It is 6:21am on June 30 at a security checkpoint at Customs Corner, Layibi, Gulu Town.
A police officer (in Field Force Unit uniform) aboard a white pick-up truck (registration number UG 1763S) chats with other officers as the driver (in police uniform) dashes to a shop across the road.
Looking at the vehicle’s branding (environmental police), one would simply tell that its occupants are on a routine mission to crack down on illegal log and charcoal dealers, who use Gulu Town as their exit gate out of the region to trade their goods.
The officer scratches his nose repeatedly as he pays attention to other officers, who are seemingly stressing a point to him.
A minute later, the vehicle soon joins a convoy of two trucks; UAL 650 X and UAP 172 S that drove past the checkpoint in the direction of Kampala.
The content of the guarded vehicles are unknown since they are covered with tarpaulins.
Instead of leading the trucks to Gulu Central Police or National Forestry Authority (NFA) offices in Gulu Town, the vehicle overtakes the trucks to arrive first at Layibi checkpoint, five kilometres from Customs Corner.
However, at Layibi checkpoint, the officer, while interacting with traffic officers, comes out of the vehicle and removes the FFU uniform and puts on the UPDF uniform, before embarking on the journey towards Kampala.
It took the convoy an hour to arrive at Karuma Bridge, where the environmental police vehicle stopped and retreated after they crossed the next checkpoint at Karuma Bridge.
The two officers were identified at NFA office as Mr Kiiza Jamil (police officer and driver) and Sgt Benson Kagunga (a UPDF soldier) attached to Environmental police headquarters in Kampala, when Daily Monitor inquired.
According to records, the two officers had reported to NFA offices the day before about their presence and the intended operation.
Tracking the vehicle followed an incidence in Amuru Town, a week earlier after three boda boda riders survived lynching over accusations of collaborating with illegal charcoal and log dealers to conduct illegal trade.
The boda boda riders later confessed to security agents that they had contacts with both (environmental) police and the dealers, whom they linked to places where there was charcoal or logs.
On July 15, the same vehicle was trailed from Pabbo Town up to Kamdini Town while they escorted four trucks (UAL 650X, UAP 172 S, ZD 7685, and UEB 915 Y) covered with tarpaulins with unknown content.
In July alone, 12 trucks carrying logs reportedly harvested from Lamwo, Kitgum, Moyo and Adjumani were escorted by the environmental police vehicle through Gulu Town to Karuma before proceeding to Kampala.
How it happens
The Environmental Protection Police Unit (EPPU) was created in December 2011 to support the Ministry of Water and Environment in enforcing environmental laws and regulations.
There are less than 300 officers divided among the ministry headquarters, National Environment Management Authority (Nema), various NFA offices across the country and major central forest reserves.
But instead of backing up the activities of NFA in the fight against environmental degradation, the environment police unit offer protection to the perpetrators at an exorbitant fee.
Charcoal dealer speaks
Ms Moses Katerega, a commercial charcoal dealer in Mukono District, who buys his stock from northern Uganda, said they hire the officers at between Shs2 million and Shs3 million to help them cross NFA and Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) checkpoints without paying revenue.
“A truck with 350 bags of charcoal will cost about Shs1.5 million in revenue to both NFA and Uganda Revenue Authority but before you reach Kampala around Nakasongola and Luweero, these police (EPPU) will intercept you and demand for another Shs2 million,” Mr Katerega said.
“I can’t afford to pay double, it becomes a loss to me. That is how some of us bought the idea to be escorted past NFA and URA revenue checkpoints to ensure that we don’t be charged or fined at these checkpoints upon paying to them,” he added.
Mr Katerega said he lost 600 bags of charcoal to the environmental police in 2018 when he declined to heed their demands for a bribe. “They took the charcoal and up to date I cannot trace where they took it,” he said.
Last week, a security operation mounted by Amuru Resident District Commissioner Geoffrey Osborn Oceng led to the interception of the EPPU vehicle while it was escorting the three trucks (UAZ 895 S, UAY 191G and UBD 366 G) loaded with charcoal and logs at Pabbo Town board in Amuru District.
“Imagine, instead of protecting the environment, they have turned out to be the catalyst of environmental destruction,’’ Mr Oceng told Daily Monitor in an interview.
He said the police vehicle is always in front to clear the way.
“If one is not keen, they might think that those vehicles have been impounded yet, they are just being escorted to reach a safer place where they cannot be traced,’’ he said.
“In the intercepted pick-up truck of the environmental police, there was a soldier and a police officer (Mr Kiiza and Sgt Kagunga), which means they are working hand in hand in executing the illegal activities,” Mr Oceng said.
An EPPU officer attached to NFA Aswa, who requested anonymity, told Daily Monitor that the officers usually become violent and harass other security personnel they find at checkpoints.
“There was a time we stopped a truck carrying logs here not knowing they were behind, when he (Sgt Kagunga) arrived, he charged at us, saying we werewasting their time, adding that we would lose our jobs if we continued to interrupt their work. Since then, we simply watch them go in and out,” the officer said.
“There was a time Mr Kagunga forced us to use the NFA pick-up vehicle to escort the trucks from Kati Kati checkpoint up to Kamdini after theirs broke down,” the officer said.
Mr Jimmy Owuna, the National Forestry Authority range manager for Aswa, said the activities of the environmental police have for the past two years been illegal.
“When they (environmental police) were intercepted in Amuru last week, our office was never briefed on their presence. Every time they come to the region for operations over illegal logging and charcoal dealings, they are supposed to inform us or they only come when we call them for backup,” Mr Owuna said.
However, on Monday, Mr Simon Peter Okoshi, the deputy commandant of EPPU, said he received reports about illegal dealings carried out by the officers but referred this newspaper to the commandant, Mr Elias Kassirabo, since it had been reported to him. “I have been getting reports of the illicit acts perpetrated by these two officers, Sgt Kagunga and Kiiza and I have forwarded the matter to the commandant although he commended them to be doing great jobs. You will have to speak to him yourself,” Mr Okoshi said.
When contacted, Mr Kassirabo denied any wrong doings by his officers, saying the force has the right to conduct operations even at night while fighting environmental degradation in the region. “We are being failed by the leaders in Amuru, instead of giving us a backing, they are witch-hunting us who are doing a great job in the fight against environmental destruction,’’ Mr Kassirabo said.