KAMPALA (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 closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) system, supplied by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd, will slash spiraling 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.
Facial recognition technology has become increasingly pervasive around the world, raising concerns about potential abuses. Officials in San Francisco voted in May to ban its use by city personnel.
Huawei technicians have already helped intelligence officials in Uganda and at least one other African country spy on their political opponents, according to an investigation published by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
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 the government access the 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 any employees from undertaking any activities that would compromise the data or privacy of our customers or end users, or that would 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 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.
The U.S. government has restricted trade with Huawei and four other Chinese firms, accusing them of espionage and stealing intellectual property. It is also lobbying to persuade U.S. allies to keep Huawei out of next-generation 5G telecommunications infrastructure, citing concerns the company could spy on customers.
Huawei has repeatedly denied it is controlled by the Chinese government, military or intelligence services.
Surging crime in Uganda is fueling public anger towards President Yoweri Museveni, 74, who has been in power since 1986 and will likely seek another five-year term.
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.
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 currently rely heavily on witness interviews, Charles Twine, a spokesman for the police Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Department, told Reuters.
It’s a notoriously slow and unreliable way to build a case.
There are not enough detectives and no forensic specialists.
Twine declined to give statistics but said 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 fiber experts.
He hopes CCTV footage will be the answer, letting investigators “know who has committed the crime, how did he commit it, which route did he take, and which tools did he have.”
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 skeptical 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 U.N. 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 eventually 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 of 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 and mould when it was produced in a 2012 murder trial.
“Everybody in court began coughing,” Chibita said.
Expensive tools also 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 that government is acting on crime.”
Additional reporting by Georgina Prodhan in London; Editing by Katharine Houreld, Alexandra Zavis and Kirsten Donovan