KAMPALA, UGANDA — Ben has been an officer with the Uganda Police Force for the last 17 years, working six days a week in the capital, which has one of the country’s highest crime rates. His biggest challenge is the home he returns to each day.
The father of four is proud to wear the badge of corporal in a role he has dreamed of achieving for years. Ben, who didn’t want his full name used for fear of losing his job, says he was driven by not only the desire to make a change but also the belief that the Uganda Police Force looked after its officers, providing a living wage, benefits and accommodations at one of Kampala’s 18 police barracks.
The reality was a lot different.
Ben shares the 4-by-3-meter (13-by-10-foot) one-room home he had to build himself out of corrugated iron sheets with his wife, four children and niece, who came to live with them when her mother, Ben’s sister, died. When it rains their house leaks, and the downpours bring the added misery of forcing raw sewage, which runs from the poorly constructed shared bathroom, around and sometimes through the crowded homes.
“I try and keep a cool head,” Ben says of his living conditions. “If I think about my situation, I would soon resign. So many of my colleagues suffer mental breakdowns; I believe poor housing contributes to this.”
Uganda Police Force requires officers who are inspectors of police, or one of the five ranks below, to live at police barracks and in exchange are offered free housing. Ben is one of thousands of police officers who live in deplorable housing conditions across Uganda. A pending lawsuit could determine their fate.
Kalali Steven, a human rights lawyer, is suing the government over allegations it has failed to provide police officers with adequate housing. He says this is a violation of their rights, as established by the country’s 1995 constitution, which ensures all Ugandans “decent shelter.”
EDNA NAMARA, GPJ UGANDA
When Ben graduated from police training in 2005, police officials told him accommodations would soon be available at the Kampala police barracks, so he left his wife and then two young children and went to secure housing. The prospect of leaving his rural community and moving to the city excited the young police recruit.
“I wanted my children to go to city schools,” Ben says. “At least education here is better than in my hometown.”
He shared a tent with a fellow officer before moving into more stable shared accommodations. Seven months later he decided he couldn’t wait any longer for the private accommodations he no longer believed would materialize. He used his savings to buy secondhand corrugated iron sheets and added a room onto an existing house at the barracks. With a roof over his head and a space to call his own, he was able to move his family to join him. Despite the cramped living conditions, he felt lucky that he was able to create a private space for his family.
“The unlucky ones have to share with other officers,” Ben says.
But now that he has moved up the ranks, his status as a corporal has not come with better living conditions. His modest self-built home now houses his family of seven, with no prospect of a bigger and better house in sight. The kitchen is a charcoal stove they carry outside each night to cook; when it rains, they cook inside, careful no potentially hazardous fire splinters escape. Boxes squeezed under their beds store food, books and clothes. Their bathroom, which they share with more than 80 other police families, is 50 meters (164 feet) away.
“The congestion and poor cleaning of the bathroom means we get many infections,” Ben says, referring to urinary tract infections, a bacterial infection more common in women and treatable with antibiotics.
EDNA NAMARA, GPJ UGANDA
Lawyer Kalali says police officers in Uganda have been denied proper housing for the last 35 years, living in small shelters or circular homes constructed out of iron sheets called unipots. Others, for lack of an alternative, build mud and wattle houses in the little spaces they can find at the barracks, he says.
By suing the government, Kalali hopes to force officials to turn the dire situation around with proper investment in housing.
But Rosemary Nyakikongoro, chairperson of Parliament’s Defence and Internal Affairs Committee, which oversees the welfare of the country’s army, police and prisons, says the Uganda Police Force has been given adequate funds. Nyakikongoro has visited several police barracks with her committee and was shocked by the state of police housing; she wants to know why there has been a lack of investment in this area on the part of the police.
“The buildings [allocated for police housing] are very old, constructed during colonial times, and they have never been repaired,” Nyakikongoro says. “Sewerage rivulets crisscross the environment. Some officers have converted toilets into accommodation. It’s appalling.”
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Nyakikongoro says the harsh living conditions officers endure compromise their effectiveness as law enforcers and protectors of the country.
“How should we expect them to offer security to the people when they lack it themselves?” says Nyakikongoro. “They are traumatized.”
Patrick Onyango, spokesperson for the Kampala Metropolitan Police, confirms that every officer below the rank of inspector is required to be housed in police barracks. The higher rank officers get an allowance for housing, and they can rent or build outside the barracks.
“We need them to protect our bases, and also it is easier in case of an emergency they can be mobilized,” says Onyango, adding that each police station has its own barracks.
But he acknowledges that despite the living requirement placed on officers, only 3,550 housing units are available across Kampala, accommodating just 24% of the capital’s force; the other 76% must build their own accommodations, as Ben did, on any land they can find. “We as police sacrifice a lot. We are not after comfort but basics in order to perform,” Onyango says.
Fred Enanga, national police spokesman, says over the last two years they have recruited over 20,000 officers, putting pressure on housing and accommodations. “It’s the Parliament which passes the budget, so they are in a better position to explain why the police do not have accommodation,” he says.
EDNA NAMARA, GPJ UGANDA
The government allocated 879.9 billion Ugandan shillings ($229 million) to the police force in its last budget. According to the budget report, investment is being made in housing, with new accommodation blocks for officers in the Kitagata, Nakaseke, Bulambuli and Rukungiri districts completed as well as newly built housing for just over 1,000 officers in Kampala’s neighborhood of Naguru and “1,380 unipots to bridge a housing gap of 49,422 units.”
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, in charge of the Uganda Police Force, declined to comment.
Enanga says money for police accommodations is “ring-fenced” but comes “amidst a reduced police budget,” which he declined to elaborate on, adding that investment has been made in accommodations, including 10,000 new unipots as well as the building of additional apartments with separate bedrooms for adults and children.
Despite these steps, Ben says he has no reason to expect a better life as a police officer.
“It’s useless daydreaming,” he says. “I see other staff who are way above me also living the way I do, so how can I have any hope?”
Edna Namara is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.