Governance and politics

Non-state policing: the story of the Uganda Taxi Operators and Drivers Association

Coventry University

Donors should consider working with non-state actors in policing in Africa. However, this is not always easy as the story of the former taxi drivers association in Uganda demonstrates. Bruce Baker of Coventry University addressed this challenge at the event ‘Plural Security in the City’, which was organized by the University of Amsterdam, the Conflict Research Unit of Clingendael Institute and the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law in Amsterdam on 22 October.


After 25 years of looking at policing in Africa and donor programs to improve policing and justice, I am left asking two questions:

  • If much of policing is order maintenance, dispute resolution requiring, primarily social skills, does this not mean it can be done by ordinary citizens with those aptitudes and not require expensive professional training?
  • If the state police are not sufficient in numbers to undertake all the duties that the government and the public would like of them, as is true in much of Africa, does this not require the use of other actors than the police to do policing?

Despite anxiety about using local actors (often called ‘non-state actors’), I have found many examples where co-operation or delegation to non-state actors are not only achievable but can lead to a win-win situation as the story of the former taxi drivers association in Uganda will illustrate. Local elders, restorative justice NGOs, community anti-crime groups, trade association security and youth groups are all examples of non-state actors..

This relationship is not of course without problems. There is the harsh fact that there is power to enforce rules, to permit or prevent activities at their discretion, and to make fines, which all attract political interest and attempts at manipulation. This however applies to the state police as much as non-state police. Am I the only one that thinks that the insistence that all policing must be done by the police in Africa as it is in Europe creates a policing monopoly that encourages or at least allows political abuse?

If they are serious about reaching the majority of the population, I would encourage donor justice and security programs to consider selected non-state actors that have the support of the majority of local people, that do not use excessive violence and are open to considering change. The benefit is not just that in so doing the governments and their partner donors will reach the dominant and often preferred providers of the majority of security and justice in Africa, but more so because plural policing hinders a police state.

The story of UTODA, the former taxi drivers association in Uganda, illustrates many of these points. Starting in 1986, the UTODA originally had a strained relationship with the police, owing to the latter’s roadblocks and demands for money. Overtime however, the working relationship improved significantly and UTODA established themselves as a managing and policing organization for taxis nationwide. As a result in 1993, the Kampala City Council gave them the authority to run the bus parks in the capital. This entailed law enforcement and traffic warden duties – both facilitated by police training – plus a mediating role between police and drivers. Clearly the City Council of Kampala secured the benefits of extra hands to maintain law and order, hands that had local knowledge and local support. For the taxi drivers, the partnership meant a degree of legitimacy plus valuable revenues. By most standards it was viewed as a successful engagement; a demonstration of what can be achieved by non-state actors, even in crime hot spots.

However in 2012, the Kampala City Council had a change of heart and refused to renew the contract for the management of the taxi parks. It appeared that the Council wanted to control the sector and its revenues. There then emerged a rival taxi drivers association (in all probability it was sponsored by the Council) and not surprisingly, conflict broke out between the two. Finally in the name of bringing the violence to an end, in 2015 the Council took over the management of the parks themselves.

What had been evidence of what non-state actors could achieve became a partnership that failed for apparently political reasons. This example throws an interesting light on partnerships. Too often donors speak about the problems of ‘working with non-state actors’. This case study might be seen in a better way as problems non-state actors face when they work with the state. We cannot make generalizations about non-state policing from one case study, but it does suggest that there are both benefits and perils in partnerships.

Join the conversation

This blog post is part of an online continuation of the conversation started at the event ‘Plural Security in the City’, held on 22 October 2015 in Amsterdam. The Platform and The Broker are organizing a series of online blog posts on this topic, in order to inform the Platform’s broader network about the discussions that have taken place during the event, and to invite you to join the conversation.

Photo credit: Old Taxi Park - Kampala / sarahemcc via Flickr

Join our network

Login or register for free to get all access to our network publications. Members can also connect and discuss with other members. Participate in our network.