Kampala. At around 7pm last Tuesday, our reporter was to Makindye Police Station in Kampala to report lost documents. The officer on duty took all the reporter’s details before asking: “What is your tribe?”
He added: “It is standard practice here. You have to give full details.”
It is not only police that ask for such details. Hospitals and courts record tribes of patients and litigants.
But why is this so? Such profiling is partly a colonial relic, according to some senior citizens, and has been continued because Ugandans have given no thought of the potential bias it could introduce among those superintending government service.
Whereas doctors say there is a scientific reason of certain diseases being prevalent among particular groups which can guide examination of a patient, the law enforcement officials were unable to rationalise the practice other than saying it is part of their training.
“It is basically for identifying you; there is nothing evil about it,” police spokesperson Emilian Kayima said last week.
He added that officers have noted cases where both complainant and an accused person are uncomfortable disclosing their tribe.
According to Dr Celestine Barigye, the Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital executive director, information about a patient’s tribe helps health workers link or suspect certain diseases and inform recommendations for further diagnostics.
Citing sickle cell, a blood disorder that causes red blood cells to change shape, clogging up arteries and causing a variety of related health problems, Dr Barigye says certain tribes have high incidents of the disease and knowing one’s origin helps to carry out proper diagnosis.
In places such as Busoga Sub-region, he said, hernia has been prevalent just like intense post-birth bleeding among Banyankore women while some Ethiopian communities suffer a lot from goitre.
Acholi, Lango, east-central Busoga, Buganda and Rwenzori sub-regions have comparably higher sickle cell incidents in Uganda, Dr Barigye said.
According to Health ministry statistics, 20,000-25,000 babies in Uganda are born with sickle cell disease.
“If someone tells you that she or he is of that tribe, it helps us give proper diagnosis and medication,” Dr Barigye added.
Dr Sabrina Kitata, a paediatrician at Mulago National Referral Hospital, said Uganda’s diverse cultures come with different practices that knowing a patient’s origin becomes important to inform medical decisions.
Practices such as clitoris elongation and genital mutilation, among such tribes, she said, should not come as a shock for a medical practitioner if they know their tribes.
These assurances, professional as they are, are inadequate to assure rights activists such as Mr Moses Talibita, the Uganda National Health Consumers Organisation legal officer, who is restless about the possibility that a person could be discriminated against on the basis of their tribe in a country where tribalism is rife.
“There is a lot of scientific advancement and it is really unfair to diagnose or suspect a disease using a tribe instead of going to the laboratory,” he added.
Article 21(2) provides: “…a person shall not be discriminated against on the ground of sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, tribe, birth, creed or religion, or social or economic standing, political opinion or disability.”
Mr Talibita argued that an on-duty police officer could favour a kin even if they are the accused, presenting a breach of the Constitution.
Mr Kayima said such incidents, if they happen at all, are rare.
Mr Ladislaus Rwakafuzi, a human rights lawyer, said he sees nothing wrong in police seeking out identities of suspects and complainants.
“Identifying someone by tribe is crude, but it has been the easiest way to identify suspects. We have IDs but the information there is not reliable; there are missing names, photos,” he said, adding:
“If an Acholi commits an offence, it is easy for police to track him in northern Uganda although the suspect can still go and live in Fort Portal.”