Cash-strapped Uganda police splashes Sh13b on CCTV system

Traffic flows under the surveillance closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) system along Bakuli street in Kampala, Uganda on Wednesday. [Reuters]
A forest of slender white poles topped with dark, unblinking eyes is quietly sprouting on the rubbish-strewn, potholed street corners of the Ugandan capital.

Police say the new $126 million (Sh13 billion) closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) system, supplied by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, will slash spiralling violent crime.

Opposition leaders say law enforcement agencies are too corrupt and overburdened to use the footage to identify criminals. They worry police may use the cameras, which have facial recognition technology, to target demonstrators in violent clampdowns as an election approaches in 2021.

"The CCTV project is just a tool to track us, hunt us and persecute us," said Ingrid Turinawe, a leader in the Forum for Democratic Change, Uganda's largest opposition party. 

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Uganda's cameras are part of Huawei's Safe City initiative, which has been rolled out in more than 200 cities worldwide, including in China, Pakistan and Russia.

In Africa, Huawei has sold CCTV systems to countries such as Kenya, Egypt and Zambia where activists have raised similar concerns over privacy and effectiveness. In Europe, France, Germany and Serbia have small projects with Huawei's initiative.

Surging crime in Uganda is fuelling public anger towards President Yoweri Museveni, 74, who has been in power since 1986 and will likely seek another five-year term.

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Eightfold jump

Police in the oil-rich East African nation recorded 4,497 homicides last year, nearly double the number of five years ago. Kidnappings for ransom, once rare, rose to 202 cases in 2018, an eightfold jump from 2017.

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About 2,500 out of a planned 3,200 cameras covering metropolitan Kampala have been installed. Huawei will eventually extend the system to all major towns in the country. 

But some current and former law enforcement officials are sceptical that high-tech aids such as CCTV or new forensic tools such as planned DNA and fingerprint databases will have an impact on crime.

Uganda's police are poorly paid and have little investigative training, said Herbert Karugaba, a Ugandan police investigator for 17 years before he joined the UN to probe genocide and war crimes in Rwanda and Cambodia.

"It's money down the drain," said Karugaba. "It is the quality of the man and woman in uniform... that matters." 

Police start on a monthly salary of about $150 (Sh15,500). Most prosecutors earn about $270 (27,900). Lawmakers take home around $6,500 (671,682).

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Most police barracks have not been renovated or expanded since colonial days. Families live in tiny circular iron cabins, often leaking, overcrowded and dirty, an internal police report said.

Poor pay and living conditions encourage corruption. Ugandans frequently swap stories of police who demand bribes, meaning some crimes go unreported.

At police stations, evidence moulders while cases await trial, said Mike Chibita, a former judge appointed in 2013 as director of public prosecutions.

There are only 400 prosecutors in Uganda, a country of 42 million. It takes an average of four years to get a hearing, Chibita said.

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