On 29th April 2016, the shocking images below came out of what looked like a female officer touching, groping and stroking the breasts, thighs, buttocks and vaginas of females attending a football match between Uganda and Burkina Faso.
With alarm, I noticed there was no national outpouring of concern or outrage. On the contrary I observed Ugandans defending the police, making statements like, “In these times of terrorism, women can hide ‘things anywhere’.
Hold on a second. Police were looking for threats in the breasts, thighs, buttocks and vaginas of women? In public view of everyone? A woman is wearing tights, you can see the outline of her vagina has nothing in it and you still stroke it because security needed to be tight?
You know where else security needs to be tight? Airports. And as far as my knowledge takes me, whenever invasive body searches of the type I was seeing need to be conducted, the suspect is conducted to a private room. Why weren’t the ‘suspects’ at the match taken to another room, I wondered? And what happened to the scanners I was seeing in each and every picture?
While the rest of the country laughed, complained on social media or defended our police, I called a lawyer and asked him if the images I was looking at were normal. He said no, they were not. He said if such an invasive search were considered necessary, it should indeed have been conducted in private away from prying eyes.
I then called the office of the Professional Standards Unit (PSU) in Bukoto.
“Good morning”, I said to the gentleman who answered the phone. “I’d like to know why I’m looking at photos of police sexually assaulting women and your office is quiet about this”.
This was early in the morning and he did not yet know what I was talking about. He said he would call me back. He did very shortly and said, “We are looking at pictures in the Red Pepper and according to us, there is nothing wrong with the pictures”.
“I beg your pardon?”, I exclaimed. “Are you and I seeing the same pictures?!”
“Well”, he continued. “We also think since it was a woman checking women, it is okay”.
“This woman is not checking women”, I retorted hotly. “She is abusing them. I don’t accept your explanation!”
To the credit of the PSU, the officer invited me to their offices to speak with his superior. I had a very busy day but agreed to be there at 2.00 pm that same day. I invited a friend, Stella, to come along with me because I always like to have company to act as witnesses in cases like this for purposes of credibility later.
I arrived late due to my busy day but Stella and I met with officers from 3.00 pm to past 5.00 pm, marking the beginning of an eye opening awareness for us regarding how important taking personal action is in ending impunity from authority.
We were directed to a room with about four male officers where we mentioned our concern about what had happened, and how we were worried that this would become a new precedent for abusing womens’ bodies in the names of security in the future. We asked that a public statement be made regarding the issue to educate Ugandans about how body searches are to be conducted and to let the affected women know that if they had an issue with what had happened, they could also come to the Professional Standards Unit. One of the officer’s first statements was this:
“But you see, since it was a woman checking a woman, it was okay”.
A long and emotionally painful debate ensued about whether this was really such a big deal. At some point, one officer suggested that sometimes pictures are ‘messed with’.
“What?”, Stella asked astounded. “Are you trying to suggest that these pictures are doctored?”
They brushed her question aside and we continued talking.
“Officer!”, I finally asked one of them. “How would you like it if I groped your testicles to look for a threat?!”
He simply laughed and the debate continued. Only one man in that room seemed to see our point, and he conceded that the search should have at least been conducted in private. He then showed us how a proper body search should be done, by patting someone down and not…whatever was happening in the photos.
“That is what you should be telling the public”, Stella and I told him. “By your silence, we feel the police is saying that what happened is normal and will continue. By the responses we’re hearing so far from your colleagues, it appears our suspicions are right!”
“Okay”, one official said. “You can go to the office of the Public Relations Officer (PRO). I can give you the number and office location and you go there. That is where you go if you want the police to issue a public statement”.
“No!”, Stella and I immediately said. “We’re reporting to you. The Professional Standards Unit. You’re in charge of police misconduct. You guys can call the PRO and ask for a public statement! How can we come all this way and you tell us to start going to another office? We beg your pardon but this should be the end of our job!”
The officer who had showed us how a body search should be properly conducted appeared to sense our seriousness and said he would take us in to see the Commissioner of Police Commandant, Mr. Habyara Fortunate. It is at this juncture that some sense of seriousness begun to take place. We were invited to a room with a sofa and given bottles of water. Stella had to go back to work so I waited alone until just before 5.00 pm when I was ushered into Mr. Habyara’s office.
He was helpful immediately. I shall not divulge all the details of our conversation but his reception of my complaint should, in my opinion, be the reception police give to all complainants. Not defending abuse and demeaning an issue and telling complainants to call PROs. In fact, the Commandant himself was trying to call the PRO as I sat there but the line was busy. He also called the police lady in the pictures and had a short conversation regarding why she was touching women’s private parts before he told her he was busy with me and would call her back. He asked me if I wanted to meet the lady in question later and I said that not only would I like to do that, I’d like to work with the police in civic education and ensuring this type of thing does not happen again.
He directed me to the office of the Deputy Director of Legal Services of the Police in their Naguru office, a Mrs. Christine Nandig. I called her and made an appointment for the next day at 9.00 am.
Unfortunately it rained heavily and I was an hour late. She was friendly but busy and could not see me. She asked me to call her at 2.15 pm and if she was free I’d have a 15 minute window to rush back on a boda to see her at 2.30 pm sharp. She also said she would call me when she was free.
When I called her, her phone number was unavailable. I sent her an SMS saying I had to tried to call her but her number was unavailable. I had to travel upcountry and would call her when I returned but in the meantime, what did she think about the police making a public statement or apology since to me – and I’d like to stress that this is MY opinion – silence means approval?
Days later she had not called me back or responded to my SMS and I made a conscious decision to not chase the issue anymore. I am not a fully funded NGO and lack the financial resources to rush around after officers not knowing if they’ll ever get back to me or if their phones will be available. I had dedicated as much time (and boda-boda money) as I could afford by then. On Twitter, I sent the police a Tweet with two of the disgusting images asking the police what their official opinion was. Whoever manages their Twitter account ignored me.
It’s not my job to tell our public offices what their priorities should be.
I’ve a sneaky suspicion that if the Professional Standards Unit had been bombarded with angry women filing personal complaints, and angry men asking if the images were appropriate to police behaviour, there would have been a better reaction from the police. The fact that I was doing this alone, with Stella, made us look and feel like bothersome troublemakers when the real victims were not interested in walking over there themselves.
One day when I have a fully funded NGO I hope to work with the police in civic education and bridging the gap between the police and the public. But that day is not today where sadly, things have reached a point where people are afraid to ask a police officer what their own rights are.
This growing fear should not stop anyone being abused from doing their bit as a citizen and demanding that their rights be respected. If you were one of the women abused and you felt abused (nanti I know some of you think it was okay), and you want to speak with a lawyer about your rights, you can send me an email on email@example.com and I shall point you to a lawyer who can help.
When I first went to the Professional Standards Unit, Stella and I stressed that we did not want punitive action taken against the police lady but a thorough education to take place between police and the public. I’ve changed my mind. If people filing personal complaints and cases is what it takes to create change, then that’s what it seems has to be done.
For the future of our country, we have to stop sitting still and letting anyone in a uniform do what they want with us. Your silence also means your approval. Stop opining on social media and take the time to walk to an office and make some noise.
Get up and dance.
Nze, I’m tired of dancing alone