Is Uganda safe, Uganda is one of Africa’s safer countries to travel, however a lack of border enforcement has led to illicit substances and lawlessness throughout the country. Here’s what you need to know to stay safe.
Uganda has experienced a noticeable improvement in all security categories except international terrorism and road safety. The Ugandan Police Force (UPF) has concentrated its efforts on reducing crime, and the results have been impressive. Improved security has eliminated the need for extraordinary security measures in all but the Karamoja region, and those measures are being reevaluated by the United Nations and the U.S. Embassy.
Crime, specifically violent crime has reduced significantly in Uganda. A sharp increase in the number of police on the street has cut reported incidents of crime in half in the Kampala metropolitan area according to the Inspector General of Police. The U.S. Mission has also observed a decrease in reported crimes. Pick-pocketing, “snatch and run” thefts (including from occupied and unoccupied vehicles) along with other petty and opportunistic crimes are still common in Kampala but rarely involve acts of violence. OSAC members should still exercise caution when visiting crowded areas such as large open-air trading markets as in any large city with large numbers of poor and unemployed.
Common crimes, generally crimes of opportunity rather than planned attacks, include, but are not limited to: thefts from vehicles, thefts of property from residences, residential break-ins, strong-armed robberies, pick-pocketing, “snatch and grab” thefts, theft from hotel rooms, and an increasing number of financial fraud cases involving credit cards, personal checks and counterfeiting. These crimes can occur day and night. Crimes that result in violence are more commonly seen when the victim attempts to resist the assailant.
Two reported violent crimes from November 2009 involved “boda boda” drivers (motorcycles for hire) sexually assaulting their female passengers after picking them up outside of a nightclub in the Kisamenti area of Kampala. Due to reported security incidents and accidents involving “boda bodas,” the Chief of Mission declared off-limits any motorcycle-for-hire transportation by Embassy employees during nighttime; during daytime, it is discouraged.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Uganda has one of the highest rates of traffic fatalities per vehicle in the world.
Roads in Uganda are poorly maintained, inadequately marked, and poorly lit. Road travel outside Kampala to other cities is dangerous during the day and treacherous at night.
Driving hazards at night include broken-down vehicles left in the road, pedestrians walking in the road, drunken drivers, stray animals, poor road conditions, and the possibility of armed robbery. The road lighting in larger cities is inadequate at best and virtually nonexistent in smaller cities.
Under normal driving conditions, drivers in Uganda are exposed to inappropriate speed, unpredictable local driving habits, pedestrians and livestock in the roadway, commuter buses that ignore traffic laws, vehicles that are not “road safe” (including lack of brake/indicator lights) and the lack of basic safety equipment.
Police enforcement of road safety standards and traffic laws is minimal, but appears to be improving. While general vehicle travel during daylight hours on both paved and unpaved roads is considered relatively safe, it is important to note that the varying conditions of the roadways (including numerous potholes) combined with excessive speed can lead to serious accidents.
The general lack of an immediate police/emergency response to traffic accident scenes often results in delayed emergency service response. Instead, accident victims rely on bystanders as the accident scene “first responders.” For this reason and considering the lack of first-world medical care in the majority of districts in Uganda, travelers should maintain the equipment and training to be able to perform first aid for themselves.
At one time, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a domestic insurgent group led by Joseph Kony, operated with relative ease throughout northern Uganda. Beginning in 2005, the Ugandan military made significant strides to push LRA fighting elements out of Uganda, into Southern Sudan, and then into eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The LRA was completely removed from northern Uganda by the end of 2006 and has not conducted operations here since.
Overall security in northern Uganda has greatly improved as a result of the military success against the LRA. The introduction of civilian police into the north in addition to significant efforts by the GOU and the international community have accomplished a remarkable turnaround. Seldom do common criminals and roaming bandits still carry out armed attacks on vehicles; when this does happen, it is mostly at night. For this reason, travel after sundown outside the district capitals of the north is prohibited for U.S. Embassy personnel.
Regional Security, Terrorism and Organized Crime
While Uganda is generally viewed as a safe, secure and politically stable country within the region, its extensive and porous borders are inadequately policed, allowing for a robust flow of illicit trade and immigration.
Rebel groups operate freely in the eastern DRC, posing a potential risk along Uganda’s western border region. The northern border with Southern Sudan has a limited security presence and current instability which could draw Uganda into a regional conflict but it is unlikely that it would spill over the border into Uganda.
The eastern border with Kenya is also difficult to police, however, main roads and border crossings have a consistent police presence.
The Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) originally a Ugandan based insurgency now operates in eastern DRC and is listed as a terrorist organization.
In the past, the ADF made incursions into western Uganda along the Muzizi River, near Semliki National Park in Bundibugyo District. The ADF launched offensive actions into western Uganda in March 2007; the Ugandan military counter-attacked. This offensive military action resulted in the killing or capturing of 100 ADF fighters. The GOU remains vigilant for threats from the ADF but most analysts agree the ADF poses little threat to security in Uganda.
Primarily, Uganda does not have any large organized crime elements operating within the country. Human smuggling syndicates operate in Uganda providing fraudulent identification for intending illegal immigrants to the European Union, but the volume is likely small. Since Uganda lacks any law that prevents money laundering, organizations could easily operate with little risk of exposure based on its negligent financial regulatory framework but thus far none have emerged.
The largest terrorist threat in Uganda is al-Shabaab and al-Qa’ida East Africa (AQEA). The threat stems from Uganda’s continued support of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).
The threat of civil unrest, public protests, strikes, demonstrations, and political violence is currently rated at the medium level for Uganda. Nevertheless, politically or economically motivated demonstrations can surface sporadically with little to no warning. The W2W protests following the elections in 2011 focused on high commodity prices. Several demonstrations since were rallied against economic issues like power outages, levies on taxis and interest rates and will likely continue.
Demonstrations occasionally take place in Kampala and other Ugandan cities in response to world events or local conditions. Demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly violent when police response is not appropriately measured. It is advisable to avoid demonstrations if possible, and to exercise caution if in the vicinity of any demonstration. Staying current with media coverage of local events, continually evaluating one’s surroundings and planning to avoid conflict will usually mitigate these risks. Developing communication strategies on security issues with local staff can provide an early warning system for demonstrations as local staff generally consume all local media and can also tap into unfounded information.
The GOU has established tight controls on general security in the country. OSAC members should still remain vigilant and plan for the possibility of civil unrest as crackdowns of this kind often lead to discontent and ultimately larger and more deadly demonstrations.
The Ugandan police have made significant strides in their ability to react to crime and other incidents.
Most police stations throughout the capital city have few phone lines, meager radio communications, and a limited supply of vehicles, which are often in need of fuel. Police attempts to deter crime by placing their limited forces in static locations, supplemented by mobile patrols have been increasingly successful.
Although police corruption is extensive, as evidenced by frequent requests from police officers for “donations” to cover the cost of completing a police report or responding to a traffic accident we have seen an increase in the willingness of police management to intervene and punish those who solicit bribes.
The national emergency police response number is “999”. Due to the limitations of the police, many local businesses choose to augment their security by employing private armed guards or watchmen. The quality of these services ranges from poor to adequate.
Foreign currency should be exchanged in authorized banks, hotels and other legally authorized outlets and proper receipts should be obtained for the transactions. Exchange receipts are required to convert unused Ugandan currency back to the original foreign currency. Penalties for exchanging money on the black market range from fines to imprisonment. Credit cards are not accepted at many hotels, restaurants, shops, or other local facilities, although they are accepted at the major chain hotels in Kampala.
If You Are the Victim of a Crime
You should contact the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy (see the end of this sheet or see the U.S. Department of State’s list of embassies and consulates). This includes the loss or theft of a U.S. passport. The Embassy staff can, for example, help you find appropriate medical care, contact family members or friends and explain how funds may be transferred. Although the investigation and prosecution of the crime are solely the responsibility of local authorities, consular officers can help you to understand the local criminal justice process and to find an attorney if needed.
The local equivalent to the “911” emergency line in Uganda is “999” but the emergency response is not equivalent to an emergency response in the US. Generally reporting a crime directly to nearest the police station will result in a quicker emergency response then relying on dialing “999”.
Health facilities in Kampala are very limited and are generally inadequate outside the capital. Even the best hospitals in Kampala suffer from inadequate facilities, antiquated equipment, and shortages of supplies (particularly medicines). Visitors are advised to carry their own supplies of prescription drugs and preventive medicines, as well as a doctor’s note describing the medication. There is a shortage of physicians, and emergency assistance is limited. Quality psychiatric services are almost nonexistent in Uganda.
Malaria is prevalent in Ugandan, especially in rural regions. Travelers who become ill with a fever or flu-like illness while traveling in a malaria-risk area and up to one year after returning home should seek prompt medical attention and explain to the health care provider their travel history and which antimalarials they have been taking.
Travelers to Uganda should also avoid swimming in any lakes, rivers, or still bodies of water. All bodies of water have been found to contain parasites, including schistosomiasis. Uganda has had outbreaks of acute watery diarrhea, cholera, typhoid, and other bacterial diarrhea in the recent past, and the conditions for reoccurrences continue to exist in both urban and rural settings.
Air Ambulance Services
Serious illnesses and injuries often require travelers to be medically evacuated from Uganda to a location where adequate medical attention is available. Such medevac services are available locally but can be very expensive and are generally available only to travelers who either have travel insurance that covers medevac services or who are able to pay in advance the considerable cost of such services (often in excess of 40,000 USD). The State Department strongly urges US citizens to consult their medical insurance company prior to traveling abroad to determine whether the policy applies overseas and whether it covers emergency expenses such as a medical evacuation.
Crime and Safety Tips
Visitors are strongly advised to review their personal safety and security posture, to remain vigilant and to be cautious by lowering their public profile when frequenting public places and landmarks. Visitors are advised to beware of unattended baggage or packages left in any location, including in mini-buses and private taxis. Visitors should limit the amount of cash they carry and leave valuables, such as passports, jewelry, and airline tickets in a hotel safe or another secure place. Visitors should carry only the items and cash that they are willing to lose and keep wallets and other valuables where they will be less susceptible to pick-pockets. Visitors should be cautious at all times when traveling on roads in Uganda. There have been reports of highway robbery, including carjacking, by armed bandits outside urban areas. Some incidents have been accompanied by violence. Visitors are cautioned to limit road travel outside towns or cities to daylight hours and travel in convoys, if possible.