Wednesday January 24 2018

Uganda’s boda boda: From the humble bike ‘taxi’ to gangsters


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

This week Uganda trended on social media outside the country for the strangest of reasons.
Military Intelligence operatives and the UPDF carried out a series of operations against Boda Boda 2010, a criminal gang affiliated to the Uganda police, and praised by police chief Gen Kale Kayihura, for among other things, helping to crackdown on the opposition at various points.

Several Boda Boda 2010 leaders were arrested, and they were allegedly found with stolen property, including vehicles belonging to people, who had recently been murdered.

The idea that the police is the benefactor of a criminal gang, and it requires other arms of the country’s security establishment, to deal with it, is both fascinating and disturbing. This, considering that, in turn, both the leaders of the police, military intelligence, and the army are right hand men of President Museveni.

The bigger problem is that the Uganda leadership is addicted to militias. From the Kiboko Squad to now Boda Boda 2010, in the last 20 years we have had about 30 militias, death squads, and quasi-official paramilitary organisations to deal with the opposition during and after elections, and to help put down insurgencies.

In a way, this is a good thing, because the leaders seem not to trust that the UPDF and the security agencies can be relied on 100 per cent to go totally native and partisan every time, so the very dirty work is subcontracted to militias and criminal gangs.

In the case of the police, one would have thought that the concerted effort over the last 15 years to militarise and politicise it would by now have turned it into a crude weapon of repression and political banditry, but it seems even that has not gone far enough. Hence the need for these Boda Boda 2010 type gangs.

There is an element of this that is cynical political calculation. If, for example, a president relies too heavily on just the army to keep him in power, with every partisan deployment, his debt to them grows, and with time he becomes too beholden to them. This is what happened to Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Using militias and gangs, allows the Big Man to distribute his eggs in several baskets. However, the results are always disastrous, and can leave deep scars on a country. Perhaps the most infamous example is the Tonton Macoutes, from that long-suffering country Haiti.

We will leave you with a long extract from Wikipedia on the Macoute, for it speaks for itself. And it has uncanny parallels with what is happening in Uganda:
“The Tonton Macoute, or simply the Macoute, was a special operations unit within the Haitian paramilitary force created in 1959 by dictator François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier.
“Papa Doc Duvalier created the Tontons Macoutes because he perceived the military to be a threat to his power.
After the July 1958 Haitian coup d’état attempt against president François Duvalier, he disbanded the army and all law enforcement agencies in Haiti and executed numerous officers as he perceived them as a threat to his regime.
“To counteract this threat, he created a military force that bore several names… They began to be called the Tonton Macoute when people started to disappear for no apparent reason. This group answered to him only.
“Duvalier authorised the Tontons Macoutes to commit systematic violence and human rights abuses to suppress political opposition. They were responsible for unknown numbers of murders and rapes in Haiti. Political opponents often disappeared overnight, or were sometimes attacked in broad daylight.

“Tontons Macoutes stoned and burned people alive. Many times they put the corpses of their victims on display, often hung in trees for everyone to see and take as warnings against opposition. Family members, who tried to remove the bodies for proper burial often disappeared themselves. Anyone who challenged the MVSN risked assassination.

“Their unrestrained state terrorism was accompanied by corruption, extortion and personal aggrandisement among the leadership. The victims of Tontons Macoutes could range from a woman in the poorest of neighbourhoods, who had previously supported an opposing politician to a businessman who refused to comply with extortion threats…The Tontons Macoutes murdered between 30,000 and 60,000 Haitians.

“Luckner Cambronne led the Tonton Macoute throughout the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s. His cruelty earned him the nickname ‘Vampire of the Caribbean’.
“In 1971, president Duvalier died and his widow Simone, and son Baby Doc Duvalier ordered Cambronne into exile.”

Then this: “The Tontons Macoutes were a ubiquitous presence at the polls in the 1961 election, in which Duvalier’s official vote count was an ‘outrageous’ and fraudulent 1,320,748 to 0, electing him to another term. They appeared in force again at polls in 1964, when Duvalier held a rigged referendum that declared him President for Life.”
You caught that last bit?

Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa data visualiser and explainer site Twitter@cobbo3