On the eve of this year’s International Women’s Day, I witnessed an incident that I had only hitherto read about in the press. As I was driving on the well paved and lit Yusuf Lule Road at about 9pm, a well-built thug in a dark jacket came charging towards my car. I had stopped to turn and cross between the pedestrian island in the middle of the road. He held a rock in his hands. I lowered my head slightly and begun to speed into the road to escape his wrath.
Luckily, a boda boda cyclist (motorbike transporter) carrying a woman appeared out of nowhere and caught the attention of this fellow. In a split second, the thug changed his mind and lunged at the Asian woman, snatching her handbag in the process. The woman held on so tight, but this fellow was not giving up. He pulled the bag so hard that the motorcycle fell down. He then dragged the motorcycle and its occupants on the road for about two metres until the now hurt and wailing woman let go.
The thug then made a hasty escape, descending into the dark of the greens in the Golf Course like a ball on its way to hitting an eagle. Some boda boda riders attempted to stop him in vain. Two policemen, presumably on patrol, suddenly appeared. They were riding a motorcycle. They questioned all of us and then advised the boda boda rider to take his passenger - who was crying for the loss of her money, car keys, phone and documents - to the police booth at the Kampala Golf Course Club and make a statement. The police booth is just a few metres away from where the incident took place. It is manned by policemen who are always keen on running after vehicles which drive through red traffic lights at the Golf Course intersection.
The boda boda riders who ply the route told us of harrowing tales about these thugs who on average attack about seven cars in a night. It gets worse on weekends where unsuspecting revellers get robbed on their way to and from places of entertainment. Should we be scared into entering our homes before sunset? Not really, though we should still be concerned.
Only a few days ago, the President passed out more than 6,000 Local Defence Unit officers (LDUs.) These are individuals recommended by local leaders and drawn from particular areas to help police that area. They will be deployed in areas of Kampala, Mukono and Wakiso to curb the increasing crime, especially killings, rape, mugging, handbag snatching, burglary, kidnap for a ransom and carjacking.
Pictures coming out of the passout ceremony of the LDUs, who have spent about four months in training, give a lot of promise. They are of combat-ready women and men, who should put the fear of God in the thugs that reign terror on innocent people sometimes raping and killing them. So on paper, we will have more boots on the ground to shield us.
But the history of LDUs and all these forces that are deployed to secure the streets is not one to write home about. There are several cases of extortion, and hunting with criminals, which end up giving the whole scheme a bad name. In my opinion, the problem is that as we put a lot of emphasis on brawn and raw force to fight crime, there are two sensitive areas which we ignore that would be of great consequence if addressed.
First, cut the ‘supply side’ of crime. There must be efforts to stem rural urban migration so that young people do not leave the provinces ending up in a city that does not have gainful employment for people with their skills and expectations. They end increasing the numbers of the urban poor who opt for crime as a last resort.
So either make agriculture attractive in the rural areas to keep the young and restless there, or create jobs for them in the city.
Secondly, there must be a serious effort to strengthen the criminal justice system. If one is caught in criminal activities, there must be a feasible risk of them ending up with a stern conviction handed down by a competent tribunal. What happens now is that one may commit a crime with the assurance that they will last a few days in the police cell and then return to the street for more crime. So they are emboldened and motivate others to engage in crime.
Why? Because the police are not well funded and motivated to carry out thorough criminal investigations. For instance, there should be some record on the young men who spend the whole day gambling and playing board games in trading centres to know what they do afterwards. Secondly, the victims are so cynical they will not follow up to give evidence against criminals in a court. Processes are long and they fear that the police and criminals are at times hand in glove.
This is not far-fetched. A retired officer once told me that when crime happens in areas repeatedly in the same fashion and officers keep taking statements; chances are high that it is a territory with one team.
Since there is no honour among thieves, the statement acts as an ‘audit tool.’ It ensures that criminals being provided protection do not return empty handed claiming that there was nothing in the handbag they snatched, but a few useless tampons, condoms, keys, lipstick and identity cards!
We pray that this new team of LDUs is from a different womb and will suckle a different breast.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. [email protected]