The Ambiguity of the Ugandan Legal Code

Everything is legal in Uganda. Want to snort coke off of a prostitute’s back as you club a baby elephant to death? Go right ahead. To be fair, this act is illegal (when done in combination) due to the obvious fire hazards. However, it magically becomes a legally-sanctioned activity for (and I’m absolutely just guessing here) $20. In Vegas, you have to spend at least 20 times that—and you don’t get to choose the elephant.

This is freedom Ugandan-style. In the U.S. freedom is a slogan used to sell the world’s poor and huddled masses laundry detergent. In Uganda, it is the freedom from the law.

There are advantages to having an ambiguous legal code. Indeed, one might make the case that there are more laws in Uganda than in the countries of the Western world. I don’t know if that’s true and you would be hard-pressed to find a lawyer who can answer the question. Nobody knows what the hell the law says here. But when everything is illegal, nothing is. And vice versa. It’s a system meant to facilitate corruption.

Nobody knows what the hell the law says here. But when everything is illegal, nothing is. And vice versa. It’s a system meant to facilitate corruption.

My friend Matt owns a car, as do many Kampala expats. Because he’s white, the police presume that he has money, which he does. Though not rich, Matt is richer than the officer who makes $75 a month (when he is lucky enough to actually be paid). The pretext for pulling mzungus over is often obscure. My friend Ollie, literally driving home a car from the lot where he had just purchased it, was pulled over by a traffic officer because his “reverse lights did not work”. He kindly pointed out to the officer that he had been driving forward when she pulled him over. But whereas Ollie, new to the wiles of Kampala traffic cops, has been burned for several hundred dollars in the course of a few months of driving, Matt has perfected the art of arguing with the police who pull him over with a piece of logic devastating in its simplicity: the police don’t know what the law is.

There are two, interconnected, reasons for this:

First, they aren’t very well trained. While the U.S. has its occasional Rodney Kings and New Orleans street shootings, as well as unpublicized miscarriages of justice as seen on Law and Order, our police forces are by and large good at their jobs. When cops mess up, it’s news, reinforcing rather than undermining our basic expectation of competent, professional officers. When cops in Uganda mess up, it’s just a typical day. The U.S. has poured millions of dollars into police training in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and Egypt. To the untrained liberal, the figures cause a shudder. Surely, we say, America wants to turn the rest of the world into a police state. Well, no. A functioning criminal justice system is not one that extorts money from the state’s citizens. A well-trained police force reassures people that the political system is stable. If police training goes hand in hand with other democratization measures, it’s a good thing. In Uganda, as you’ve been reading this, the aforementioned elephant murderer has already bribed his way out of jail.

Second, they aren’t very well paid. It’s hard to care what the law is when there is no financial incentive to do so. Better-paid officers would create competition for jobs and increase standards. But as long as you make next to nothing, there’s less of a worry about keeping your job as the pay difference isn’t all the much from, say, a taxi driver. Whether you are a good cop or a bad cop, you still get paid like shit.

It’s like a Jedi mind trick, but with the full ambiguity of the law behind you.

Therefore, according to Matt, you can talk your way out of anything. An officer pulls you over and points out that the passenger is not wearing a seatbelt. “But is that a law? I don’t think it is,” says Matt, shaking his head and installing doubt into the cortex of his accuser. It’s like a Jedi mind trick, but with the full ambiguity of the law behind you. This doubt can shave a good 40,000 shillings ($15) off of the bribe the officer asks you to pay. Whereas the officer could simply take you to the police station for a standard offense—say, speeding through a playground of disabled children whilst high on meth—hauling you in for a questionable offense would just get him chewed out for wasting his superiors’ time because nobody’s paying a bribe to get out of a nonexistent moving violation.


4 Comments The Ambiguity of the Ugandan Legal Code

  1. Trisha Olsson

    Jedi mind tricks work, but also smiles. I’ve joked/laughed/smiled my way out of many pullovers in Uganda without having to pay a thing – I find that when tourists/expats are fearful of the police, they take advantage of that…if you’re not, it just turns into any old human interaction, and you can typically go about your day. Your day of elicit drug use/animal killing, that is.


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