Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Political Violence in Uganda: The Role of Vigilantes and Militias

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Political Violence in Uganda: The Role of Vigilantes and Militias

Article excerpt

This paper examines the proliferation of vigilantes and militias in Uganda, and their relation to the underpinnings of political governance. Vigilantes and militias are historically a reality linked to limited state authority. However, the current Ugandan vigilantes and militias are extraordinary because their activities enjoy tacit official support. The state has used them in counter-insurgency operations to protect communities and defend itself. The use of vigilantes and militias to fight insurgency is a manifestation of how regime security is prioritized by weak states. The state tacitly supports their activities as unofficial security groups. However, their existence is in reality undermining democratic governance, the rule of law and the development of normal security institutions.

Key Words: Political Violence; Militias, Vigilantes; Non-State Policing; Political Governance; Authoritarian Rule; Uganda.


The aim of this paper is to contribute to understanding the nexus between the proliferation of vigilantes and militias in Uganda and its relation to the political underpinnings of governance. The paper examines the reasons militias and vigilantes have become an entrenched feature of the political scene. Vigilantes and militias are a historical phenomenon: in traditional African societies, all able-bodied men were armed and had the duty to defend their communities. With the advent of colonial rule and the establishment of the modern state, efforts were made to centralise control over the means of violence. However, this did not completely do away with vigilantes and militias, which continued to exist alongside the formal security structures. This was due to the limited penetration of state power and in some places the existence of what Ray Abraham described as 'neighbourhood group collaboration' in work and in maintaining law and order. They were especially active in rural and peripheral areas.1 Vigilantes and militias continued to serve as an alternative to state policing, providing protection to communities affected by cattle rustling, criminal violence and banditry.2

The existence of vigilantes and militias in Uganda is therefore not exceptional, given the lack of institutional capacity and limited ability of governments to exercise authority and control. It is the context of current vigilantism and militia activities in Uganda that is different. Current vigilantes and militias in Uganda are politically sponsored and are political instruments to orchestrate violence. They have tacit protection and approval due to their political connections. They have been mobilised and embraced by a semiauthoritarian regime that considers democratic norms an obstacle to its efforts to maintain control. Since 1989, vigilantes and militias have been involved in counter-insurgency in northern Uganda alongside the government army.3 The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime in Uganda came to power to 1986, and has also used vigilantes for 'political mobilisation'. This has involved intimidation, coercion and violence in favour of the regime. Vigilantes have operated alongside the police in breaking-up demonstrations and in crowd control.

Contemporary vigilantism in Uganda is rooted in the programme of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) of popular participation and of 'demystifying the gun'4 through political education courses in which civilians are given some military training, and in the programme of promoting popular participation through Resistance Councils and Committees (RCs) and Local Defence Units (LDUs) for local policing. RCs are grassroots structures for local governance. In recent years, the use of vigilantes has been rationalised as 'community policing'. This is partly a reflection of the ambiguities around the notion of community policing in many parts of Africa.5

Understanding the Phenomenon of Vigilantes and Militias

Vigilantism is a complex phenomenon that is full of ambiguity. …

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