As night falls in Uganda’s capital Kampala, some 240 members of a vast volunteer “crime preventer” force parade outside a police station.
“Attention!” shouts an officer as the men stand stiff-backed, before marching off in single file to help guard the city until dawn.
The volunteers are on patrol ahead of presidential polls on February 18, but rights groups have criticised the force, which they see as the enforcer of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) of incumbent President Yoweri Museveni.
Museveni, who has led the east African country since 1986, is eyeing a fifth term in the elections.
His government dismisses criticism of the crime preventers, arguing it is part of a community-policing programme in existence since the 1990s. Now, however, police say it boasts some 11 million members, more than a quarter of Uganda’s 37-million-strong population.
“Look, they got him!” shouts Adam Sankara, 35, the Kampala district crime preventer chief, as a suspected car thief is marched into the police station by volunteers.
Sankara, who claims to be in charge of about two million recruits, insists they are “responsible Ugandans who want to see peace and stability”.
A married father of two and a businessman, Sankara has been taking part in night-time patrols since 2013. Recruits learn martial arts and attend “ideological classes”.
Some are teenagers, others aged over 80. “We teach them the concept of patriotism,” said Sankara. “We are not partisan.”
He dismisses rights groups’ claims that the volunteers beat people, saying the teams are armed only with a whistle and always deploy with regular police. “Sticks are just for foot drills,” he said.
Police chief Kale Kayihura has insisted the force is good for Uganda, telling critics to “go hang” after European Union election observers voiced concerns.
“Nobody will stop us as long as we have the responsibility of keeping this country safe and secure,” Mr Kayihura said.
Others say the force is adding to lawlessness and insecurity.
Last month, five international and domestic rights bodies accused the reservists of brutally assaulting and extorting cash from scores of suspects and demanded it be suspended.
“Crime preventers should not be undisciplined and unaccountable recruits who become the eyes and muscle of the ruling party in every village,” warned Maria Burnett from Human Rights Watch (HRW). “These forces need to be regulated, impartial, effectively trained, and held accountable to the highest standards if they take on policing functions.”
Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo on Monday issued a fresh warning over security during the election, accusing opposition parties of raising militias to stage protests if they fear they are losing the vote — claims the opposition has rejected.
Mr Museveni faces his stiffest challenge yet from Kizza Besigye, a three-time failed presidential candidate from the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), and Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister and ruling party stalwart now running as an independent.
However, few expect Museveni to lose. Mbabazi’s spokeswoman Josephine Mayanja-Nkangi said his supporters had had “numerous unfavourable encounters” with the crime preventers.
Senior FDC official Shawn Mubiru accused the force of openly supporting Museveni, with some members wearing T-shirts bearing his image.
“Many were sent to disrupt our campaigns,” he accused. Mr Magnus Taylor of the International Crisis Group (ICG) argues the teams are a “front for a project that is more about keeping the older generation in power than building a society able to gainfully employ their own generation”.
“The concern is that they may be inserted in a disorganised fashion into closely-fought local races, causing mayhem, or take the opportunity their new-found status may afford to extort fellow citizens,” Taylor added.
The force’s national coordinator Blaise Kamugisha denied it was on a mission to prop up the ruling clique.“Saying we are keeping the old generation is power is wrong,” said Kamugisha, a former NRM ruling party chairman, who makes no secret of his support for Museveni.
“Serving president is a privilege and honour,” he said.
Meanwhile, the police say they welcome the force, with spokesman Fred Enanga claiming they are especially popular in rural areas.
“We’re a soft target for propaganda because we’re on the frontline, ensuring that these elections go peacefully,” said Mr Enanga, insisting the scheme was “working very well”. ()