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Rise in kidnapping shakes faith in Uganda's police

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

LUWERO, Uganda - In a small Ugandan town in February, Juma Nsereko took a panicked call from his wife: their five-year-old twin girls were missing and the mother suspected their neighbour, a jobless man, had kidnapped them.

After a frantic three-day search the children were recovered unharmed and the neighbour, who had demanded a ransom of 13 million Ugandan shillings (£2449), was arrested.

Until recently, such kidnappings were rare in the nation of 41 million people.

Although still low compared with some other African countries like oil-rich Nigeria, numbers have risen markedly in the past three years.

They jumped again in the first two months of this year, according to unpublished police data seen by Reuters, further eroding people's faith in a police force that opponents of President Yoweri Museveni have accused of serving him and not the state.

In January, Museveni, who has ruled Uganda for 31 years, signed a law that scraps an age cap, enabling him to stand for re-election in 2021.

The 73-year-old leader's ability to push the law through parliament illustrates his strong grip on power, analysts said, despite increased public anger over corruption and poor social services.

Even in Nsereko's case, which ended happily, police emerged with their reputation tarnished - the family credited the extensive coverage of their plight on television for the safe return of the children, not law enforcement agencies.

"The police were so angry with me that I was complaining to the media about my frustrations with them, but it was media that got me back my kids," Nsereko told Reuters.

Police spokesman Emirian Kayima denied police were not doing their job and said criminals were exploiting technology such as unregistered SIM cards to conduct kidnappings.

"We do the best we can and we keep improving but crime keeps changing shape and colour and somehow it slips (through)," he said.

Opposition and media criticism of police tactics has intensified in recent years, as Museveni's ruling NRM party has sought to push through constitutional changes that will allow him to extend his three decades in power.

"The police's priority is to see the junta stay in power. Their priority is not protecting people," said shadow interior minister Ingrid Turinawe of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change led by Kizza Besigye.

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