Government-backed vigilantes threaten stability in in Uganda
President Yoweri Museveni is on a mission to reassure Ugandans that he is on top of things amidst mounting concerns that the once-tranquil streets of Kampala have become dangerous.
Arriving late to 56th Independence Day celebrations on October 9th, he told attendees he had been busy inspecting a recently unveiled CCTV command centre. The centre is one of his pet projects and, he says, would address the rise in violent crime, kidnappings and assassinations in the country.
After popular policeman, AIP Mohammed Kirumira was murdered by motorcycle gunmen in September, Museveni showed up at the crime scene and later vowed that the killers would be found.
A few weeks later he gloated on Twitter that police had tracked and shot dead a suspect in the killing. “In the process, one of them (the suspects), by the names of Kateregga Abdu, was shot and later died of his injuries”, he tweeted.
But critics said that the alleged suspect had not been allowed to defend himself in court and called the extra-judicial killing illegal, unconstitutional and dangerous.
The irony is that the policing strategy Museveni has unveiled as a cure-all to tackle unrest is exactly what Kirumira campaigned against. He publicly criticised his colleagues for taking bribes, harassing the public and taking the law into their own hands.
On the other hand, Museveni sees the killing of the suspect as the sort of tough response that can help to reduce with crime in the capital and reassure Ugandans.
The President now wants to roll out the strategy by arming 24,000 new recruits to serve in as Local Defense Unit (LDU), he said in a September address to the nation. According to local media reports, the first 6000 recruits are already being trained.
The LDU has been disbanded before and put under control of the army as a reserve force. Another vigilante group, ‘The Crime Preventers’ faced the same fate in March 2018.
Beyond the LDU recruitment and CCTV project, there is a need to look at the security arrangements that president Museveni has been putting in place. His shuffling of public and private services is an effort to run security on the cheap.
The LDU and Crime Presenters were both originally volunteer forces, vigilantes with police supervision. Now, they are managed by the army and are officially an army reserves group.
Both the LDUs and Crime Preventers have been accused of fuelling crime with their violent and corrupt behaviour. In the 1990s, Kampala was known as one Africa’s safest cities (see maps above) and so the LDU and Crime Preventers operated in hard-to-reach rural areas.
Kampala is still far safer than many of its neighbours’ capitals (left) , but for both men and women, the risk of dying through violence in Uganda is steadily growing year-on-year, despite being a country ‘at peace’ (below).
The president’s return to using cheaper security options should not have caught anyone by surprise. Despite past failures, volunteer vigilantes have served well in getting the state off the hook in the past, even if they have caused grief for most ordinary Ugandans.
Because they are not officially on the government payroll, LDU-type arrangements can be used to carry out dirty work for the government and manage to keep the backlash at arms’ length from NRM itself. It also prevents ordinary people from developing expectations of official authorities.
Vigilantism is no substitute for real reform, and probably won’t help stop assassinations of high-profile figures. The move looks more like an attempt to distract attention from the crumbling relationship between the state and its young citizens.
On top of that, the government has a poor track record of controlling keeping these groups under control. In the past, they have been quick to abuse their special position and morphed into predatory, quasi-criminal organisations. It is not clear what, if any, measures have been put in place to stop this happening again.
The United Nations recommends the ratio of one police officer for every 450 citizens. This is obviously unrealistic for most developing countries and Uganda is no exception. There are currently 37,400 police officers and 396 civilian staff in the police force, a ratio of 1:1086 . That’s roughly similar to rates in Kenya and Tanzania.
However, the huge number of semi-official officers working alongside security agencies disguised as “reserve forces” means that the number of trained officers on the streets is actually much lower.
Beyond these dismal numbers, there is another reason behind Uganda’s rise in violence. This is due to the breakdown of an agreement that academics call the “social contract”.
The social contract is an actual or hypothetical agreement between leaders and citizens about how they live together. It is a written or implied code of conduct about each party’s rights and duties.
For example, a government might ask citizens to follow the laws of the land, vote and generally behave themselves in exchange for access to public services or protection from invasion and war. But like any bargain, both sides need to stick to their side of the deal for it to work.
The security arrangement in Uganda has confused the social contract. It is no longer “ the state” protecting people from violence because vigilantes are citizen volunteers. On top of that, how many ordinary Ugandans can say they enjoy full, unfettered access to a range of functioning public services like schools and hospitals?
By using vigilante groups, the government is setting itself up for trouble by unleashing an alternative public authority.
Organized gangs like the ‘Boda Boda 2010’ can moonlight as vigilantes because voluntary civil protection groups are encouraged by the government. But far from being a civil protection authority, they are just guns for hire. They are none too picky about their customers either: there are rumors that government have hired them before as extra ‘muscle’ when it needed to crack down on protests and dissidents.
Young people and taxpayers in Kampala know that the government has failed to keep up its end of the bargain. They doesn’t get functioning public services or protection from violence. Now, the very people hired to fix the security problem have become a threat to the public.
Museveni’s bazukulu (what he calls the youth- literally ‘grandchildren’) have held their own elections in parts of Kampala, in frustration at the government and in despair at the state of the country. They have shown they no longer have faith in government-organised elections and no longer consent to the “social contract”.
Peace in Uganda is valuable; for its neighbours, investors and international stakeholders. It has praised heaped upon it for its role as a dependable, stable state in a region fraught with political tension. So much so, that it is easy to forget that until 2005, Uganda was a combat zone.
The spate of high-profile kidnaps, murders and violent feuds shows that despite its poster-child status as a peaceful poor country, Uganda it is still close to being in a permanent state of emergency under Museveni’s watch.
In 2010, an 18-month-old baby, Kham Kakama, was kidnapped for ransom and killed. More recently, young accountant Susan Magara was kidnapped for ransom and murdered, despite her her family meeting the killers’ financial demands. The daylight execution of Police Chief Andrew Kaweesi, the murder of an NRM MP and the killing of AIP Kirumira all show that the country has a serious security issue.
Assassinations and kidnappings are usually the fare of organised criminals, not solo crooks.
There is even a crisis in official police ranks. Corruption in the security service is such a problem that even the president has been forced to admit it. Consequently, people don’t trust the police or the justice system.
The government has turned to a cheap quick-fix for the policing problem but this is just weakening its fragile grip on the country.
Slogans like "People Power”, made popular by Kyadondo’s popstar MP Bobi Wine, show that the social agreement has broken down. The state seems like its panicking.
These days, tear gas often hangs heavy in Kampala’s air as the state resorts to more and more drastic methods to stay in control.
Opposition politicians, the media, dissidents and plain old criminals are all taking their toll on the government. In a last-ditch attempt to stay in power, the NRM government has resorted to hiring quasi-security operatives to keep things in check.
Watching the government use amateur police to beat protesters, opposition MPs and journalists causes people to question the its intentions and its moral authority.
And if the government has no morals, why should people trust it to deliver justice or fair retribution?