By Haggai Matsiko
Security experts raise alarm over rise of ‘militias’
It is 2:30am and a truck carrying bunches of matooke has just got involved in a serious accident with a small car at a main junction in the Rubaga suburb of Kampala city. The Kabusu area is a favourite route for matooke transporters as it lies along the Old Masaka Rd. The driver of the car looks like he has been drinking and is trying to fight off a group of boda boda cyclists who have encircled his vehicle and are hurling insults at him. Some are attempting to break into the car, not to rescue him but to steal any valuables. It later emerges that the driver’s laptop and money have already been stolen.
In spite of the late hour, three traffic officers are at the scene and are distinguishable by their white outfits and dark-blue overcoats. One is on the radio, possibly reporting the incident, and the two are trying with very little success to control the crowd.
Suddenly, a youthful man in his 30s wearing civilian clothes emerges from the crowd and pushes the cyclists aside. He slaps one hard in the face and forces open the left front door of the Ipsum.
With the help of another also in civilian clothes with a baton around his waist, they forcefully pull the driver out of the wreck of his car, whisk him into a battered-looking salon car and drive off.
When word spreads that the driver has been taken to Natete Police station, we head there. The man with the baton identifies himself as a crime preventer. He keeps threatening as he moves in and out of one of the offices at the police station. He says he is angry that the driver “had attempted to resist arrest”.
“If it was within my power, you would understand me, you were not there with me when I was training, we will teach you a lesson,” he says.
His civilian clothes, his threats and the manner in which he keeps brandishing his baton clearly set him apart from the police and traffic officers who remain calm.
This unidentified man is part a growing army of youths that Inspector General of Police, Gen. Kale Kayihura is training as `crime preventers’.
Their mission is to back up police in crime prevention and Kayihura says he wants to train as many as one million crime preventers before the 2016 election.
For each of Uganda’s over 56000 villages, Kayihura wants to have 30 crime preventers. If he achieves this target, Uganda will have 1,680,000 crime preventers. The Uganda Police force is about 40,000-strong. That gives a police: population ratio of 1:709 yet the United Nations recommends a ratio of 1:500. Therefore, the idea of crime preventers is seen as a solution.
Recruiting crime preventers is also easy. It only takes a few weeks of training – mainly involving parade drills, ideology lectures, and basic arms handling and intelligence gathering tips. After this, the trainee qualifies to hang around a police station as an unpaid `volunteer’.
One of the crime preventers, who now assists in recruiting fellow youths told The Independent that police trains them for a month. In that month, they acquire skills in martial arts, stripping and assembling of an AK-47 and other military drills.
The initial groups trained for a few days. On Feb. 18 2014, police held a 10 days crime prevention and self-defense skills course at Makerere University and about 500 youths were trained.
Apparently, following a request by the youths to visit Police training school, Kabalye in Masindi district, in May 2014 another group of up to 250 youths were recruited. On June.9 2014 another of 600 youth also went.
Like that, the numbers have been going up. In places like Mbarara, there has been massive recruitment. Recently Police trained and passed out 3,433 at Mbarara University of Science and Technology.
Kayihura noted that the district had already surpassed the set target for crime preventers of 22,710 and now had 27,300 crime preventers.
On Aug.18, President Museveni passed out 3,348 crime preventers, who had just undergone a seven weeks training at Police training school Kabalye in Masindi.
Kayihura has big plans for the crime preventers. In May this year, Kayihura revealed that government intends to integrate crime preventers into Local Defence Units (LDUs) in an attempt to revive them as directed by President Museveni and have them deal with crime.
Extortion and harassment
In a country where many youth are unemployed, it is easy for Kayihura to find recruits. Unfortunately, many are becoming crime preventers with motives that Kayihura might have anticipated but cannot control.
Critics are pointing out that some crime preventers are ironically the ones perpetuating crime. As early as last year, several of them had been reported to police over extortion and harassment.
In Aswa region, police even arrested about five crime preventers and sounded a warning to many others against conducting arrests and harassing members of the public.
In late August, Daily Monitor, reported that a crime preventer had shot and killed a 16-year old boy in Bududa District. The Daily reported that the boy and his friends were playing football, their ball hit a building housing a police post and when the boy ran to get the ball, the crime preventer got his gun and shot him dead.
Critics point to these examples to show how Kayihura’s crime preventers are a double edged sword. With no proper regulatory framework, critics say arming groups of unemployed youths with military skills and no pay is a harbinger for disaster.
According to observers, especially opposition politicians, Kayihura’s so-called crime preventers are, in reality, a militia being trained purposely for the 2016 elections.
Police carried out a similar recruitment drive in the run-up to the 2011 elections. The group then was called Special Police Constables (SPCs). It also had basic training and was disbanded soon after the election amidst protests over unpaid salaries.
In December 2010, the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC) coalition accused security agencies of helping the ruling party recruit militia ahead of next the 2011 elections. At the time, they were referred to as village crime fighters. Another group, the Kiboko squad, a group of cane-wielding youths has in the past also been used by police to beat up protesters.
This time, some of the groups being trained by police have already been sucked into participating in President Yoweri Museveni’s reelection activities.
In Soroti, officials say crime preventers were registered as members of ruling party, National Resistance Movement (NRM).
In another incident in northern Uganda, ruling party officials got a group of crime preventers to participate in a demonstration against former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi’s planned political activities there.
Officials, some of the crime preventers said, had told them they were headed for further training only to give them T-shirts with anti-Amama slogans and make them participate in a demonstration against Mbabazi’s planned consultation meetings in northern Uganda.
In July, two groups of youths faced off at the Mbabazi’s home in Kampala and hit each other with sticks and stones. Some were clad in the Yellow T-shirts emblazoned with a Museveni portrait and 2016 campaign message that have become the defacto uniform of the crime-preventers.
Critics said one group were in fact crime preventers and warned that such fights can easily escalate and result into wide spread violence.
Some are already referring to crime preventers as a militia that poses a serious threat to the country’s national security.
Apart from the groups trained by police, several prominent politicians are also training paramilitary forces. The most notable group making news is Maj. Roland Kakooza Mutale’s. Formerly of the Kalangala Action Plan, Mutale was shown on national TV in August as he trained hundreds of youths in military tactics and NRM party ideology. He said he was unapologetic about training a group he said is intended to deal with opponents of President Museveni during the 2016 elections.
In retaliation, opposition politician like Kampala City Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago have also trained youth.
Lukwago recently formed a special squad of 70 he calls the Truth and Justice Solida Crew to deal with the various “militias”, trained under the guise of crime prevention. He says the militias’ intention is to harass the opposition ahead of the 2016 polls.
In the past, the opposition also threatened to create vote protecting `brigades’ to forestall anticipated rigging. Such groups are being dubbed as militias who pose a grave threat to the country’s national security.
Minister must explain
The Inter-Religious Council Uganda (IRCU), an organisation that brings together religious leaders, has written to the government regarding the emergence of groups like that of Mutale and others, which are being pass-off as mobilisation groups.
“We request the Uganda national police to investigate these groups with a view to holding the ringleaders accountable for their actions,” Joseph Sserwadda, the national leader of the born-again Faith Federation of Uganda said in a statement.
Critics point to Burundi, where early this year the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), were at the centre of torturing and harassing those opposed to Nkurunziza.
While addressing a rally in Ntungamo district at the end of August, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) President Mugisha Muntu said crime preventers are trained to torture ordinary citizens.
Masaka Municipality legislator, Mathias Mpuuga also raised the matter before parliament citing specifically Mutale’s group.
The Leader of opposition (LoP) Wafula Oguttu has asked the government to establish a regulatory mechanism to deal with crime preventers.
Wafula also said some of the trained crime preventers have become criminals and are now seen as a security threat in their communities.
He said they are now engaged in robbery, extortion and intimidation of people in villages.
He recommended that government comes up with a proper legal instrument that provides for the regulation of their activities and a budget for them to be remunerated.
Opposition legislators want the Internal Affairs minister, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, to explain the situation of crime preventers.
But there is doubt they will get a better explanation than what has already been given by Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda.
Rugunda told parliament that crime preventers are just volunteers meant to guard and prevent crime and should not be involved in partisan politics.
But many critics insist that government needs to properly structure and legalise the operations and recruitment of crime preventers to prevent a situation where they might become a security risk.
“It is the primary mandate of police to keep law and order but if the police delegate some of their duties to such militia groups that do not have thorough training in law and order, it might be a challenge on how they enforce it,” said Busingye Kabumba, a legal scholar and lecturer of law at Makerere University.
Kabumba was in August speaking at a policing discussion at Grand Imperial Hotel organised by Facilitation for Peace and Development (FAPAD) under the theme ‘The Police I/We want’.
Apart from Kabumba, many questioned the criteria police uses in recruiting crime preventers, the vetting process and how the public can be able to identify them during their course of duty.
Asuman Mugenyi, the assistant Inspector General of Police in charge of community policing attempted to refute the concerns saying that the concept is good but being politicised.
“We train crime preventers to protect their respective communities from crimes and to love their country,” Mugyeni said, “It is very unfortunate that some people are politicising this concept.”
Ronald Tugume, the deputy executive director, National Crime Preventers Forum (NCPF), an umbrella group that brings crime preventers together told The Independent that the various concerns about crime preventers are unjustified, misinformed and fuelled by politicians with selfish interests.
“You have to isolate those few incidents from the concept,” he said, “there are cases where police officers have also been arrested, should we say that police officers are perpetuating crime?”
He said that most of the stories out there about crime preventers are not true.
“When people say crime preventers are partisan, they are mistaking them with cadre groups. There are so many cadre groups formed by politicians. Crime preventers are out there doing their job. For instance, in Kabarole, crime preventers have just arrested a murder suspect who has been missing for years. Why aren’t people raising these successes?”