A forest of slender white poles topped with dark, unblinking eyes is quietly sprouting on rubbish-strewn, potholed street corners of the Ugandan capital.
Police say the new $126 million closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) system, supplied by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies, will slash spiralling violent crime.
Opposition leaders say law enforcement agencies are too corrupt and overburdened to use footage to identify criminals. They worry police may use the cameras, with facial recognition technology, to target demonstrators in violent clampdowns as an election approaches in 2021.
“The CCTV project is 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.
Facial recognition technology has become increasingly pervasive around the world, raising abuse concerns. Officials in San Francisco voted in May to ban its use by city personnel.
Huawei technicians helped intelligence officials in Uganda and at least one other African country to spy on political opponents, according to an investigation published by the Wall Street Journal.
In Uganda, they helped crack the encrypted communications of popular musician turned politician Bobi Wine; police swarmed a concert that would have featured surprise opposition speakers and arrested him and dozens of supporters, the paper said.
In Zambia, Huawei employees helped government access phones and Facebook pages of bloggers critical of the president so they could be tracked and arrested, the paper reported.
Huawei rejected the Journal’s “unfounded and inaccurate allegations”, telling Reuters in an email: “Huawei’s code of business conduct prohibits employees from undertaking activities that would compromise the data or privacy of our customers or end users, or breach any laws.”
Uganda’s cameras are part of Huawei’s Safe City initiative, which has been rolled out in more than 200 cities worldwide, including China, Pakistan and Russia.
In Africa, Huawei sold CCTV systems to countries including Kenya, Egypt and Zambia where activists raised concerns over privacy and effectiveness. In Europe, France, Germany and Serbia have small projects with Huawei’s initiative.
The US government restricted trade with Huawei and four other Chinese firms, accusing them of espionage and stealing intellectual property. It is lobbying to persuade US allies to keep Huawei out of next-generation 5G telecommunications infrastructure, citing concerns the company could spy on customers.
Huawei repeatedly denies it is controlled by the Chinese government, military or intelligence services.
Surging crime in Uganda is fuelling public anger against President Yoweri Museveni (74) in power since 1986 and likely to seek another five-year term.
Police in the oil-rich East African nation recorded 4,497 homicides last year, nearly double the number five years ago. Kidnappings for ransom rose to 202 cases in 2018, an eightfold jump from 2017.
In one notorious case, the 28-year-old daughter of a wealthy businessman was kidnapped and killed despite her family paying kidnappers $200,000.
Police investigations rely heavily on witness interviews, Charles Twine, a spokesman for the police Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Department, told Reuters.
It’s a slow and unreliable way to build a case. There are not enough detectives and no forensic specialists.
Twine declined to give statistics saying police manpower was “critically wanting.”
The police website said in 2015 the force was 45 000-strong. That’s about half the United Nations-recommended ratio of one policeman per 500 citizens.
A 2015 budget paper for the ministry of internal affairs said there were about 5 500 detectives. Twine said police must turn to civilian experts if they need DNA analysts, toxicologists or fibre experts.
He hopes CCTV footage will be the answer, letting investigators “know who committed the crime, how was it committed, which route did he take and which tools did he have.”
About 2 500 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.
Some current and former law enforcement officials are sceptical that high-tech aids such as CCTV or forensic tools such as planned DNA and fingerprint databases will 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.”
Uganda’s Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, an advocacy group, had its own CCTV running in May 2016 when robbers killed a guard and stole computers. The group gave the video to police. Nothing happened.
“After months of investigations they told us our case file is lost. There’s no record anywhere of our case,” said Adrian Jjuuko, the group’s head. “If there’s no political will to investigate or prosecute crime, nothing will change. It’s all nonsense, CCTV or no CCTV.
Police start on a monthly salary of about $150. Most prosecutors earn about $270. Lawmakers take home around $6,500.
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. Roughly half the country’s 59 000 prisoners are on pre-trial detention, according to the prison service.
Trying old cases is a “big nightmare” Chibita said. Exhibits disappear or decay. Witnesses disappear or forget. In one case, a blood-stained shirt disappeared in a puff of dust when it was produced in a 2012 murder trial.
“Everybody in court was coughing,” Chibita said.
Expensive tools do little to address underlying causes of crime, such as high unemployment or disputes over land, said appeals court judge Geoffrey Kiryabwire.
Four out of every 10 young Ugandans are out of work. Of those with jobs, around 80% work in low-paid informal jobs, the finance ministry said.
They include people such as Aggrey Tugume, a 27-year-old motorbike taxi driver. He thinks the cameras are an expensive election ploy.
“If someone is determined to kill or steal, a camera would be a small obstacle,” he said. “This is a waste of money by politicians to create a false perception government is acting on crime.”