Imagine that you are a police officer and witness a close colleague accepting a bribe. Would you report this behaviour or turn a blind eye to it? 600 police officers in Uganda answered similar questions relating to a variety of cases of undesirable police conduct. A series of recent publications by Dr Natascha Wagner and Professor Wil Hout, with ISS alumna Dr Rose Namara, shows that officers who participated in an accountability project were influenced positively in their attitudes towards desirable and undesirable police behaviour.
The arrest of Ugandan musician, businessman and opposition politician Bobi Wine in August 2018 caused world-wide attention to the brutal behaviour of the Ugandan police force. This crackdown on a popular figure in the country added to the already bad reputation of Uganda’s police, which is commonly seen as violent and corrupt.
Democratic theory sees the police, next to the army, as the ‘strong arm’ of the state. These institutions are faced with a ‘paradox of power’: they possess important coercive tools that should be used to protect the state and its citizens, but could also be employed to attack those whom they should protect. For this reason, accountability mechanisms are created to ensure that police behaviour respects the principles of the rule of law. Countries with a robust rule of law mechanism, such as The Netherlands, subject the police to strict political and legal oversight. Police officers who ‘cross the line’ and engage in unacceptable behaviour will likely be punished, although recent reports on the code of silence in the police force in The Hague suggest that this may not always be self-evident.
Similar mechanisms do not apply to the same extent to Uganda, which is widely seen as an imperfect democracy, with many traits of so-called ‘competitive authoritarianism’. The country holds regular elections, but political liberties are seriously impeded by the rulers of the country. President Yoweri Museveni’s regime, which has ruled Uganda since the removal of Obote in 1986, regularly uses the police force to repress oppositional forces that may threaten its hold to power. The recent setup of a Field Force Unit for handling riots and demonstrations, according to some observers, is one example of the militarisation the Ugandan police, and could represent a further step to using the police for regime support.
In this seemingly hostile context, the Police Accountability and Reform Project was implemented by the Ugandese NGO HURINET with the financial help of the Dutch Embassy in Kampala. The project aimed to improve relations between civil society, the media and the police by organising dialogues, and inform the public about the work of the police. These activities were meant to strengthen police accountability mechanisms.
The evaluation department of The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs brought in a team from ISS to assess, among others, the police accountability project. The ministry was interested to see to what extent its ‘good governance’ policies in various countries had been effective. Our aim in relation to the project on police accountability was to estimate whether it impacted the attitudes of Ugandan police officers. We concluded that the project in all likelihood contributed positively to the attitudes of police officers regarding desirable and undesirable police activities.
Our research project consisted of different activities. One important element was a survey among a large group of police officers, drawn from districts across Uganda, with the help of a dozen cases of police behaviour. Based on earlier research on police integrity, we let police officers evaluate a variety of cases (or ‘vignettes’), among others relating to police officers who take bribes, steal from a burglary site, and refuse to record a complaint about torture by one of the officer’s colleagues, and, to a District Police Commander who orders a violent response to a demonstration, leaving 20 people dead. Police officers who participated in the project appeared on average much more critical about the misbehaviour depicted in the cases, while they were also more likely to report a colleague for misbehaving. They were more inclined to see the behaviour as a violation of official policy and were more supportive of disciplinary action against misbehaving colleagues.
Interviews with 23 police officers, selected from the higher ranks, supported the findings from the survey. Overall, officers who participated in the accountability project had clearer ideas about human rights norms, the proper treatment of arrestees and relations with the community. The responses of those police officers were credible signs of the norm-setting impact of the accountability project.
Overall, our findings show that it pays off to engage police officers in discussions about acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, even in a difficult environment such as Uganda. Obviously, the spreading of norms about police behaviour is just one element in creating a better functioning police apparatus. A shift in attitudes does not necessarily represent a reversal of behaviour, since the latter is influenced by many factors other than attitudes. The accountability project in Uganda demonstrated the usefulness of working with the police, although longer-term collaboration may be necessary for achieving permanent results. This may be an important lesson for improving police operations in other countries where accountability and rule of law are a concern.
Wil Hout, Ria Brouwers, Jonathan Fisher, Rose Namara, Lydeke Schakel and Natascha Wagner (2016) Policy Review Good Governance: Uganda Country Study, Report for the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB), Ministry of Foreign Affairs, available at http://hdl.handle.net/1765/102964. This report contains the vignettes that were used in the survey among police officers.
Natascha Wagner and Wil Hout (2019) ‘Police Integrity and the Perceived Effectiveness of Policing: Evidence from a Survey among Ugandan Police Officers’, in Sanja Kutnjak Ivković and M.R. Haberfeld (eds) Exploring Police Integrity: Novel Approaches to Police Integrity Theory and Methodology, New York: Springer, pp. 165-191, available at http://hdl.handle.net/1765/115822.
Natascha Wagner, Wil Hout and Rose Namara (2020, forthcoming) ‘Improving Police Integrity in Uganda: Impact Assessment of the Police Accountability and Reform Project’, Review of Development Economics, available at http://hdl.handle.net/1765/121705.
Wil Hout, Natascha Wagner and Rose Namara (2020, forthcoming) ‘Holding Ugandan Police to Account: Case study of the Police Accountability and Reform Project’, in Sylvia Bergh, Sony Pellissery and Christina Sathyamala (eds) The State of Accountability in the Global South: Challenges and Responses, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, available at http://hdl.handle.net/1765/115862.
About the authors:
Wil Hout is Professor of Governance and International Political Economy at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. His research interests relate to international political economy, regionalism, development policies and issues of governance and development.
Natascha Wagner is associate professor of Development Economics at the ISS. Her research interests lie in international economics, development, health and education. She has participated in various impact evaluation projects and large scale data collections in Africa and Asia ranging from public health to good governance and sustainable development.