Three lessons about corruption in the police and courts in Northern Uganda

Publication date: 15 Nov 2016 Organization: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church presents three non-intuitive insights about corruption in Northern Uganda: (1) Citizens perceive that all justice must be bought. (2) Corruption serves many important functions. (3) Corruption in the police and courts does not diminish legitimacy of these institutions. These are some of the key lessons from her new paper Facilitation in the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ugandaco-authored with Diana Chigas. Continue reading to see how those perceived realities may affect the effectiveness, or relevance, of certain anti-corruption initiatives.

Corruption is the system for handling criminal issues in Northern Uganda; not the exception.  Duty bearers systematically require money in order for citizens to access the justice system.  For those in the police and courts (e.g. Magistrates, court clerks or station commanders) there are social and professional consequences for non-compliance.  Citizens who try to avail of the justice institutions also face significant pressure to participate in bribery; though it should be remembered that citizens are also often the instigators of corrupt acts.

With crime reaching almost 90% of Ugandans in the past four years, tackling how corruption undermines criminal justice is a critical development issue.

In this four-part blog series, I will highlight key findings and the results of the systems analysis from my new paper, Facilitation in the Criminal Justice System in Northern Ugandaco-authored with Diana Chigas.  Our focus on Northern Uganda speaks directly to where citizens are most at threat, as criminal acts – namely theft, burglary and robbery are the most prevalent in the North.  The findings from 111 interviews of citizens in Gulu and Lira districts as well as duty bearers in the criminal justice system (CJS) have been field tested with Ugandan activists for their validity.  What did we learn?

Citizens perceive that all justice must be bought.

Rural, urban, male, female, professional and unskilled laborer; all stated that justice comes with a monetary price.

While it is a fact that duty bearers demand bribes for services that should be free under the law, we also found that most times a transaction with the police or courts did not go according to the citizen expectation it was labelled as corruption.  For instance, the slow pace of cases moving through the courts is commonly interpreted to result from the other side paying a bribe to slow down the process, or the court clerk seeking to pressure one of the parties into paying a bribe to schedule a court date.   It is common for these inefficiencies in the system and, at times even due process that is not understood by the citizen, to be labelled corruption.

These perceptions matter beyond just the measurement challenge that they raise.  They matter because if the prevalence of true corruption in the criminal justice system decreased, the citizen perception may not.  It also matters because of the substantial public awareness work that takes place around corruption. Research from other fields shows that stating the extent of a problem in the hopes of shocking people into stopping that action can sometimes have the reverse effect; increasing their likelihood of that behavior.

Corruption serves many important functions in Northern Uganda.

Systems theory states that systems always serve a function.  Our research found that the system of corruption serves different functions for different actors relevant to criminal justice in Northern Uganda.  Corruption is used:

  • by citizens as a means to access the police and courts in pursuit of justice, or to manipulate the police and court to advance an agenda or protect oneself;
  • by the elite to maintain their position and/or power (and, ultimately, dominance) in an unstable environment;
  • by those inside the CJS as a means of paying for operating expenses, generating resources to ensure day-to-day survival, buttressing against the uncertainty of the context, signaling power, and feeding greed.

Current programming to diminish corruption in Northern Uganda and globally do not take these functions sufficiently into account. 

Corruption in the police and courts does not diminish legitimacy of these institutions.

The citizen perception that all justice must be paid for diminishes their trust in the police and courts as state institutions.  Citizens clearly state that they do not approve of the behavior of the individuals who represent these institutions.  Practically it drives them to seek justice through other formal and informal mechanisms such as traditional leaders or lower level government structures.  It also feeds greater corruption as people see the formal system as something to be manipulated to one’s own end.  Despite all of this, citizens do not question the legitimacy of these institutions. They distinguish between the current negative behaviors that are the norm and the right of these structures to implement the rule of law.  Further they acknowledge the citizen obligation to follow the direction of these institutions.

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