Street gangs and vigilantes: Uganda gets very modern

Wednesday June 26 2019


By Charles Onyango-Obbo

One of the most telling stories about Uganda appeared in the Daily Monitor a few days ago. Headlined ‘18 arrested as security contains fight between street gangs, vigilantes,’ it said a joint security force comprising police and the army on Thursday [June 20] evening fired live bullets to break a fight between a group of street gangs and community vigilantes in Gulu Municipality.

“The machete-wielding street gangs numbering more than 100 reportedly stormed Industrial Area in Layibi Division at about 7pm for a revenge mission against a vigilante group mobilised to man security in the area.

“They reportedly mobilised from the four divisions within Gulu Municipality.

“The vigilante group had been mobilised about two months ago by the Local Council One chairperson for Industrial Area, Mr Jino Otti, following increased criminal activities in his area.

“However, the group had reportedly become brutal against the street gangs prompting them to retaliate on Thursday.”

The Yoweri Museveni government, unlike previous ones, really likes militias – what the Daily Monitor called “vigilante” groups. It has used them to fight insurgency in the northeast and north; had a more formal version of it in the Local Defence Units (LDU); and there was the crime preventers, who like the Kiboko Squad and others before them, were militias raised by the NRM to intimidate political rivals ahead of general elections and to steal the vote.


Like other countries, we have a long list of criminal gangs, stealing cars, breaking into homes, robbing people on the streets, or committing crimes to discredit rivals or factions in the regime (as, according to some sources, we saw in the mysterious murder of women in Wakiso District).

But street gangs, able to mobilise from four Divisions, and number 100, with machetes and iron bars, to attack a politically-affiliated militia, is unusual and a new development.

Criminal gangs are very narrow in their agenda: To make money in whichever manner they can. Street gangs, while not as organised as the conventional criminal networks, are often broader in their agenda, many times embracing issues that are not limited to just money, and might sometimes even have democratic content. In the Gulu case, they were using violence to protest mistreatment by a militia.

A street gang will do drugs and rob, but also clean streets, or protect local children so they are not harassed on the way to school. While conventional criminal gangs might even be established by senior police and military officers, street gangs usually are not – and don’t commonly have links to the establishment.

What happened in Gulu last Thursday, therefore, raises the question about whether there has been a broad shift in Uganda that will lead to the growth of street gangs everywhere in the country.

All the factors for it are there. Take an old vexation like potholes, that trouble many in Kampala and other towns. You will have potholes in neighbourhoods and along the roads off the main highway.
Criminal gangs will take advantage of them to rob cars that slow down. This will go on for years.

After a long time, a street gang will form around the same potholes. But instead of robbing car drivers and passengers, they will make short-term fixes to the potholes, and charge drivers a fee. The criminal gangs would have existed, even without the potholes, as they would find another way to steal.
But the pothole is necessary for the street gang that forms around it.

Soon, you will have a clash between the two, with the traditional criminals angry that they cannot rob drivers as easily and as much as they used to, and the street gangs fighting back because they want the money to be paid to them as unofficial (even illegal) fees for patching up the road.

Ordinarily, if there were many jobs for young people, there would be none of them shaking down drivers for filling potholes. And if there were no policing vacuum, they also wouldn’t be out on the road.

The criminal networks would still steal, even with 100 per cent employment. And they would also still do so even if there was no policing vacuum – they would put the police on their payroll, as you see in the movies (that bit is derived from real life).

The point here is that there are now enough systemic failures (potholes, poor policing, uncollected garbage, blocked drainage, unlit streets) we are seeing the beginnings of a gang culture, basically as a means by jobless and alienated youth, to monetise the failures.

A while back, one of the most deadly gangs in Nairobi emerged around providing and protecting water in the slums. I guess the one good thing is that this is proof, for people like President Museveni, who hanker for modernisation, that we are evolving truly urban cultures.

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