It is an operation launched by the Police to curb drink-driving related accidents on highways. Credited for reducing the number accidents, there are complaints from motorists that some officers have turned the operation into a money minting job, writes Charles Etukuri.
In 2011, to curb drink driving, the Uganda Police Force bought breathalysers. Drink driving is one of the major causes of road accidents in Kampala. The move followed the 2011 Police statistics that showed fatal accidents constituted 8.5% of accidents that occurred between 11:00pm and 7:00am. The statistics also indicated that 26.4% of total accidents in Kampala Metropolitan area occurred between 11:00pm and 7:00am.
The commissioner of traffic and road safety in the Uganda Police force, Dr. Stephen Kasiima, says the operation has been a success and has led to a reduction in the number of drink driving-related accidents as pointed out in the 2012 statistics, which how a drop in the number of fatalities from 763 in 2011 to 709 as recorded at the end of last year.
The Kampala traffic Police boss, Lawrence Niwabiine, says the operation has helped the Police save lives and that they are working to reach out to other areas.
In December, the operation received a major boost from Uganda Breweries, a key player in the alcohol industry, which partnered with the Police to step up checks in the Kampala beer belts of Bugolobi, Kabalagala, Ntinda, Wandegeya, Kireka and Nakulabye. Even as big bar owners complain of poor client turn up, many people have resorted to becoming more responsible and now prefer drinking near their homes.
Big names have been harvested in the operation and these include legislators, church personalities, musicians and top city business people. Just the other week, the Police stopped Rwampara MP Vincent Kyamadidi together with his driver and a female occupant. The MP questioned the status of the Police arresting him and demanded whether they knew who he was.
The legislator's girlfriend stumbled out of the car with an open zip and joined him in hurling profanity at the Policemen, who stood their ground maintaining that they were doing their job. Police said some drunkards, who think they are well connected or have relatives in big offices, end up intimidating officers to evade arrest. It is because of this that the Inspector General of Police Lt. Gen. Kale Kayihura directed that those arrested for drink-driving should not be released on bond until they are arraigned in court.
A highly placed source at the Police says top Police bosses had also agreed not to intervene in cases where those they knew had been arrested for what one said was encouraging impunity. Following the directive, over 23 drunk drivers, who were arrested in a weekend operation at Katwe Police were locked up till Monday when they appeared in court. The operation was commanded by Katwe Police traffic boss, James Rumanyika.
RESORTING TO SOCIAL MEDIA
Those who drink have now resorted to the social media and created groups to avert falling into road blocks. Some of the most popular groups include Kawunyemu Equaliser, which has 295 members and the Breathalysers/ Traffi c Cops Alert, which has over 500 members. The groups members have been detained, fi ned or stopped for drink driving.
"Even if you do not drink, you know a friend who has had a rough time with the traffic cops. Do not suffer or let your friends suffer. You can warn them in advance about traffi c cop presence on their road, by simply updating this group, if you see any cops/roadblock at night," reads the introductory information on one of the groups.
Members of the group alert one another of any Police operation and share different tricks to beat the Police at their own game. Some of these tricks include drivers adorning Islamic attire and claiming they were going for prayers. Muslims are not usually associated with alcohol drinking. Other tricks include feigning sickness when stopped or claims that one was going for a funeral or vigil.
"There are drivers who move with Islamic attire like the caps and rosary in the car and when you stop them you think it is a Hajji," says Rumanyika. Aware of the tricks, Katwe Police insisted on testing some of the drivers who had the tunics and to their shock some had actually taken Police crack whip as drink alcohol. The records at the Police show some Muslim names like Ismail Ssewanyana, Issa Ndyambaze, Abdu Wasswa, Adam Bukenya and Muzamiru Muyomba.
The Police also admits that sometimes it becomes hard to arrest some of the motorists even where they have genuine cases. "In some cases we have people called out of bars to take a sick relative to hospital and when you stop them you fi nd they are actually taking patients to hospitals," adds Rumanyika. He, however, says some cases are fake. Some other tricks being shared on social media include ingestion of activated carbon prior to consumption of alcoholic beverages which would help reduce absorption of ethanol into the blood.
The other tricks include advising the drunkards to always drive with a pint of milk and that taking milk affects alcohol absorption and that one can go undetected even if he drunk the whole night. Some motorists also resort to booking lodges in nearby centers instead of paying the fine or spending the weekend in Police detention.
The other trick that drunkards have devised is hiring boda boda riders to navigate about 500 metres ahead of the cars. These keep on briefing the motorists on any roadblocks ahead. Drivers have, in certain cases, parked their cars and opted to either walk or use bikes.
Some drivers hire boda bodas to drive ahead of them to ensure there are no roadblocks ahead
Aware of these, Police has now resorted to arresting those found walking or riding when drunk and have introduced a new traffic rule of "walking under the influence of alcohol."
The Police now arrest for "walking under the Influence of alcohol."
Other tricks include drivers pulling out Bibles from their glove compartments to testify that they are from overnight prayers, but when forced to take the breathalyser test their breath was enough to make one tipsy. "But even here we try to be more careful and probe further," says Rumanyika.
The other week, the Police stopped city pastor Wilson Bugembe, who was driving through town and asked why he was driving at that time of the night. After explaining himself to the cops, he was left to go. But popular gospel musician Exodus was not so lucky. Tests on him indicated he had consumed alcohol.
ARE POLICE HARDENING PEOPLE'S LIVES?
The Police has come under heavy criticism of making the lives of motorists hard by arresting those with money to spend. In one of the night operations, patrons caught on the wrong side of the law could be heard cursing the Policemen. "Is the money I have spent on alcohol yours? Why do you waste energy on us who spend money from our own sweat instead of arresting thieves?" noted one.
Despite the solid achievements in reduction of accidents, the Police has also come under criticism over the way they handle their operations. For instance, it is not clear what the legal limit of alcohol levels in a person.
Dr. Kasiima says the breathalyser reading should be 35mm. But from confessions and testimonies of some of the victims, Sunday Vision has learnt that there are cases of people who have been arrested even when their readings were below. One of those who was not so lucky was Ronnie Mujasi who was arrested after the breathalyser read 0.30. He was taken to court and fined sh600,000. He still insists that it was below the limit.
Then there is also the issue of hygiene. It is common to see the Police using the same gadget, forcing people to put it in their mouth. There are fears that they can spread diseases like Tuberculosis and the spread of dentures and gum disease.
There are also complaints that in some instances the operations have been used to extort money from the public. Dr. Kasiima says they had received some reports that some of the photo and videos being taken were being used to blackmail the victims to pay certain amounts of money or they are splashed in the media.
"There was a reverend we arrested in Old Kampala and one week after the operation, some people from a local TV crew we had officially invited to cover the operation went to him demanding sh4m and if he failed to pay, they would air the clip," he says.
A top Ministry of Finance official told Sunday Vision that when he was stopped, he eavesdropped a traffic offi cer whispering to a cameraman to make sure, "he got my face because I was a top ministry offi cial. I had to part with some money for fear of the humiliation I could have caused my family and my reputation." But when the money was less, one of the officers escorted him to the ATM machine where he emptied his account.
There are also cases of people who have been arrested losing their valuables. Kazoora, a reveller, was arrested by the traffic Police and sh3m was taken from him. When he complained, he was quickly arraigned before court and taken to Luzira. "They thought I was too drunk," he says. He does not rule out the involvement of some of his officers in the racket. He says Police will review its operations and urges anybody with a complaint to report to the professional standards unit.
Legal experts have also warned that putting suspects in the media betrays the constitutional right of being innocent till proven guilty and that they are making the operations a show. "The suspects have rights too. Does that mean I have no privacy when I am arrested? Does the Police want us to know that they are promptly doing their jobs?" Innocent Okong a city lawyer, asks.
However, Kasiima defends the Police action of putting the suspects in the media, stating that people will think twice and start drinking responsibly. "Once you are caught in unlawful acts, you become property of the state and privacy is the fi rst thing to be stripped from you," he says.
ARE BREATHALYSERS EFFICIENT?
Questions are also emerging on who calibrates breathalysers. For instance, are they regularly taken to the Uganda National Bureau of Standards for certifi cation. A doctor says some body organs produce natural alcohol from the body and this could give the Police the pretext that one is under the influence of alcohol and yet he/she is sick. They also say some compounds could be misinterpreted as alcohol by the breathalysers, especially with diabetic patients. Sometimes innocent people have also found themselves in police detention.
Dedan Ahimbisibwe was almost arrested when he came across a road block along Jinja Road and the female police officer who was on duty immediately asked him how many bottles he had taken. "Taken what, I asked her?" She demanded that I move to where the tests were being carried out. "Those red eyes of yours you must be above 70Mls."
Aware that he had not touched nor seen the bottle that day, he decided to engage the officer who insisted he be locked up because he was drunk. He was lucky the boss was around, otherwise he could have spent the night in the cells.
INCONVENIENCE TO OTHERS
In some cases, the Police has also resorted to arresting the co-passengers, who have been found travelling in cars where the drivers were found drunk, a clear indication that they were going well beyond their mandate.
Sunday Vision has learnt that some bar owners have also devised new means to beat the Police and whenever they are tipped about a road block, they offer breakfast and only let out their clients in the morning when they are sure that the cops are off the road.