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Overseas Security Advisory Council
Bureau of Diplomatic Security
U.S. Department of State

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Uganda 2019 Crime & Safety Report

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Uganda at Level 2, indicating travelers should exercise increased caution due to crime.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

The U.S. Embassy in Kampala does not assume responsibility for the professional ability or integrity of the persons or firms appearing in this report. The ACS Unit cannot recommend a particular individual or location and assumes no responsibility for the quality of service provided.

Review OSAC’s Uganda-specific webpage for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Crime Threats

There is serious risk from crime in Kampala. Throughout 2018, the U.S. Embassy continued to track reports of crimes against expatriate persons and organizations, including U.S. citizens. 

In Kampala, criminals regularly target the residences of expatriates and wealthy Ugandans for burglary. Often, domestic staff or hired security guards were involved in these crimes. The Embassy recommends persons staying in private residences use multiple methods of redundant security (e.g. security guards, alarms, locks) to secure residences against burglary.

Criminals in Kampala also often target personal possessions, employing three main tactics: surreptitious (i.e. pickpocketing), snatch-and-grab, and violent robbery. 

Surreptitious: Individuals in public venues (e.g. restaurants, hotels, shopping malls) regularly reported leaving their bags unattended for short periods (sometimes only a few minutes), returning to discover that unknown persons had taken valuable items (e.g. wallet, cellphone) from their bag. Valuables have also been reported stolen from bags hanging off the backs of a chairs at crowded tables (even while diners are present). Travelers on public transportation have reported placing their bags under their seat, later discovering that valuable items stolen. Maintain positive control of all valuables while in public.

Snatch-and-grab: Criminals on foot and on motorcycles (known locally as “boda bodas”) regularly target high-traffic areas expatriates frequent to steal handbags and backpacks. Pedestrians in Uganda should avoid roads without sidewalks, where vehicles (and motorcycles) must pass dangerously close to pedestrians. In addition, try to walk on the side of the road where they face oncoming traffic, and consider how you carrying handbags and backpacks to minimize the vulnerability for them being snatched. If possible, minimize the cash and valuables you carry.

Violent robbery:  Most violent robberies in Kampala target individuals or small groups walking alone in isolated areas after dark. The Embassy generally recommends traveling in groups, and using a private vehicle or a privately contracted driver to move around the city, especially after dark. While violent robberies have occurred in daylight hours, other crimes are much more common.

Outside of Kampala, in addition to the threat of property crime, organized gangs (sometimes known as “iron bar gangs”) periodically rob and extort businesses, residents, and visitors.  Occasionally, these gangs have blocked major roads late at night to attack passing vehicles.  These gangs are also known to commit sexual violence against their victims.

The Embassy also received numerous reports of property stolen from hotel rooms throughout the country. Although all hotels are at risk, it appears the risk is greater at the smaller hotels outside of Kampala. By early 2019, the Embassy had already received multiple reports of armed groups attacking hotels at night in the town of Jinja, a popular getaway for expatriates located approximately 80 km from Kampala. During these incidents, the assailants assaulted and tied up guards, then robbing and sometimes beating guests.

ATM and credit card skimming continues to be a regular issue in Uganda. Minimize the use of ATMs and credit cards. When necessary, only use ATMs at prominent bank branches, and credit cards at large hotels and other businesses that cater to international travelers. All businesses that accept credit cards can process EMV chips, and most can bring the machine to you, which helps to deter unauthorized charges. For more information, review OSAC’s report, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud.

Cybersecurity Issues

Cybersecurity continues to be a challenge in Uganda. The government does not prioritize funding for cybersecurity infrastructure, and does not allocate sufficient funds to pay for solutions, even after it identifies security breaches in sensitive government and financial systems. Some government agencies report that the security frameworks protecting their systems are at least five to ten years behind current security standards, and there is no urgency to update them. The problem is compounded by the fact that many Ugandan government officials view cybersecurity measures as optional, and the average Ugandan does not understand the importance of simple measures such as using passwords for secure or sensitive systems. One private-sector firm reported that even their most talented Ugandan recruits require months of intensive training in cybersecurity before they are ready to contribute to the company’s software products. While there are a few officials in both the public and private sector who proactively try to address Uganda’s cybersecurity shortfalls, they face an uphill battle.

Other Areas of Concern

In 2015, the U.S. Embassy lifted its travel restrictions to the Karamoja region. Travel throughout Karamoja remains somewhat hazardous due to poor road conditions in the region, lengthy response times by the police, and the lack of emergency medical services. In addition, Karamoja continues to experience sporadic incidents of local violence and mob justice. Travelers to Karamoja should identify nearby police stations and medical facilities, and use a four-wheel drive vehicle with a well-stocked emergency kit, food, extra gasoline, and water.

Uganda’s extensive and porous borders are policed inadequately, allowing for illicit trade and unregulated immigration. Rebel groups operate freely in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), posing a potential risk along Uganda’s western border, while the northern border with South Sudan is similarly porous, with a very limited security presence. Exercise caution when traveling to the borders with the DRC and South Sudan. Events in both countries have resulted in an increase of refugees into Uganda and an increase in criminal activity. The remoteness of the border with Kenya makes it difficult to police, although main roads and border crossings generally have a consistent police presence.

Transportation-Safety Situation

For more information, review OSAC’s report, Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Road Safety and Road Conditions

According to recent information from the World Health Organization (WHO), Uganda has the 24th highest rate in the world for road fatalities, at 27.4 deaths per 100,000 people. In total, the WHO estimated an annual 10,280 annual road deaths. The WHO judged the greatest risk of road death was for pedestrians (40% of all road deaths) and riders on motorized 2- and 3-wheeled vehicles (30%).

The reasons that roads are so dangerous is that they lack adequate maintenance, markings, and lighting. Other driving hazards include broken-down vehicles, pedestrians, drunk and/or fatigued drivers, stray animals, and overall poor roadway conditions. Drivers speed and behave unpredictably. Pedestrians and livestock commonly share the roadway, and commuter bus drivers ignore traffic laws.  Many vehicles are not roadworthy or lack brake/turn indicator lights. In market areas, vendors often take over the sidewalks and in some cases much of the roadway, forcing pedestrians into the streets.

Driving at night is even more treacherous, when the absence of illumination exacerbates other risk factors. The Embassy currently prohibits intercity driving (other than trips to Entebbe airport) by U.S. government employees during hours of darkness.

The Uganda Police Force implemented a safety campaign in 2016 after a series of fatal accidents on roadways, but the success of efforts to improve road safety has been minimal at best. Police attempt to enforce traffic laws, especially on the major intercity roads, but enforcement can sometimes be haphazard or arbitrary. Police use checkpoints to perform vehicle inspections and check for drunk drivers, but the Embassy has also received reports of police using these checkpoints to solicit bribes. In 2018, the President of Uganda publicly condemned traffic police for corruption, ordering them to cease enforcement operations and limit themselves to directing traffic. For more information on self-driving, review OSAC’s reports, Driving Overseas: Best Practices and Road Safety in Africa.

Terrorism Threat

Local, Regional, and International Terrorism Threats/Concerns

There is moderate risk from terrorism in Kampala. The largest terrorist threat in Uganda comes from Somalia-based al-Shabaab, which objects to Uganda’s support for the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The twin 2010 suicide bombings in Kampala, which killed 76 people (including one U.S. citizen), was al-Shabaab’s first successful large-scale operation outside of Somalia, demonstrating that the group was willing and able to launch attacks across the region. Al-Shabaab vows to continue attacking interests and citizens of countries supporting AMISOM. 

Another regional terror organization is the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), originally a Uganda-based Islamist rebel group that formed in 1996 and engaged in battles with the Ugandan military in 2007 and 2008. The ADF currently operates in eastern DRC, despite the efforts of Ugandan and Congolese armed forces. The Ugandan government continues to take the threat of ADF action very seriously, and engages in efforts to destabilize and disrupt the group.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

There is moderate risk from civil unrest in Kampala. In 2017, Kampala experienced sporadic street protests surrounding a controversial bill to remove a constitutional presidential age limit, which allowed President Yoweri Museveni to extend his 31-year reign as President. Following the passage of the bill, the protests largely died down.

In August 2018, police arrested opposition politician and popular musician Robert Kyagulanyi (aka “Bobi Wine”) and charged him with illegal possession of a firearm. His arrest (and alleged torture) along with that of some members of parliament sparked protests in Kampala and around the country. Police responded with force, beating protestors and some journalists reporting on the events. By October, protests had mostly subsided, but tensions between the government and its critics continue, and could easily flare back up. The government routinely prevents peaceful gatherings of opposition politicians and civil society groups.

Over the past several years, there have been several high-profile, unsolved, assassination-style killings of prominent Ugandan individuals. Motivation for these killings remains unclear.

Civil Unrest 

When protests, strikes, and demonstrations turn unruly, police are quick to use batons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and gunshots to disperse crowds. Demonstrations and protests can occur with little to no prior warning.

Most protests in Uganda concern local issues. Historically, Ugandans have not engaged in anti-U.S. protests; in 2018, there were no significant anti-U.S. demonstrations.

Demonstrations can escalate quickly. Avoid all demonstrations. If you come across a large gathering or demonstration, leave the area as soon as possible. Staying current on events through local media and continually evaluating one's surroundings will usually mitigate these risks. Ugandans often have better information about demonstrations in their area, so expatriates should stay informed by building a communication network with local colleagues. In addition, online platforms like Twitter and Facebook can be useful for tracking incidents, but readers should be aware that limited incidents could seem more serious or widespread in the social media echo chamber.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

Although religious and ethnic strife is relatively rare in Uganda, it does occur occasionally. In particular, 2015 and 2016 saw the killing of several of Muslim religious leaders in highly publicized cases. In addition, in 2016, a dispute between an ethnic kingdom in western Uganda and the Ugandan government resulted in violence, with over 100 killed, a traditional king and many of his followers arrested.

In 2017, the continued large migrant flows from South Sudan led to some isolated clashes in northern Uganda between South Sudanese refugees and local Ugandans. In 2018, reports of minor tribal clashes among refugees in settlements continued, particularly those from South Sudan. However, these security incidents were localized and resolved quickly.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Uganda is at risk of both rapid-onset and developing disasters, including short-term food security crises, flash floods, earthquakes, infectious disease outbreaks, and political crises. The potential slow-onset disasters mostly surround potential food insecurity from drought or other environmental and man-made factors.

Since August 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been tracking an Ebola outbreak in the DRC. The outbreak (which was ongoing at the time of publication) was happening in the province of North Kivu, which abuts Uganda’s western border. Although no cases had yet been reported in Uganda (at the time of publication) the commercial and cultural ties between the DRC and Uganda make cross-border transmission highly likely.

Another significant concern in Kampala is air pollution. The biggest contributors are lax, unenforced emission standards and the common practice of burning trash. According to some sources, Kampala has the worst air quality in East, Central, and Southern Africa. The Embassy has installed a single air quality monitor; view data from the monitor online.

Uganda is located in an earthquake zone. In 2016, a 5.7-magnitude earthquake in Bukoba, Tanzania (located on Lake Victoria, roughly 20 miles from the border with Uganda) resulted in at least 11 deaths and 196 injuries. In 2017, a 5.3-magnitude earthquake hit outside the southwestern town of Rubirizi, Uganda; there were no reported deaths or injuries.

Economic Concerns

The counterfeiting of U.S. dollars is common. The rate of this type of crime has increased in recent years. In 2016, Ugandan authorities discovered large quantities of high-quality counterfeit U.S. $100 bills were being passed in Kampala and other tourist destinations around Uganda. In 2018, there appeared to be a further uptick in the problems with counterfeit currency. The Embassy fielded increased reports of counterfeit bills; authorities arrested three individuals in possession of approximately $1 million in counterfeit U.S. currency at a major hotel in Uganda.

Though the sale and purchase of counterfeit goods is illegal under Ugandan law, intellectual property theft is pervasive, and counterfeit and pirated goods (especially digital media) are widely available for sale. Bringing counterfeit and pirated goods back to the United States may result in forfeiture and/or fines.

Personal Identity Concerns

Same-sex sexual activity is illegal and punishable by life in prison. Uganda’s rate of public acceptance of homosexuality is among the worst in the world. Violence and discrimination against the LGBTI community is widespread.  

Drug-related Crimes

Uganda is strategically located along a major narcotics transit route between Middle Eastern, Asian, and West African heroin markets. Drugs regularly transit Uganda headed for markets in Europe, the United States, and other African countries.

Cannabis grows throughout Uganda and is rarely policed, allowing large crops to flourish in remote rural areas.

The Ugandan Police Force’s (UPF) Anti-Narcotics Unit is underequipped, undermanned, and undertrained; still, they occasionally interdict and seize drug shipments. In 2017, UPF worked with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to break up laboratory producing methamphetamines. UPF maintains a drug interdiction team at Entebbe Airport.

Tobacco is legal in Uganda, but the law punishes smoking in or near public areas (including at bars and restaurants). While enforcement of the anti-tobacco laws is irregular, police have raided bars and restaurants where they suspect violations. People caught smoking in public can be punished severely, including a minimum sentence of six months imprisonment and/or 480,000 Ugandan schillings (approximately $130). In a recent effort to enforce the public smoking ban, UPF conducted violent raids on restaurants and bars around Kampala. Police often record such raids, parading those arrested on TV. Police often beat and/or arrest innocent bystanders for simply being at the establishment.

Kidnapping Threat

In 2018, the kidnapping threat in Uganda increased. A Reuters article published in April referenced internal police statistics showing eight kidnappings reported in January and February alone. Those same statistics showed 24 kidnappings reported in 2017. Although the extent to which kidnappings are reported to police is unknown, it is true that public attention to the kidnapping threat reached an unprecedented high in early 2018. Fortunately, kidnappers have not targeted U.S. citizens in Uganda for nearly ten years. For more information, review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Police Response

The UPF maintains heavy police deployments in metropolitan areas, especially Kampala, to thwart criminal and terrorist activities. Despite efforts to professionalize and modernize the force, the UPF still struggles with a lack of resources, corruption, and regular reports of human rights violations.

Police are limited in their ability to detect and deter card skimming and other forms of cybercrime due to a lack of training and equipment.

Police may beat, arrest, imprison, or expel those violating Uganda's laws, even unknowingly. Ugandan law strictly prohibits photographing police and military personnel, police and military installations, industrial facilities, government buildings (including all foreign missions), and infrastructure (including roads, bridges, dams, airfields). Unfortunately, these sites are not always clearly marked. Guides, police, and officials can advise if a particular site may be photographed. If authorities discover you photographing prohibited personnel or sites, they may confiscate the camera equipment and question the photographer. For more information, review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

The importation and use of personal unmanned aerial vehicles (i.e. “drones” or “quadcopters”) is illegal without prior permission from the government. Attempts to import other surveillance equipment may also run afoul of the authorities.

Crime Victim Assistance

U.S. citizen victims of crime should contact the local police and the U.S. Embassy. Embassy staff always answers emergency calls, and can provide a list of medical care providers, contact family/friends, and explain how you may secure a loan to if you are in financial need. Consular officers can also help you understand the local criminal justice process and provide you with a list of attorneys.

If your U.S. passport is lost or stolen, you must obtain a police report detailing the loss/theft from the nearest police station. You must present the police report during your passport replacement appointment.

The local emergency line is 999. UPF monitors the line, but unreliably so. Generally, reporting a crime directly to the nearest police station will result in a quicker emergency response.

Police/Security Agencies

The General Duty Police is the largest police presence and is tasked with providing general law and order functions. General Duty Police staff most police posts.

There are many other units within the UPF, including the Counter Terrorism Police, VIP Protection Unit, Criminal Intelligence Division, Forensics Division, Traffic Police, Marine Police, and Tourism Police. These units fill specific functions and perform limited duties related to their specialty.

Medical Emergencies

Health facilities are very limited and are generally inadequate outside Kampala. Even the best hospitals in Kampala suffer from inadequate facilities, antiquated equipment, and shortages of supplies (particularly medicines). Carry your own supply of prescription drugs and preventive medicines, as well as a doctor's note describing the medication and its generic name. For more information, refer to OSAC’s report, Traveling with Medications.

There is a shortage of qualified physicians, and emergency assistance is limited. Quality outpatient psychiatric services are minimal. Inpatient psychiatric services are virtually nonexistent.

Contact Information for Available Medical Services

For medical assistance, refer to the Embassy’s Medical Assistance page.

Available Air Ambulance Services

Medical evacuation options from Kampala include International SOS, which operates out of South Africa, and locally operated Executive Aviation.

Insurance Guidance

Serious illnesses/injuries often require medical evacuation (medevac) to a location where adequate medical attention is available. 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 U.S. $40,000). Consult your insurance company prior to travel abroad to determine whether the policy applies overseas, and whether it covers emergency expenses such as medevac. For more information, refer to OSAC’s report, Medical Evacuation: A Primer.

Country-specific Vaccination and Health Guidance

Outbreaks of infectious diseases occur regularly in Uganda. In the past few years, Uganda has experienced outbreaks of various viral hemorrhagic fevers (including the Marburg Virus, Yellow Fever, Rift Valley Fever, and Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever), meningitis, cholera, typhoid, and measles. This is in addition to the ongoing (at the time of publishing) Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreak along Uganda’s western border.

The Government of Uganda’s management of these outbreaks has been commendable. Systems exist to detect and respond to disease outbreaks. Travelers, however, should be aware of the heightened threat posed by infectious diseases.

Malaria is prevalent throughout the country, especially in rural regions. Travelers who develop a fever or flu-like illness while traveling in a high malaria-risk area or after returning home (up to one year) should seek prompt medical attention. Share travel history and anti-malarial medicine use with the health care provider. All travelers to Uganda should take precautions to prevent mosquito bites and follow recommendations on use of anti-malarial prophylactic medications.

Avoid swimming in any bodies of water. All have been found to contain disease-causing parasites, including schistosomiasis.

Monitoring the press and following instructions on the Department of State and CDC websites for dealing with infectious diseases can significantly mitigate, if not eliminate, your risk of exposure.  The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Uganda.

OSAC Country Council Information

The Kampala Country Council meets biannually. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Africa team with any questions.

U.S. Embassy Location and Contact Information

Embassy Address and Hours of Operation

Plot 1577 Ggaba Road, P.O. Box 7007, Kampala

Hours of Operation: Monday-Thursday: 0730-1645; Friday: 0730-1230

Embassy Contact Information:

Switchboard: +256 414-306-001

Website: http://ug.usembassy.gov

Embassy Guidance

U.S. citizen travelers should register with the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

Additional Resources

Uganda Country Information Sheet

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