On patrol with Uganda's controversial 'crime preventers'

2016-02-10 19:44

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Kampala - As night falls in Uganda's capital Kampala, some 240 members of a vast volunteer "crime preventer" force parade outside a police station.

"Attention!" shouts an officer as the men stand stiff-backed, before marching off in single file to help guard the city until dawn.

The volunteers are on patrol ahead of presidential polls on February 18, but rights groups have criticised the force, which they see as the enforcer of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) of incumbent President Yoweri Museveni.

Museveni, who has led the east African country since 1986, is eyeing a fifth term in the elections.

His government dismisses criticism of the crime preventers, arguing it is part of a community-policing programme in existence since the 1990s. Now, however, police say it boasts some 11 million members, more than a quarter of Uganda's 37-million-strong population.

"Look, they got him!" shouts Adam Sankara, 35, the Kampala district crime preventer chief, as a suspected car thief is marched into the police station by volunteers.

Sankara, who claims to be in charge of about two million recruits, insists they are "responsible Ugandans who want to see peace and stability".

A married father of two and a businessman, Sankara has been taking part in night-time patrols since 2013.

Recruits learn martial arts and attend "ideological classes". Some are teenagers, others aged over 80.

"We teach them the concept of patriotism," said Sankara. "We are not partisan."

He dismisses rights groups' claims that the volunteers beat people, saying the teams are armed only with a whistle and always deploy with regular police.

"Sticks are just for foot drills," he said.

'Muscle of the ruling party?'

Police chief Kale Kayihura has insisted the force is good for Uganda, with the Daily Monitor newspaper quoting him as telling critics to "go hang" after European Union election observers voiced concerns.

"Nobody will stop us as long as we have the responsibility of keeping this country safe and secure," Kayihura said.

Others say the force is adding to lawlessness and insecurity.

Last month, five international and domestic rights bodies accused the reservists of brutally assaulting and extorting cash from scores of suspects and demanded it be suspended.

"Crime preventers should not be undisciplined and unaccountable recruits who become the eyes and muscle of the ruling party in every village," warned Maria Burnett from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"These forces need to be regulated, impartial, effectively trained, and held accountable to the highest standards if they take on policing functions."

Government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo on Monday issued a fresh warning over security during the election, accusing opposition parties of raising militias to stage protests if they fear they are losing the vote - claims the opposition has rejected.

Museveni faces his stiffest challenge yet from Kizza Besigye, a three-time failed presidential candidate from the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister and ruling party stalwart now running as an independent.

However, few expect Museveni to lose.

Mbabazi's spokesperson Josephine Mayanja-Nkangi said his supporters had had "numerous unfavourable encounters" with the crime preventers.

Senior FDC official Shawn Mubiru accused the force of openly supporting Museveni, with some members wearing T-shirts bearing his image. "Many were sent to disrupt our campaigns," he accused.

Crime 'creators' or 'preventers'?

Gabrielle Lynch, from Britain's University of Warwick, has questioned whether the teams are "actually 'crime creators' rather than 'crime preventers'".

Lynch warned they could be "used to intimidate opposition voters at the polling stations, and to quell any signs of unrest over opposition claims of electoral malpractice".

Magnus Taylor of the International Crisis Group (ICG) argues the teams are a "front for a project that is more about keeping the older generation in power than building a society able to gainfully employ their own generation".

"The concern is that they may be inserted in a disorganised fashion into closely-fought local races, causing mayhem, or take the opportunity their new-found status may afford to extort fellow citizens," Taylor added.

The force's national co-ordinator Blaise Kamugisha denied it was on a mission to prop up the ruling clique.

"Saying we are keeping the old generation is power is wrong," said Kamugisha, a former NRM ruling party chairman, who makes no secret of his support for Museveni.

"Serving the president is a privilege and honour," he said.

Meanwhile, the police say they welcome the force, with spokesperson Fred Enanga claiming they are especially popular in rural areas.

"We're a soft target for propaganda because we're on the frontline, ensuring that these elections go peacefully," said Enanga, insisting the scheme was "working very well".

Read more on:    yoweri museveni  |  uganda  |  east africa

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.