Rethink the role of security forces in enforcing Covid-19 public health measures

LDUs offloading and loading Covid-19 relief posho into a pickup van for distribution. A VoA photo.

By Patrick Odongo

Kampala—16, July 2020: An alarming record of violence and unlawful behaviour by security forces enforcing Covid-19 regulations are being reported from all over the country by print, electronic and social media.

It is imperative, therefore, that the enforcement of Covid-19 regulations and public health Standard Operating Procedures enunciated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Uganda’s Ministry of Health (MoH) must be brought into conformity with the rule of law and respect for human rights.

I lived throughout the twenty-year insurgency in Northern Uganda. The civil police were virtually absent. By default, the army provided security and civil policing duties in the areas of the insurgency. There are lessons to learn from the approaches that the NRA and later UPDF used during that much more severe crisis than this Covid-19 public health situation.

Key to the effectiveness and successes of that approach was an excellent civil-military community relationship. There is a widespread outcry against Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), Uganda Police Force (UPF) and the Local Defense Units (LDU) for their high-handed enforcement of the Covid-19 public health regulations, which have severely damaged the relationships and trust between the security forces and the population.

Civilian involvement in patrols

A strategy that incorporates civil administrative structures and the participation of the population as equal partners in protecting their security and health in times of insecurity and pandemic, would go a long way in repairing relationships and restoring trust in the enforcement of measures the government has put in place to protect the public and save lives.

This being a public health crisis but not an insurgency or widespread criminal activities, it would be helpful for the faces of local public health officials and workers, including the Village Health Teams and Local Council One (1) administration, who have vaccinated their children and delivered mosquito nets to fight malaria, to be upfront instead of current ubiquity of heavily armed police, soldiers and LDU paramilitaries toting guns and ruthlessly wielding batons against an invisible enemy with invisible casualties.

No one has died of Covid-19 in Uganda, but the police, army and LDUs have injured, maimed and even killed scores in their overzealous efforts to keep the population safe from the pandemic. Ironically, the public health safety measures have themselves become more important than the lives they are designed to protect.

In Uganda, the lowest administrative unit is the Local Council 1 composed of 9 members, one of whom is the defense secretary. During the war, the UPDF effectively used these structures to guide the army movements and patrols. This way, the army was able to get real time information and intelligence from the civilian population and their actions were greatly appreciated.

It’s unimaginable for the army then to arrest anyone without the involvement of the LC 1 leaders. In addition, escapees from the rebels would seek the homes of the LC 1 Chairpersons, who would then promptly convey them to the army detachments for debriefing before being transported to the rehabilitation centers.

In other words, the army cultivated and benefited from an excellent civil-military relationship. It’s appalling that I see LDUs conducting patrols in the community without the involvement of LC officials. These officials know the community, can identify and talk to offenders to desist from breaking curfew and social distancing guidelines without resorting to brute force. Worst still, the LDUs were meant to be recruited and deployed in their local areas where they are familiar and members of their communities. This was hoped to moderate their conduct.

Today, many are strangers where they are deployed. Were they deployed within their local communities, there would be no housing and feeding needs, because they live at home and report to their units daily to work. With the current model, issues of their own welfare and remuneration arise, and with resource constraints on government, they may be going without pay or allowances; hence, some criminal activities being recorded.

If the enforcement were localized, the cost would be nearly zero or minimal. A token allowance of 5000 UGX daily is enough for LC 1 officials to take part in community surveillance and patrols.

Popular intelligence gathering

No doubt, some will argue that criminals are also taking advantage of the lockdown to profiteer, hence the necessity for curfew and armed police and other security patrols.

Even so, the public has a wealth of intelligence that can assist the police in curbing crime and preventing criminality. If there is a poor relationship between the community and police, they would be reluctant to give information to help security services in necessary intelligence gathering. It’s very unfortunate that in Uganda today, when someone sees the police, they run away.

In contrast, when I first came to Kampala many years ago, I travelled alone, unaccompanied. My mother simply wrote down my uncle’s address and directions on a piece of paper and instructed me that when I got to Kampala, I should walk up to any policeman or policewoman, and they would direct me to where I would find my uncle’s place. She trusted the police to be helpful and to always do the right thing. And they did then. One helped me find my way home as my mother had expected. Unfortunately, the Uganda Police today do not have the high estimation and trust they once commanded with the public. 


Furthermore, during the years of the insurgency, there were community information sessions called Barajas/Baraza.  These were community meetings with duty bearers, including the police, technical and elected leaders — a forum that provided the community opportunity to openly speak out and provide feedback that was useful in the management of community affairs.

Unfortunately, this community feedback mechanism has died, yet it was a cheap and quick avenue of not only building and improving relationships but also increasing the quality and reach of service delivery.

It cannot be overstated that in times of national crisis, community participation and constructive relationships with national leaders are crucial for successful national or community mobilization against a common cause. In addition, the right kind of people with the right skills should lead in the particular mobilization.

For Covid-19 measures, communities must see more public health workers and Village Health Teams with soap, hand sanitizers, and masks, than the police, army, LDUs and guns and batons. The police and other security teams should be in a supportive role to ensure their security and enforce law and order, if it breaks down.

And finally, the army and police leadership should not “forget the former things” (Isaiah 43:18). The revolutionary people-centred methods that the NRA perfected during the bush war is still very relevant today. If we neglect them we risk alienating the population, and, as the Church of Uganda prayer book says, we would “have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no truth in us”.

The writer is a cadre of NRM from Minakulu, Oyam district.

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