The vigilantes are out, cattle thieves are burning in Uganda

Wednesday October 10 2018

Villagers flee after setting a car on fire

Villagers flee after setting a car on fire after its owner and two other people were arrested for allegedly stealing and slaughtering cows in Nyeri, Kenya in November 26, 2015. In Uganda, the vigilante justice has returned to local communities only because the institutions of the state will not do what they are supposed to do. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI 

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A few days ago something remarkable happened in my home village. Villagers destroyed someone’s car and set it on fire. I don’t know yet whose car it was. The person who called me to convey the news said it was a Toyota Ipsum.

This particular model of perhaps Japan’s most popular vehicle exports to Uganda, if not to the entire region, is well liked by many here. It is a small car. The size of its boot, however, is enormous, and its fuel consumption is very kind to those who do not have deep pockets.

And it is in the very size of its boot that lies the reason villagers in Buwanuka, which is located only 23 kilometres outside the capital, Kampala, torched the one that Mr Ssalong (father of twins) called to tell me about.

By the time it was stoned, hit with all kinds of blunt objects, overturned and burnt, villagers had rescued two cows that had been stuffed into it by a group of clever and daring young men. They were trying to stuff in another one when they were ambushed.

These young men, experts at stuffing cows into small vehicles, were part of a group of thieves who for the past few years have prowled Buwanuka with impunity. Sometimes they have turned up in the dead of the night with pick-up trucks or lorries, parked the vehicles in secluded places, and then proceeded to collect livestock from people’s homes, load it, and drive off.

There are also times when they have slaughtered the animals in the bush near Buwanuka and neighbouring villages. They take the meat, leaving skins, some entrails and, when the cows have been in-calf, foetuses behind. The distress they cause their victims is immeasurable.

Buwanuka has a good number of very hardworking peasant farmers, the kind who respond enthusiastically to opportunities for self-advancement, of the kind the Museveni government has been trumpeting in its ceaseless anti-poverty campaigns over the years.

Several villagers are vegetable growers and are among the major suppliers to Kampala’s markets. Many, like their colleagues in neighbouring villages, have taken to cattle keeping on a zero-grazing basis to supplement their incomes from tilling the land.

Vigilante justice

There many reasons these industrious peasants have endured the terror for so long. One is that they have always feared that the thieves are armed with guns, and that they risk being shot if they put up any resistance.

The other is that the neighbourhood watch system that the Museveni government introduced way back in the mid-1980s collapsed long ago, and with it the capacity of elected local leaders to mobilise and co-ordinate collective action. Even worse, on several occasions, the villagers have run to the police for help and returned home with empty promises.

One day, the victims and potential victims decided that enough was enough and decided to “do something.” When the thieves turned up, the community was prepared.

That is how the car fell into their hands. The thieves fled, but one was unlucky. He was captured, beaten to death, and his body set alight. The young man was thought to be in his early 20s.

This story reminded me of my childhood in the 1980s, when Uganda was in the thick of political turmoil. Such occurrences were common. Petty thieves and robbers were killed and torched and their bodies left where they had fallen until the police came to pick them up.

Yes, the police could pick up the bodies, but not do much to stem the tide of criminality that kept potential victims awake at night, listening out for signs of break-ins.

And the criminals, knowing that the police were incapable of or uninterested in doing their job, had become as brazen as the cattle thieves that have been terrorising the people of Buwanuka these last pew years.

So one feels a sharp sense of déjà vu. Except that, strictly speaking, Uganda has been stable and peaceful for the past 32 years.

Political stability was supposed to come with security of person and property. Indeed, for some years, this was the central reason people gave for supporting Museveni and his party. It would be an exaggeration to claim that we are back to the 1980s, but we can’t deny that elements of the bad old days are still here with us, three decades later.

A casual observer would probably feel revolted by and condemn outright the kind of vigilantism the people of Buwanuka have adopted to protect themselves and their assets from marauding criminals.

But if you think about it, you will see that 1980s-style vigilante justice has returned to local communities only because the institutions of the state will not do what they are supposed to do.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]