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Uganda’s popular boda-bodas are now part of the government’s surveillance system

Big brother is watching you--1984 George Orwell
Getty Images/Larry Ellis
Uganda's government has contracted the controversial Moscow-based Joint Stock Company Global Security to implement “intelligent transport monitoring systems” on Uganda’s vehicles, motorcycles, and vessels
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On Jul.23, Uganda awarded a controversial 10-year surveillance contract to a Russian company with a history of debt issues. Moscow-based Joint Stock Company Global Security is being tapped to implement “intelligent transport monitoring systems” on Uganda’s vehicles, motorcycles, and vessels. The government insists that Joint Stock’s financial challenges will not derail the project.

Motorcycles, popularly known as boda-bodas in east Africa, are an increasingly popular form of transportation in urban places. In the absence of efficient public transport, Ugandans across the country rely on boda-bodas to move from one place to another. But officials in Uganda also see them as a threat: Over the past decade, boda-bodas have been used in several high-profile assassinations and other crimes.

In at least 10 recent high profile assassination attempts—all of them involving boda-bodas—the government has failed to secure a conviction of the suspects partly due to intelligence failures.  The assassins on boda-bodas easily disappear after eliminating their targets. Regular commercial boda-boda riders are also targeted by criminals using the same who steal their boda-bodas, in many cases, killing them.

What does Uganda’s deal with the Russian surveillance contractor entail?

With the deal, the government intends to re-register both public and private vehicles, water vessels such as boats, and boda-bodas. This is a process that will involve the installation of digital trackers to enable authorized state officials to track the movement of everyone using these modes of transport.

Once the system is up and running, the government says users will not be able, for example, to remove a registration plate from a vehicle without alerting the authorities.

Imagine a situation where the government can at any time track the whereabouts of any person. Is there a guarantee that the government will not use this technology to oppress citizens?

Sketchy details about the deal indicate that car owners in the country will have to directly foot the bill of implementation, including the UGX20,000 ($5) tracker installation fee, cost of a new registration number plate, and subsequent penalties. Any revenue generated by the process will be shared between the government and Joint Stock, as per the agreement.

Different Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking modes exist on the market, ranging from those that track a car or motorcycle when it is moving, to those that monitor the same whether it is in motion or not. Details have yet to be explained to the public about which types of trackers will be used.

There are concerns around privacy 

Expanding the state surveillance capacity to boda-bodas will cover much of the population given their reach and relevance to Uganda’s economy. It will also grant the Ugandan state access to data on movement of millions of people they transport every day. Already, efforts are underway to challenge the Joint Stock deal in and outside court over privacy and constitutionality concerns.

“The type and scope of information collected by GPS surveillance enables governments to monitor a person’s political associations, and their amorous interests in a way that invades their privacy and chills[limits] expression of other fundamental rights,” writes Lynette Akankwatsa, a Peter Kibilango Social Justice Fellow in Residence at the Kampala-based Centre for Legal Aid. “Imagine a situation where the government can at any time track the whereabouts of any person. Is there a guarantee that the government will not use this technology to oppress citizens?”

Government officials, including president Yoweri Museveni, have rubbished privacy concerns, insisting  the  move is for security purposes, and that only criminals have a reason to worry.

But Akankwatsa’s observations are not far-fetched. During Uganda’s January 2021 elections, surveillance, and monitoring technology purchased from Chinese tech giant Huawei was used by the government to crack down on dissent. Last year, the country’s security forces used the same cameras to target protesters following the arrest and detention of two presidential candidates.

In that conflict, a commando unit led by soldiers who had served in a UN- and AU- backed AMISOM mission in Somalia were deployed in the country’s urban areas to crack down on the rising dissent. More than 50 people were killed; president Museveni bragged that they had been either lawfully or unlawfully killed by “my commandos.”

Despite having cameras installed across the capital Kampala, the government has ignored criticism of the crackdown, and consistently downplays concerns about the lack of transparency in its procurement process. Those concerns also emerged around the country’s mandatory SIM card registration, and the national identification registration.

Museveni—who has been president for 35 years—doesn’t inspire much confidence when it comes to the trade-offs in implementing tech-centric solutions. A former guerilla leader who fought his way into power before assuming office in 1986,  he is credited with bringing relative stability and security in much of the country. But his once stellar democratic and human rights record has taken a hit over the years as he has struggled to control opposition to his long reign.

Museveni championed the Huawei deal as a magic bullet for Uganda’s growing crime and insecurity, but the facial recognition tech has delivered little to the general population. In some cases, critical footage from the Huawei cameras has been said to  “disappear,” or is not used for prosecution purposes when the police and the military are accused of being involved in criminal activity.

Museveni has pushed for different measures, including the use of drones, gun fingerprinting, and a ban on hoodies for boda-boda riders and other cyclists among other things as public anger grows against his rule by a largely young population that demands employment in a country with decades of rising unemployment.

Joint Stock Company Global Security is mired in controversy

Complicating matters is the track record of the company awarded the recent contract. Court records and other reports detail Joint Stock’s struggles to remain afloat as bankruptcy and debt litigation filed between 2019 and 2021 in Russia cast doubt on the company’s future and viability.

In March 2019, another Russian firm, Rus Prom-Technologies, successfully sued Joint Stock for failure to pay around $225,000. Rus Prom later filed a suit saying it wants Joint Stock declared bankrupt; a hearing there is still pending, according to The Observer. At its next hearing on Sept. 3, Joint Stock will be required to produce evidence of its debt repayment.

The Rus-Prom-Technology case is just a tip of the iceberg on the legal challenges faced by Joint Stock in Russia.  The company has, in other separate court challenges, reportedly been sued by six other companies in Russia for failure to honor its debt among other obligations amounting to a total of over $900,000.

The companies pursuing Joint Stock include:  Limited Liability Partnership “Orken Alem;” Russia’s national pension fund; Stok-Trading LLC, which deals in road transport logistics; Jsc Royal Silk Factory; and Turday GS sro Slovak Republic, wholesalers of nondurable goods and commercial and industrial machinery and equipment. JSC ZVI, which produces AC motors and other household items such as electric cookers, has three separate suits against Joint Stock. All these cases were filed between January 2019 and July 2021.

Joint Stock was also fined by Russian tax authorities for currency violation for the supply of military hardware to Kazakhstan and Brazil in South America. In both incidents, court documents show, Joint Stock doesn’t have its own production line, but operates as a broker for established firms.

Quartz tried to reach out to Joint Stock for a statement, but was unable to get contact information from relevant Ugandan sources. The company and its bosses don’t have any listed contacts beyond their Moscow address. Russian websites listing the company’s challenges also did not include any contact information for the company.

Senior Ugandan officials, presented with the facts easily available by a basic desktop search, were either unaware or feigned ignorance about the contractor’s capacity and financial troubles. The government has subsequently argued that the country will not be financially exposed by the company’s troubles.

Uganda has a track record of corruption and inadequate due diligence in procurement

Uganda’s international and local procurement profile is laden with stories of corruption and lack of adequate due diligence that end up costing taxpayers a fortune.

In 1997, for example, Uganda’s government purchased four “junk” helicopters from Belarus. President Museveni’s younger brother, General Salim Saleh, was found to be complicit in the transaction. President Museveni later said his brother had confessed his crimes to him, refunded the money, and was consequently pardoned.

General Saleh, named in other corruption cases, continues to play a key role in his brother’s government, including leading a multi-billion government ‘wealth creation’ project.

Retired major general Jim Muhwezi, who recently returned to cabinet as security minister and the lead on this project, has a questionable past. He has previously been sacked and censured by Uganda’s parliament for abuse of office, influence-peddling, failure to account for his massive wealth, and flouting the army’s rules.

With the controversy around the deal and the negative publicity that this recent deal is getting, it will be a litmus test of whether the will of the Ugandan people is strong enough to shake the pillars of an increasingly corrupt and authoritarian regime. Once the surveillance system is in place, there will be even fewer options for Ugandans to take their government to task without fear of punishment.

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