The anger and resentment of many young people living in the slums of East Africa make them easy targets for radicalisation and recruitment by extremist groups.
Problems with police corruption, arbitrary detention and confrontational approaches to law enforcement have fuelled resentment.
A new, community-based approach to policing has been shown to break this cycle and bring positive change.
Levels of crime and gender-based violence in the slums of Kampala are high – driven by anger that people feel towards heavy-handed security forces and the acute lack of sanitation, healthcare, education and jobs. Terrorist groups Al Qaeda and Al Shabab have exploited this anger by radicalising young slum dwellers and recruiting them as fighters.
However, a new programme of community policing initiated in 2016 has begun to make a difference. Through training and town hall meetings with the community, police have begun to understand social problems and spot signs of radicalisation. The programme has delivered vocational training to 500 young people and improved social services. The aim is to reduce root causes of anger and build community cohesion. It is beginning to show results. But with one third of Ugandan police believing this approach is too soft, there is still a way to go.
The police must change its mindset. But more laws and bans are not the answer. Authorities need to understand the factors that drive violence in slums and meet affected people halfway. Police arresting youth and putting them in cells doesn’t solve the problem. It fuels resentment, radicalisation and more anger.
Green String Network, a Kenyan NGO, has taken a “social healing” approach to address similar issues in Majengo slum, Nairobi. At the moment a traumatised police force with a high rate of suicide is providing security to a traumatised population. Slum dwellers who are victims of violence feel their victimhood justifies further violence. The police also feel victimised. Local people attack them in anger at their sometimes brutal and corrupt practices. Junior police officers are under pressure to bring in the cash for their seniors.
Along Kenya’s border with Somalia, disaffected youth in the Lamu district are vulnerable to radicalisation by Al Shabab. Local grievances around discrimination and lack of job opportunities reached a peak when the authorities banned night fishing in 2011. The reason given was that Somali Al Shabab operatives were infiltrating Kenya at night posing as fishers. But the ban affected 6,000 local fishers in an area that depends heavily on the industry. Some locals turned to violence to survive.
Search for Common Ground, an international peacebuilding organisation, set up the Kiunga Youth Bunga initiative to tackle the problems in Lamu. They organised dialogue sessions between the community and the County Commissioner, who was responsible for coordinating police and coastguard operations. The dialogues slowly replaced feelings of mutual hostility with a sense of trust. The Commissioner agreed to lift the ban with the right safeguards in place. The community agreed to carry out background checks on all fishers and issued 3,000 registration cards. As a result, night fishing resumed in 2017.
With the ban lifted, piracy has gone down and fewer youth are being recruited into Al Shabab. The police and community meet up every month and even play soccer on the beach together. A survey which asked participants to describe the nature of collaboration between local communities and security forces showed an upswing from 18% positive before the programme to 57 % positive after 18 months.
Asan Kasingye, Uganda’s Assistant Inspector General of Police, has 50,000 followers on Twitter. He endears himself to young Ugandans by referring to the music they love and speaking their language.