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Robert Muwawu, the local council chairman in Nsumbi, a village in Uganda’s Wakiso District, speaks with his community about security concerns. The area is one that could have a Local Defence Unit, made up of armed civilians who undergo security training. Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ Uganda
Human Rights

Ugandans Worry New Armed Civilian Defense Units Will Cause More Crime

Uganda

In an effort to reduce crime, Uganda’s government wants to recruit local people for defense units in areas with little police presence. But many worry that arming locals and then paying them low salaries might only lead to new crimes.

WAKISO, UGANDA — The government of Uganda wants to reduce the country’s crime rate.

Its strategy?

Arm small groups of citizens with firearms – 24,000 people in all – and train them to keep the peace in areas where traditional police officers aren’t stationed.

Coined Local Defence Units, these groups will perform as local police forces in areas that do not have an adequate police or military presence. Uganda’s formal security force is concentrated in central Uganda, says Major Henry Obbo, public relations officer for the Land Force Division in the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF).

Recruitment for the units “targets local residents of the particular communities, because we believe they are the eyes of the community and know it geographically well to respond faster and [more] effectively than the police or other armed forces,” Obbo says.

The program was announced in August, Obbo says, when President Yoweri Museveni directed army officials to recruit 24,000 people to join the local units in the Wakiso, Kampala and Mukono districts. The units are in training now and will begin patrolling their communities in February, Obbo says.

This isn’t the first time that Uganda’s government has deputized local units.

Similar units were established in the late 1980s, Obbo says, including in the Wakiso, Kampala and Mukono districts. The units in those three districts no longer operate, but some units still exist, especially in Uganda’s northern and northeastern regions. Obbo could not confirm the number of units in operation today.

Obbo says the recruitment process for the new units is robust, to ensure that each member is from the community targeted by the unit he or she is joining and that the applicant has formal identity documents. Each applicant’s criminal history and physical and psychological health are reviewed, he adds.

Some people in rural areas worry that the guns given to members of local units will wind up in the hands of criminals, or even that the members will use their guns in nefarious ways.

“There have been reports of security personnel using guns to commit crimes like murder, theft and torture,” says Geoffrey Niwamanya, who lives in the village of Nsumbi in the Wakiso District. “How, then, are we safer with more guns circulated in our community?”

In 2017, 48 guns were recovered from suspected criminals, according to police data provided by police spokesperson Emilian Kayima. Most of the weapons were submachine guns used to commit crimes like robbery, murder and similar crimes, Kayima says.

“Some of the guns are marked to belong to police and UPDF, and we believe that they must have been stolen from military and police premises,” Kayima says.

Some firearms come into Uganda via neighboring countries, including Kenya and South Sudan, he says.

In 2014, there was one police officer for every 863 people in Uganda, according to a report published by the Uganda Police Force. That’s lower than the United Nations standard of one officer for every 500 people. GPJ could not confirm more recent numbers.

According to 2017 Uganda Police Force data, 667 people out of every 100,000 people were targeted by criminals, and there was a 3.3-percent uptick in crime between January and December in that year.

Sarah Nakawesi, a resident of the village of Ganda and a mother of four, says she’s happy that the local defense units are being revived.

“The LDUs are people we know, we are friends with, even,” she says. “They will be quick at responding to our calls.”

The police take hours to respond, she says, and sometimes never show up at all.

Each member of a local defense unit will earn 200,000 Ugandan shillings (about $53) per month, Obbo says. Some local people say that salary is nowhere near enough.

Church Augustine Niwandinda, a resident of the village of Nsumbi in the Wakiso District, says that amount of money will push people into crime.

“Chances are, some of them will hire these guns out to criminals or get involved in the crime,” he says.

Robert Muwawu, the local council chairman in Nsumbi, says the local units didn’t work out well the last time they were created. The communities paid the members then, but when the communities stopped paying them, the members used their guns to demand the money.

Muwawu says some of those members were caught up in crime. For some people, carrying a firearm makes them feel superior, he says.
“When they get angry or desperate, they might misuse the gun,” he says.

Nakisanze Segawa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Luganda.