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Ugandan police are attacking protesters. Here’s how that backfires.

- January 16, 2019
A supporter sits next to posters of pop star-turned-opposition lawmaker Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, at his home in Kampala, Uganda, on Sept. 20, 2018. (Ronald Kabuubi/AP)

In Uganda, singer-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (known popularly as Bobi Wine) has become the face of a younger and stronger political opposition movement.

In the past year, the 36-year-old Wine, who was elected to parliament in 2017, has led protests against a social media tax, stumped for fellow opposition candidates and championed political change, all channeled through YouTube videos and Twitter posts.

The Ugandan government has responded by using the police and courts to target Wine, arresting him numerous times, detaining him in maximum-security facilities, beating him and charging him with treason. Just last week, Ugandan police used water cannons and armored vehicles to disperse crowds before one of Wine’s concerts.

Repressive governments are anything but new. An electoral autocracy, the Ugandan government has used repression to deter political challengers since Yoweri Museveni became president in 1986. But when the police clear crowds and beat protesters, they chip away at their own legitimacy and support. And as our research in Uganda shows, excessive police force — like unconstitutional repression against political opponents — not only weakens support for the police but might also increase future willingness to dissent.

Why policing matters

In many countries, police often serve two competing roles: guardians of public safety and instruments of repression. To maintain law and order, police require the public’s consent to use force; they build that consent by behaving in a trustworthy way during routine interactions. When citizens view the police to be fair and effective, they are willing to cooperate in the interests of public safety.

Repressive acts by the police, whether that involves killing black men at disproportionate rates in the United States or violently shutting down peaceful protests in Uganda, divide many citizens from their government. This frays ties between the police and those communities that have been targeted, encouraging greater dissent.

But that’s not all. As our research in Uganda shows, when police officers are seen as excessively violent, it triggers political backlash across the population, increasing dissent and decreasing support for the police.

Here’s how we did our research

We conducted a nationally representative survey experiment of about 2,000 respondents in Uganda between June 29 and July 20, 2018, in 194 parishes throughout all four regions of Uganda.

In our study, respondents were read various hypothetical situations, randomly assigning each participant to hear about one of four scenarios across two dimensions: participation and repression. In one, they were asked to imagine observing a rally in which police used force to arrest a disruptive individual, maintaining law and order; in another, to imagine participating in the above rally. Other respondents were asked to imagine a rally where police used excessive force against a number of individuals: One group was asked to imagine observing the rally, while a final group was asked to imagine participating in the rally.

After respondents heard these accounts, we asked survey questions about whether they would support, publicly criticize or protest police actions. Because of sensitivities researching collective action in authoritarian societies, we did not ask any questions about whether respondents had ever seen or been involved in protest rallies themselves, and so cannot assess whether such experiences influenced their answers.

Excessive police force breeds protest 

We found no evidence that witnessing excessive police violence reduced respondents’ willingness to criticize or protest the government. Rather, hearing about excessive police force — even when it was hypothetical — led respondents to support the police less and say they were more willing to publicly criticize and protest police actions.

Those asked to imagine that they’d participated in a rally to which police had responded with excessive force said they were more willing to protest than those asked to imagine observing such an event. In fact, those prompted to think about excessive force responded with less support for police actions and more willingness to criticize and protest the government — across many demographic factors, including age, gender, and urban/rural divides.

Even Ugandans who support the ruling party were more likely to say they’d publicly criticize and protest police action after hearing about excessive force than those who heard about appropriate police action. Of course, not everyone responded in the same way. When asked to consider the police repression, young (under the age of 35) male supporters of the ruling party showed no greater willingness to criticize or protest police actions. In contrast, female party supporters were more willing to criticize and protest when asked to consider repressive police acts.

To be sure, our study has limitations. We are using hypothetical situations in a survey experiment as a proxy for observed behavior. We are not comparing differences across individuals who actually did experience excessive police force with those who didn’t. However, our results are consistent with how Ugandan citizens have responded to Uganda’s security forces’ recent crackdown on dissent, which has sparked still more protests and dissent across the country.

What does this mean for Uganda right now?

Though governments may be tempted to use force to shut down opposition, they might want to be aware that doing so increases public criticism and the likelihood of future protests. Ugandans believe that police repression exceeds police authority; violations of citizens’ consent could lead them to greater collective action. Political challengers such as Bobi Wine aren’t going away. And relying on the police to repress dissent only weakens their ability to foster cooperation from the communities they are meant to protect.

Travis Curtice (@travisbcurtice) is a PhD candidate at the department of political science at Emory University whose research focuses on the comparative politics of policing, working in Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, and Nepal.  

Brandon Behlendorf (@bbehlendorf) is an assistant professor in the college of emergency preparedness, homeland security, and cybersecurity at the University at Albany (SUNY) whose research focuses on the interaction of citizen and state across various security threats, including repression, terrorism, and smuggling.