though this boy did not do anything”. Her child’s clothes were taken for forensic testing after the incident, but they have received no results. Recently, Atim even made an appointment to visit the police with her local MP, but when they arrived, the officer was nowhere to be seen. “I want him to be punished for what he did. But up to now, I’m not happy with any police,” says Atim.
Police corruption is normalised in Uganda; be it a victim or criminal, a rape case or a petty theft, everyone knows a trip to the station is probably going to cost them. In a 2015 survey by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS), 75 percent of respondents ranked the police as the country’s most corrupt government institution.
According to Kofi Boakye, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, the inception of formal policing and police recruitment in African countries colonised by the British “can be argued to have sown the seed for police corruption.”
“The central purpose of the British empire was exploitation, and the police was critical to achieving this primary goal,” Boakye says. “There was very little concern for the rights and welfare of the local population, and even less so for the rights of women and children.”
Even the Uganda Police Force website (which was until recently offline due to a hack claimed by Anonymous) writes that “like in colonial days, the police force largely remains an authoritarian instrument of state control of the public, taming perceived opponents of the state and for enforcing law and public order.”
Joyce, 27, was asked for 100,000 Ugandan shillings (about £20) by a police officer when she was found on her way to work at a restaurant shortly before the end of Uganda’s 6AM coronavirus curfew. When she could not give him the money, he raped her. After Joyce, who spoke under a pseudonym, reported the case to police, the perpetrator threatened to kill her in front of his colleagues, and later, neighbours told her two men had come looking for her. Joyce has been in hiding ever since, and says it’s difficult for women to get justice for crimes like this because police “have the power to protect their own.”
Still, Uganda Police are coming under increasing scrutiny from the public. Violent, and sometimes deadly, enforcement of the country’s coronavirus lockdown by police and armed forces has given rise to a movement to end police brutality in Uganda, drawing parallels with the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria.
In November, anger towards Uganda Police intensified when at least 54 Ugandans were killed as protests against the detention of opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine broke out. While movements like #EndPoliceBrutalityInUganda offer hope, for many systemic change in Uganda’s police force still feels unattainable.
When asked for comment on the allegations outlined in this article, Charles Mansio Twiine, a spokesperson for the Uganda Police, said that “the narrative is not only false, but completely deplorable,” and described the story as “total blackmail deliberately designed to undermine the efforts and successes we have had in handling SGBV [sexual and gender-based violence] cases.”
Twiine said that Uganda Police has “formidable” structures in place to allow citizens to have their grievances “properly fixed,” and that reported cases of mismanagement have been “handled professionally.”
He did however concede that Uganda continues to experience many cases of sexual and gender-based violence, which the police will continue to fight although their “success is still a work in progress.” Twiine also said that some cases of this nature are hindered by perpetrators paying off the families of survivors “at the expense of the due process of court.”
Technically, things should have gone differently for the women we spoke to who tried to seek justice. “We have a plethora of laws and policies that support successful prosecution, investigation and adjudication of cases of sexual and gender-based violence,” says Justice Susan Okalany, Deputy Head of the Family Division of Uganda’s High Court. She mentions the broadening of what is termed “defilement” to include sexual acts other than penetration, an amendment to include boys as potential victims of sexual violence, and the 2010 Domestic Violence Act.
Along with 11 other countries in the Great Lakes region, Uganda is a signatory of the Kampala Declaration on Sexual and Gender Based Violence which commits to prevent, punish and respond to such crimes in the region. According to Nathan Byamukama, the regional director of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region Regional Training Facility (ICGLR-RTF) on sexual and gender-based violence, Uganda is among the best performing in the region when it comes to installing laws in this area.
Rose Nalubega is head of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence Department at Uganda’s police headquarters. Since its inception in 2013, Nalubega says they have trained nearly 250 officers and their spouses on the causes and effects of sexual and gender-based violence, as a response to the issue of police officers themselves acting as perpetrators. The unit has also helped women access safe shelters – both through partner organisations (most of the women interviewed at the UGANET shelter were referred there by police) and through a temporary shelter at the police headquarters, she says.
But despite attempts by policymakers and law enforcement to put systems in place to help survivors, many women are still in danger, and failing to access the justice system. Societal attitudes towards sexual and gender-based violence – including within the police, judicial and medical sectors – are one reason.
Child and Family Protection Officers, for example, are now stationed at every police station in Uganda to handle sexual and gender-based violence cases. But Okalany is concerned that these officers take on a role of counsellor instead of law enforcer, resulting in cases not being taken seriously. “Instead of working with an investigator to establish whether elements of domestic violence have been disclosed, these officers will try to intervene and call the perpetrator,” says Okalany. “They will tell them ‘this is a family matter’”.
One woman we spoke to met her partner when she was pregnant with another man’s child. He began beating her because of this, and when she went to the police they blamed her for having a child that is not his, and told her it was her fault that he had become violent. In another case, a rape survivor said police officers focused their line of questioning on how much alcohol she had consumed when the assault occurred, and eventually asked for “facilitation” to pursue the case further.
Byamukama heads up the regional facility in Kampala which trains police, judicial, medical and psychosocial professionals in the Great Lakes region to better understand sexual and gender-based violence, and to build skills that will help them handle cases.
“Very few men in this country appreciate the intensity of this problem,” says Byamukama, telling stories of insensitive judges dismissing cases where – for cultural reasons – a rape victim will not explicitly say what happened, instead using phrases such as “he made me his wife” or “he put his tail on me”. He says changing mindsets is “complicated,” and even argues that if police officers really understood the gravity of such crimes, they would not ask survivors for money.
But is a change in attitudes enough to transform how survivors are treated by a police force rooted in colonial oppression and corruption - rather than public protection?
Okalany suggests a total overhaul of the system is needed. “The police leadership is failing to supervise these people to do the right thing. We need leaders who have no record of crime. You cannot fight crime when you are a criminal,” says Okalany, listing grievances she has with the police commander in her home village. The most extreme is his refusal to arrest perpetrators who raped women during an illegal eviction from their homes in 2019.
An exchange of money is often expected when crimes of many different types are reported to the police in Uganda. But due to patriarchal power dynamics, such as economic inequality between men and women, survivors of sexual and gender based violence end up among the most powerless, and least able to access justice. When these women’s cases go no further than this first port of call, abusers remain at large and women and children remain at risk of further violence. Sexist attitudes and corrupt practices in the police also deter women from reporting their cases in the first place.
“The police are a disgrace to say the least. If I had the power I would recruit all of them afresh. Yes, they would have to reapply for their positions!” exclaims Okalany. “Corruption is a festering wound in our criminal justice system.”
This reporting was funded by Akina Mama wa Afrika, a feminist-Pan-African leadership development organisation headquartered in Kampala, Uganda.