In response to a surge in violent urban crime, President Museveni last September ordered for the recruitment and training of 24,000 local defence force unit (LDU) personnel. More than 10,000 were rushed through their paces and deployed; another 13,000 are waiting in the (training) wings.
It was evidence of quick and decisive action in the face of a clear and credible threat. Or was it? Under normal circumstances – such as where checks-and-balances institutions like Parliament keep the Executive in check – this was the point at which some basic questions ought to have been asked.
The primary institution responsible for detecting and preventing crime, the core problem that was being resolved, is the Uganda Police Force: Why weren’t the police working effectively? If there weren’t enough boots on the ground, what was the right number and more cops or some militia/reservists?
If it was a case of poor skills, why not retrain and reskill the police force or re-orient them to their primary duty, which had over time morphed into the maintenance of the regime, rather than of law and order.
It was a classic case of providing answers where what we needed to do, first and foremost, was to pose the right questions about the insecurity problem. If you ask the right questions, the correct answers always reveal themselves; the wrong answers, on the other hand, always produce more questions.
The latest of these questions emerged this week when Defence ministry officials appeared before Parliament to defend a supplementary budget of Shs130 billion to pay for, among others, salaries and other costs associated with the LDUs. Questions have been popping out of the woodwork.
About Shs15 billion is for back pay for the first batch of about 11,000 LDUs, which makes sense seeing as the call to recruit came three months into the financial year. But there is another Shs40 billion for those recruited in the current financial year; why wasn’t this money budgeted for since we expected to recruit?
In their submission to Parliament, MoD officials also revealed they’d borrowed money from the Army Sacco to pay salaries to the LDUs. Information available to the public does not show how much money was borrowed, for how long, and at what interest rate. It isn’t clear, in any case, which law allows government to borrow from Saccos, and if this was done with the knowledge and approval of Parliament (MPs do not seem to have taken much interest in this aspect).
To their credit, MPs asked about reported cases of LDUs harassing civilians, which were downplayed as individual cases of a few rogue elements. But there are serious questions about oversight and accountability: If LDUs fall under the military and are deployed on law enforcement duties, where does this leave the police? Who is in charge of law enforcement; Internal Affairs or Defence? Are we operating under de-facto martial law?
Which brings us to incentives. If we take any of the figures provided for the LDUs’ remuneration (the Shs57 billion mentioned by the President last year, or the Shs40 billion as presented to Parliament), it works out at between Shs139,000 to Shs197,916 per LDU per month.
Having an army of young armed men trained to kill walking around in the city suburbs at night and living on less than Shs10,000 per day is a poor script for a low budget horror film. It can’t end well.
Addressing the underlying causes of violent crime require deep-seated political, economic and technocratic reforms that this government, in its current form, is incapable of.
There are certainly smarter ways of treating the symptoms. For instance, an armed private security guard from a high-end firm costs almost $200, which is higher than what privates in the army get (the ones usually assigned guard duties).
If every 10 middle-class homes contributed between Shs50,000 and Shs150,000) per month they would afford a well-trained armed guard to protect them. The guard would make more money and could call for back-up from the next cell and motivated guard; if this payment is tax-deductible, citizens would gladly pay even more, to a limit, for their security.
Of course this would drive many private security firms out of business; some of their guards would venture into crime. But these poorly trained guards would then have to deal with soldiers who are better trained, armed and motivated.
It is of course far from ideal, but many folks, if they have a choice, would rather have the well-trained guy fighting on their side, not taking on their sleepy, poorly-fed, bow-and-arrow-totting, LRA-war-surviving askari. In fixing violent crime you do not bring a butter knife to a gun fight.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.