Is Uganda safe to visit? This is one of the most crucial questions that finally determines whether a tourist will have Uganda in his or her African safari vacation, included mostly for the famous gorilla tracking adventures and chimpanzee trekking experiences in the beautiful jungles.
Very many tourists do not believe Uganda is safe and do not bother to include it on their itineraries (opting for Rwanda gorillas if gorilla trekking was the reason for thinking of visiting Uganda). While, many other tourists are not sure but are overcome by the adventure bug and the curiosity to discover this country popularly referred to as the Pearl of Africa, and so they simply take a leap of faith hoping they will be safe.
Uganda is a big recipient of bad publicity and this is largely due to the huge media freedom which perhaps you cannot find in other African countries. So, each and every misfortunate (that almost every other country faces) of Uganda finds itself out there, thereby painting a picture of a country that is not safe to visit.
Uganda is also not helped by her location in a region marred by conflicts and epidemics. Whatever happens in the Congo and South Sudan discourages many tourists from visiting Uganda who do not think Uganda is any safer.
In this blog I will enlighten you on the safety and security situation of Uganda and how to keep safe when you are a tourist in Uganda
Again, is Uganda safe to visit?
The answer is Yes, Uganda is safe for tourists and everyone to visit. To put it into perspective, more than one million tourists visit Uganda each year and this number is increasing exponentially as more people discover that Uganda is in fact very safe. Uganda for long has larked in the shadow of its tumultuous past of civil wars and bad leaders, so much that many people still believe the dictator Idi Amin is still the president of Uganda, a man that died decades ago.
For more than 15 years now Uganda has enjoyed peace with no war going on in her land. President Museveni’s government has built a formidable military that has effectively protected the country from insecurity both from within and without.
What are the concerning security and safety situations to look out for and how to stay safe in Uganda?
Petty crimes including pickpocketing, car break-ins, phone snatching and mugging would be your biggest safety concern in Uganda. But these are more rampant in the bustling cities, more so in the capital Kampala City, in congested spaces of the city and in the ghettos.
This calls for maximum vigilance.
Observe the following as SOPs to safeguard against petty crimes;
- Do not use your phone while in a congested place within the city. Smartphone are the most targeted items by petty thieves in Uganda as they are easy to sell off.
- Do not leave your phone unattended to, if not using it put it in your pocket.
- Always have your car window glasses up when driving through the city or simply do not use your phone nor have any easy to pick valuables near an open window
- Ensure your car doors are locked when traveling
- Do not display a lot of money in public
- Do not expose your wallet or money purse, keep it hidden as much as possible. A pocket with a zipper would be the ideal.
- Do not keep valuables such as phone, money, camera, passport, etc… in the car
- Do not leave money, passports and devices such as phone and camera in your hotel room when going out. If there is a safe in the room keep the valuables you can’t carry with you in the safe
- Avoid walking alone in the night
Road accidents are perhaps the number one threat to a tourist’s life in Uganda. Uganda has one of the highest rates of accidents in Africa. Lack of discipline by road users, poor roads, and poor cars are some of the factors causing accidents.
- Ensure you are driven by a professional tourist driver and that he or she must follow the traffic rules.
- Ensure you are driving or being driven in car without any mechanical problems. Car should be properly serviced. In fact I encourage you to use the 4X4 tourist vehicles.
- Avoid traveling on the motorcycle taxis popularly called “boda boda”. They are the most reckless of road users and account for most road accidents in the cities.
- When crossing a busy road in the city, please take enormous care and especially look out for the reckless “boda boda” motorcycle taxis who don’t follow any traffic rules. They will come from any direction of the road even on a one-way traffic street.
Political unrest and riots
Elections in Uganda are an intense affair that often sees riots and clashes between opposition and the government forces, especially in the cities and towns. There is a level of lawlessness during this time and often lives and property are lost. This is however a short period. Tourists are never targeted, however some individuals could take advantage of the confusion to carry out robberies. When planning your trip perhaps you can avoid the presidential elections time. Otherwise, if you come during this time be vigilant and avoid any areas with political rallies and processions. Avoid the cities all together.
Kidnaping of tourists
Kidnapping tourists for ransom had never happened in Uganda until the April of 2019 when two tourists were kidnapped while out in the bush in Queen Elizabeth National Park. The tourists were never harmed and were released after negotiations and ransom was paid to the kidnappers. Queen Elizabeth National Park borders the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a hotspot of insurgencies and lawlessness. The kidnapers indeed originated from the D.R. Congo. The government has since reinforced security along the border with DR Congo and within the park.
This kidnap of tourists in Uganda can be treated as a one-off incidence that cannot easily happen again, so you should not be worried about being kidnapped while in Uganda.
Joseph Kony is a notorious rebel leader whose rebel outfit (LRA) terrorized northern Uganda for years. He was eventually flushed out of Uganda and pursued till he posed no threat to Uganda. Some tourists do still believe Kony is still in Uganda causing mayhem, however this is not true.
Be assured there is no threat of Joseph Kony in Uganda anymore!!
Terrorism (ISIS/ISL and ADF) threats in Uganda
Uganda has been targeted by terrorist groups and has had a share of terror attacks in the last two decades. At the moment, the ADF (Allied Democratic Forces) group has been the biggest threat to security in Uganda. The ADF was once a rebel movement fighting the Ugandan government in the 1990s, with bases in neighboring DRC. It was defeated and rendered too weak to cause any future threats. It’s leader Jamil Mukulu was captured and is detained in Uganda.
However, with the emergence of ISIS/ISL (Islamic State), some remnants of the ADF took advantage & morphed into a terrorist organization pledging allegiance to the international terrorist organization ISIS so as to get logistical support from the terror organization. The group managed to set up a terror cell in Kampala that carried out assassinations of some top security officials, but their biggest operation has been the twin suicide bombings in Kampala on 16th November 2021 targeting a police station and government offices. The government has since tracked down the terror cell and killed most of the members while on the heel of other members.
The terrorist attacks occurrences are rare and are far in between, and no tourists or tourism destinations have been targeted.
Regions or areas of safety concern
North eastern Uganda – Karimojong cattle rustling corridor
Home to the Kidepo Valley National Park and other remarkable wildlife reserves, this is the remotest of Uganda’s regions that was for long off the tourist circuit because of the insecurity. The insecurity was due to the cattle rustling tradition practiced by the cattle keeping tribes of this region. This region is home to the famous Karimojong people as one of the local tribes in the area. Tribes in this region had been practicing cattle rustling which is a tradition of stealing cows from each. The communities throughout the region were heavily armed with guns for cattle rustling and protection from cattle rustling. The region was basically inaccessible unless if one went with a military convoy as everyone would be targeted. Operations were undertaken by the government to disarm the region and for more than 6 years now one can travel to the region and enjoy the magnificent landscape and rare wildlife.
However, once in a while cattle rustling clashes between communities are reported. They are promptly taken care of by the military. It is therefore advised to find out the situation in the region before traveling there.
Kasese near the Congo border
Kasese is home to Queen Elizabeth National Park and the Rwenzori mountains national park. The areas near the Congolese border, especially in the remote Ishasha area of Queen Elizabeth National Park can be of concern (this is where kidnap of tourists happened in 2019). There are frequent patrols by the army. However to avoid any surprises if you will be taking long watching animals in the bush, take an armed ranger guide provided by the park.
Kampala slums harbor thugs, only venture there when you are in a group and better take a police escort for guaranteed security.