Three Lessons about Corruption in the Police and Courts in Northern Uganda

November 15, 2016 | Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

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This week, 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 Uganda, co-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 Uganda, co-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.

What’s coming next?

Next week I will share the citizens’ experience of corruption in the police and courts in Northern Uganda which is the first half of our systems analysis.  This mapping articulates the key drivers and enablers behind corruption and how they interact to form a highly robust and resilient system.

About this article

This post is part of the corruption in fragile states series. The series provides a space for conversation about corruption in fragile states. Since its inception in 2016 as part of the CDA Perspectives Blog, the series has sought to challenge status quo thinking with a particular emphasis on exploring systems-based approaches to understanding and acting on corruption dynamics. Topics in the series range from new research findings in Uganda, Iraq or the DRC to provocative thought pieces intended to contest dominant paradigms or practices.

Now hosted by the Institute for Human Security at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, series contributions are inspired by, but not limited to, the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy project as well as the, now concluded, Central Africa Accountable Service Delivery Initiative. All blog posts published after March 1, 2018, information about submitting guest posts, and subscribing to future series updates is available here.

To receive blog posts on other topics from CDA subscribe here. You may contact [email protected] if you are interested in submitting a guest post on the latest work in the fields of accountability and feedback loops, conflict sensitivity, peacebuilding effectiveness, and responsible business.

A Note on the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Project

The Corruption, Justice, and Legitimacy (CJL) project advances systems approaches to corruption analysis in fragile and conflict-affected contexts.  Focusing on the CJS, the project supports more holistic efforts to diminish corruption in core state activities related to human security.  The work is built on the premise that corruption is a complex adaptive system.  Building upon prior research for the U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, the CJL project puts policy makers’ assumptions about corruption’s effects on state legitimacy to evidential tests.  This project is one of four projects funded by the Carnegie-funded project and convened at The Institute for Human Security at the Fletcher School.

Led by Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Professor of Practice and Diana Chigas, JD, Professor of Practice at The Fletcher School and Senior International Office and Associate Provost at Tufts University, the project team included Saskia Bechenmacher, Teddy Atim, Juliet H. Hatanga and Sophia Dawkins.

About the author(s)

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on anti-corruption and state legitimacy in the DRC and Uganda.  As a Professor of Practice she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning. Cheyanne is also a regular author and co-curator of the blog series on corruption in fragile states.


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