For many months now, tens of thousands of young Ugandans have been paraded at ceremonies across the country as “crime preventers”.
The website of the National Crime Preventer’s Forum, says theirs is “a historical mission of our generation” and that their vision is “to be a dignified organ of crime detection and prevention in Uganda”.
The idea, the website tells us, arose from the rape and murder of a student near Makerere University in January 2014.
In only three weeks 500 students from the university held a 10-day retreat “to equip them with self defianse (sic) skills, including martial arts, ideological orientation, skills at arms (stripping and assembling of an AK-47), martial arts basics as well as military foot drills”.
Still feeling vulnerable at the end of the course, we are told, the students sought and received permission from the Inspector General of Police to visit the police shooting range and put their AK-47 theory into practice.
The idea seems to have been so successful that hardly a week goes by without a group of crime preventers kicking up dust storms in the name of being passed out, often under the watchful eye of no less than the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.
As hare-brained ideas go, the recruitment of idle, unemployed youths into “crime preventers” takes the biscuit.
The primary role of the state is to safeguard the lives and property of citizens. The army defends the territorial integrity, while the police solves and prevents crime. Under what law, then, are these young people being recruited, and using what criteria?
If they are under the Uganda Police Force, there should be clear processes of recruitment, ranks, uniforms, a code of conduct, and civilian oversight, including by Parliament.
If they aren’t part of the police, then this is the clearest sign, yet, of the state abdicating its cardinal responsibility to citizens and out-sourcing it to private militia.
Forget burglar bars in your windows and a private armed guard at your gate now you need that high-school dropout lurking menacingly in your neighbourhood to detect and prevent crime.
Many have drawn uncomfortable parallels between the passing out parades of crime preventers, cadres of the ruling NRM party, as well as the looming return of Maj Kakooza Mutale’s thugs on wheels ahead of the election.
These fears of electoral violence and the longer-term consequences of these short-sighted schemes are legitimate. You need to be afraid.
Be very afraid. Uganda has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. Instead of creating jobs we are teaching hand-to-hand combat and gun violence to our young people. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, we don’t have to wait too long to find out. Last September, only six months after the scheme started, police in Kitgum arrested six “crime preventers” over extortion and harassment, the Uganda Radio Network news agency reported.
A police spokesman in the area, Patrick Jimmy Okema said they had received complaints that crime preventers were going beyond their mandate by conducting arrests and harassing members of the public.
Andrew Olara, a crime preventer, added helpfully that it was possible some of his colleagues had decided to use their newfound knowledge and skills to commit crimes.
This was no isolated incident. Last month police in Mayuge District said they were looking for a one Daudi Kikai, “a crime preventer attached to Kityerera Police Post” to assist them in investigating the alleged rape of a 13-year-old girl.
The interest in Mr Kikai wasn’t in any special skill he might have as a doctor or as a forensics investigator he was the main suspect.
Far from giving youths self-defence skills against rape, many of these criminals now have skills to prevent their victims from escaping their claws.
If you want to prevent crime, create jobs and opportunity for all willing to work and put the police back to policing.
It doesn’t matter what slogans about patriotism and ideology you craft a jobless young man with gun skills is one AK-47 away from robbery.
Mr Kalinaki is a Ugandan journalist based in Nairobi.
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