CCTV Cameras? Our neighbourhood structures can do a better job!

In the village where I was raised in mid-western Uganda was a functional Resistance Council (RC), which later mutated into a Local Council (LC) with the adoption of the 1995 Constitution.  One of the members of the executive that has for a very long time stuck on my mind was the secretary for defence; he was called Mr. Boniface Byaruhanga.  This was not an era of mobile phones, but for lack of a fair expression, I will say, everyone on the village had Byaruhanga on their speed dial. Because of his active service, he was later to be commonly known as “Byaruhanga Defence”.  He did a super amazing job! God rest his soul in eternal peace.  This man generally kept the village defended and safe.  He outwitted petty thieves, burglars and any form of criminals. For some reason, he knew everyone on the village; a village that sheltered slightly over 800 folks.  We felt safe even on those days when we occasionally walked through the thick tree-lined avenues of Kabalega village in the wee hours of the night.

I remember an incident when someone broke into our pantry and stole a sack of onions; on reporting the incident, Byaruhanga retrieved the loot within a matter of minutes.  His intelligence was unmatched.  His knowledge of the wrong elements on the village was unrivaled. Local as it might have been, him and his colleagues built a supreme system of knowing who came in to the village the previous day or night, where they were staying, and for how long.  Now, such are the lowly folks that deserve medallic recognition for their service, contribution and accomplishments. Personally, I go down this memory lane, with a lot of pride, delight and satisfaction – that I lived part of my life in those good old days.

Courtesy of functional Local Councils, spring wells were always clean, village roads functional – and residents regularly met to discuss and collectively find solutions to issues affecting them.  In fact, the Local Councils were by default ambassadors of Bulungi bwansi (community service). 

In recent years, all this seems to have suffered a dramatic turn in many places.  Some LCs are loathed as harbingers of scam.  Their conduct as they scheme to collect stamp fees from unsuspecting residents is akin to that of Zacchaeus, Jericho’s biblical tax collector. Today, many of them are labeled as collaborators in fraudulent land sales and many other wrong acts. But because we have not had duly elected LCs in over a decade, those who now claim to be LCs could pass for impostors.  And as you know, impersonation and misconduct normally lurk around one another.

Be that as it may, LCs are an important infrastructure for crime control and neighborhood cohesiveness – we have seen them play this role in the past and they have done it well – at one point.

Now, let me quickly turn to the main subject of my writing today.

Recently, Mr. Museveni called for the installation of CCTV cameras in public places.  And by the way, this was not the first time he made such a call.  In 2013, the President ordered the then Internal Affairs minister, late Gen. Aronda Nyakairima to install CCTV cameras in the Kampala metropolitan area – covering Kampala, Mukono and Wakiso districts.  Grapevine has it that courtesy of the President’s recent directive, we are set to cough a screaming 400 billion shillings. A week or so ago, Finance minister Matia Kasaija broke government’s suspicious inaudible maneuvers on the LC elections announcing that there was no few billions available to conduct the much awaited LC elections. Ugandans have waited patiently for over a decade to have legally constituted Local Councils at village and parish level – these have not been forthcoming because, ‘there hasn’t been money’ to hold the elections. 

Should Ugandans be surprised that it may turn out easier to obtain 400 billion shillings to procure CCTV cameras and not find 16 billion to fill the local council structures? Is it surprising that as a country, we would rather payout billions to procure machines rather than invest a fraction of those billions in people (LC) structures?  Would we rather machines replace us or would we rather have humans work with machines? 

In a world where we probably can’t wish away machines and technology, I would vouch for an interactive context where humans and machines work together to tackle problems.  In Uganda’s case, I would rather we have the human infrastructure solidified first, then we garnish that with technology.  We need the cameras to work with a robust human infrastructure on the ground.  In this case, CCTV cameras would only complement the work of functional structures such LCs, neighborhood watch, community policing to keep crime at bay.  If the human structures are either not in place or not functional, then sadly, technology may not be of much help.

May be, what we need is not entirely in the installation of CCTV cameras, but an understanding of our own collective social and human worth.  Let us not fall for the conjecture that cameras will guarantee safety and security in our communities.  Our neighbors and relatives are plenty, good enough to do that ‘human’ job – better.

I know no matter how much we cry and froth the decision has been made.  It is final.  No amount of writing, talking or counter-arguments may help us take a step back and think through the logic.  So, CCTV cameras it is!

May be this is the time to realize that the horse has bolted and all we need to do is say – two prayers.  The first prayer should open our eyes to our supreme human worth over machines; the second prayer should be aimed at breaking that familiar jinx that comes with such large public procurements – here in Uganda.  Let’s pray that that sprite does not strike again and we end up with the usual monkey business.  Should our humble supplications not be heard, it will be the customary probe or call it a postmortem – a few years from now to tell the poor Ugandan tax payer what went wrong with the multibillion procurement of CCTV cameras.

My two cents!


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