I learned a lot about Uganda the night I was arrested in Kampala and taken to the Central Police Station. During my short stay in CPS, I discovered that the police keep some laws secret from Ugandan citizens and even from themselves. It was early in 2003; I was an American living in Uganda. Driving one evening, I turned the wrong way onto William Street in downtown Kampala. I turned to the right of the divider, as if I was driving in the United States. As it was late on a Friday night, no one was on William Street, except for about ten thousand loitering policemen. They swarmed the car, seeing that it was a big SUV that surely contained fortunes for all. Well, I wasn't going to pay anybody anything. I had made a simple mistake, and I was not going to be afraid; I was not a criminal. A Ugandan friend was with me, a young man who calls himself Junior. The police seized on Junior as their way into my pockets, as they had quickly sized me up as an uncooperative foreigner who doesn't understand how things work here in Uganda. Everyone knows that you have to supply "tea" to any police officer who works up enough energy to stop you on the road. They asked Junior to step out of the car so that they could prep him on schooling me in proper Ugandan road etiquette. Before Junior got out I told him not to pay anyone anything. No problem there as Junior had no money.
Failing with Junior, they came back to my window and threatened to take me to CPS. This is the ultimate threat by police in Uganda. CPS looms large and dark; a place where they put you "in cells." People start unloading their wallets at the sound of those three letters. So naturally, I shout: "Let's go!" All the police officers tried to climb into my car. I put my foot down; I told them only one could come. One climbed in and we went to CPS.
At CPS, my passenger officer took me to a second floor office whose door signage that indicated that they conduct traffic accident investigations within. Inside I met with two or three bored smokers who half-heartedly began trying to get money out of me. First they tried to convince me that I had done a terrible, immoral, horrible thing. They came down on me with the Good Book like a Baptist prayer circle, or an American president. I laughed. I informed them that I had broken a traffic law only. No one died; no other car or person was involved; there was no trouble at all on William Street. But these guys insisted that I had committed a grave offense.
The longer we discussed, the more I realized that these officers had no procedure to follow. They had no forms for me, no information for me, nothing to offer me with which I could conclude the incident. I waited, but they gave me no suggestions. Perhaps they were waiting for me to offer some suggestions. So I offered one. I asked for a citation. In the US, when you break a traffic law, the police give you a citation, a traffic ticket. Then you go to court and if you are guilty, you pay a fine. So at CPS, I asked for a citation. They didn't understand. They told me there are no traffic citations in Uganda.
I asked to see the law. They gave me the book of traffic laws. Since I apparently had the time, I sat and read it. I discovered things I hadn't known before. First I learned that police in Uganda do not know their own laws. I discovered that the system in Uganda resembles that in the US. The book says that when a motorist violates a traffic law, the police are to give him a citation. Then some days later, he is to appear in traffic court before a judge. If found guilty of the offence, he is to pay a fine of no more than 9,000 Uganda shillings (US$5). I'm not joking; I read it in the book. I was amazed because I know that the police on the road regularly get 20,000/= to 80,000/= out of nervous motorists, and it goes right in their pockets. But I was mostly amazed because I know that there is no such thing as traffic court in Uganda.
I continued to read and learned about other traffic laws. …