Kampala, Uganda - Uganda's Crime Preventers - bands of volunteers managed by the police with the stated aim of reporting on and preventing crime - have been running into a lot of bad press lately. As Thursday's parliamentary, presidential and local elections approach, they have been accused of mobilising support for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for three decades.
An alliance of five human rights groups - Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Network Uganda, Chapter Four Uganda, and Foundation for Human Rights Initiative - have also called for the units to be suspended, accusing them of being partisan and carrying out assaults.
"In every election there is a new tool introduced by the regime," says Livingstone Sewanyana, the director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in the nation's capital, Kampala.
The Crime Preventers began in 2013 with a group of university students. Today, the group says it has 11 million members - which roughly equates to one Crime Preventer for every 10 Ugandan households.
They are trained by the police in skills such as taekwondo and "ideological training", which Blaise Kamugisha, the force's national coordinator, says equips them to judge how and when to use their skills.
"People can use the skills they acquired to defend themselves," Kamugisha says.
The fourth-year law student is quick to deny that there is any link between the group's creation and this year's elections.
But Kamugisha was previously the branch head of the NRM at Makerere University, where he studies, and many district NRM committee leaders also lead their area's Crime Preventers group.
Moreover, months before official campaigning began in December 2015, more than 200,000 Crime Preventers were recruited, according to local media reports, raising questions about their role in the elections.
"Generally there's fear that they've been recruited as a bloc vote for NRM," says Sewanyana.
In a report released last month, Maria Burnett, a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: "Using volunteer or reserve forces to complement community policing is not a new or inherently bad concept, but these forces need to be regulated, impartial, effectively trained, and held accountable to the highest standards if they take on policing functions. Crime Preventers should not be undisciplined and unaccountable recruits who become the eyes and muscle of the ruling party in every village."
|Supporters of Uganda's incumbent President Yoweri Museveni react as they listen to his speech during his last campaign rally in Kampala on February 16 [EPA/Dai Kurokawa]
A restless youth
But this is exactly what some Ugandans have accused them of, arguing that they use intimidation to reduce support for the opposition parties.
The group, however, has defended itself and insists that its form of community policing actually builds positive relationships.
"What we do is connect people to the police," says Kamugisha, adding that it also offers benefits to the young people who tend to be involved - allowing them to connect with one another and explore potential business opportunities together.
Uganda, the youngest country in the world with more than 78 percent of its 39 million population below the age of 30, also has a massive youth unemployment problem. Almost two thirds of the country's unemployed are youths, according to government data. Non-governmental organisations suggest the figure could, in fact, be much higher.
"Some see becoming a Crime Preventer as a way to move up the socioeconomic ladder and get closer to those who are powerful," says Frederick Kawooya, a policy and campaigns manager at non-profit ActionAid Uganda.
"They're doing this for survival," he adds.
President Museveni's campaign tagline, "Focused on jobs and wealth creation", holds little meaning for many disenchanted young Ugandans, but critics of the Crime Preventers say the promise of economic opportunities may be enough to win votes.
"Jobless youths are promised benefits as Crime Preventers. Whose side do you think they'll be on?" asks Sewanyana.
Election 2016: Young Ugandans speak
In a speech last month, police chief General Kale Kayihura promised the Crime Preventers that while the government could not offer a salary, they would be the beneficiaries of income-generating projects.
At the Crime Preventers' small office on the third floor of an old office building in downtown Kampala, thousands of booklets bearing the word Sacco are piled high. Like most groups with ties to the government, the Crime Preventers have membership with the Savings and Credit Cooperative Organizations (Sacco).
Sacco is a savings fund that can also disburse loans to members. The government has, in the past, provided funds to different groups through Sacco.
In Kayihura's speech, he told the Crime Preventers: "You have got a very good Sacco and if this Sacco works, it will be a vehicle through which you can get more support."
But critics doubt that any real benefits will be felt by the young Ugandans hoping that membership with the Crime Preventers could offer a route out of unemployment.
"It's a promise, which can be real or can be diversionary," says Sewanyana.
The group's legality has also been called into question as, although it falls under the watch of the police, there is no legal framework on community policing.
"When there is no clear structure, we are breeding a monster that can turn violent if they don't get absorbed into the upper class," says Kawooya.
What will happen should the Crime Preventers' expectations not be met after the election remains to be seen. But some are worried that so many dissatisfied young people could spell trouble.
"You see the restlessness in them," Kawooya says. "That energy needs to be addressed or it will turn into a bigger problem."
Trinna Leong is a 2016 fellow with the International Women's Media Foundation's Africa Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.
Source: Al Jazeera