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Uganda's Vigilante 'Crime Preventers' Could Backfire on the President

More than a million young Ugandans have been recruited into the ranks of the "Crime Preventers" vigilante group — a government-backed youth which it's alleged influenced the recent election.
Photo via Uganda Police Force

During mornings and early afternoon, Enock Sengobe can be found hawking snacks and trinkets to motorists at intersections in Uganda's capital city Kampala. But come late afternoon, he steps into the ranks of the "crime preventers" — a government-trained vigilante organization that has caused deep controversy over recent months.

"We run in the street, and then we go on patrol together, usually with a couple police officers," the 23-year-old told VICE News. "Our role is to inform the police in our neighborhoods, report crime, and just to be there to give backup to police agents to do their work."


Sengobe is proud of the responsibility the job places on his shoulders, explaining that his job as a casual vendor is not how he had imagined his life would be when he graduated from high school with good grades.

But what might have been a useful program to empower youth and assist stretched police forces has morphed into a tool of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) — whose leader Yoweri Museveni extended his 30-year rule by securing a controversial 5th term as president during elections last month.

Related: Uganda's President Stays in Power After Election Marred by Arrests and Fraud Claims

While Museveni officially took 61 percent of the national vote to maintain his grip on power, international observers complained of irregularities and vote-rigging, with opposition rallies shut down and Museveni's main opponent, Kizza Besigye, repeatedly arrested in the lead-up to the polls.

"We were told to look for opposition supporters in our communities and keep an eye on them, in case they start making trouble," Sengobe said.

Human rights organizations have complained of the vigilantes being involved in numerous cases of violence, extortion, and intimidation of opposition supporters both before and during the elections. According to the Citizens Election Observers Network–Uganda, an independent election-monitoring umbrella organization, while the Crime Preventers were not supposed to be present during the elections, they were visible in at least 13 percent of polling stations.


"They were useful to influence the outcome during the elections. The perception in local communities has been that Crime Preventers are working for the NRM, and that is enough to intimidate people," said Magnus Taylor, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Government officials have denied that the volunteer force is partisan, but Human Rights Watch has highlighted the vigilantes' affiliation to the NRM, with a Crime Preventers training manual obtained by the NGO stating "Every good thing you are seeing around is as a result of good NRM governance."

Related: 'Where Are the Ballots?' Anger and Suspicion Grow Over Delays in Uganda's Election

Sengobe is one of hundreds of thousands of young men that have been recruited across the country since the Crime Preventers were established in June 2013. Police officials have claimed as many as 11 million have joined the force, while more credible estimates put them at 1.6 million.

With 37.5 million people in the country, that lesser figure remains staggering — representing more than 4 percent of the population. The recruitment process was accelerated in November 2015, when campaigning for the presidential election got into gear.

Police say Crime Preventer recruits are trained in self-defense, ideology and patriotism, as well as crime prevention techniques, but are not armed. Yet the Uganda Police Force published a picture in October of large numbers of recruits brandishing large wooden sticks in the central Lango Sub-region.


— Uganda Police Force (@ugandaupf)October 26, 2015

Witnesses told VICE News they have seen senior members carrying guns, while human rights organizations have documented attacks by Crime Preventers involving batons and clubs. In the face of the vigilantes' criminality, many Ugandans have begun referring to the group as the "Crime Performers."

But in a country suffering chronic youth unemployment — young people are twice as likely to be unemployed as their parents — where 80 percent of the population is under 30, it is not difficult to see the attraction of joining the vigilante outfit, especially with many saying they were promised some form of compensation or future employment in return for joining.

Related: Ugandan Opposition Rally Ends in Tear Gas and the Candidate Being Towed Away

"They told me I would get a job in the army sometime after the elections," said 25-year-old Isaac Mayambara.

Meanwhile, Noah Matovu, 22, said he got promoted into a police agent job a month before the elections, though he has not been paid and it is unclear how long he will be kept in the position.

But while Sengobe yearns for employment more fulfilling than casual employment at traffic lights, he says he is happy just for the sense of belonging and comradeship he draws from his involvement with the Crime Preventers.

But according to Andrew Karagami, a program assistant at Makere University in Kampala, while the Crime Preventers scheme might have helped Museveni secure reelection, it may yet come back to bite him.

"The intention was clearly to keep young people busy, and give them a sense that they were part of the NRM system," he told VICE News. "It risks backfiring when people realize there is nothing for them in reality. They recruited the frustrated, unemployed youth. This could lead to a lot of violence in the near future."

Follow Melanie Gouby on Twitter: @Melaniegouby

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