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Last Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Tanzania gangsters turn vigilantes
Vicky Ntetema
BBC News, Dar es Salaam

Kariakoo in Dar es Salaam where some of the youths trade drugs
Dar Kariakoo is the centre of the city's drugs trade
Former drug users and dealers are forming vigilante groups in the outskirts of Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, to combat crime but not all in the neighbourhood are impressed.

The local authorities and residents of Tandika suburbia, where crime is rampant, have accepted the youths who once terrorised them as their traditional security guards, locally known as sungusungu.

An officer with the local government in the Mwembe Radu area, Burton Mbena, said he appreciates the youths' initiative to do something positive for their country.

"We appreciate the initiative of these vigilante groups and we give them all the legal blessings.

"These youths were involved in the business of drugs, rape and mugging. But since the beginning of this year we have seen a significant change," he said.


The new vigilante groups come from the Safer City programme, which has seen 260 young men and women being trained in various job and life skills at 18 centres.

Two of these Tandika Youth Handicraft Groups, Tayohag and Gusta, in Dar es Salaam's south-eastern suburb have decided not only to fight drug abuse but also to protect the public and their property from criminals.

We have to involve the community so that together we can solve this problem and protect the lives of people and their property
Nicholas Abraham
Tayohag Chairperson

However there is widespread criticism of the vigilantes, when they have been accused of using excessive violence as a means of punishment.

Although the government has prohibited the group from using guns, severe beatings of suspects, sometimes falsely accused, have been known to take place, and in some cases the suspects lost their lives.

Tayohag Chairperson Nicholas Abraham disagreed, saying that even though the area has a large number of hard-core criminals they do not use excessive force when apprehending the suspects.

"We are not armed when we approach these people; normally we go for the petty thieves whom we can control.

"But when it comes to major crimes, we inform the government which is capable of solving such a problem," he said.

"We have to involve the community so that together we can solve this problem and protect the lives of people and their property."


Gusta Chairperson Benson Palazilo explained how, as former criminals and drug addicts, they have managed to succeed in reducing the rate of crime in the area, where the police had failed for years.

A dog is also useful as it alerts you when there is trouble
Tandika resident

"Members of Tayohag and Gusta live locally and know the youths who might be involved in criminal activities - it is easy to find them and bring them before the law."

Aren't Mr Palazilo and his group afraid that criminals may start to target them as they act as police informers?

"They will not dare," he says, "because they are in our area and we have decided to rid the society of these crimes. If they complain they should do so in another area - not here.

"We are now like the local security guards.

"And we do not want anybody to commit a crime in this area as they may tarnish our name and people may be forced to think that we are the culprits," explains Mr Palazilo.


The majority of local residents are happy with these vigilantes.

Dar es Salaam port, Tanzania
Drugs are transported from the Dar es Salaam's port to and from Zanzibar

"I feel safer and have a peaceful night when I know that sungusungu are patrolling in the area. They will alert the police and the public before a crime is committed," says Mama Mwasha.

Others like teenager Shillekiriavunjo are a bit cautious.

"Sometimes they help, other times they be collaborating with the criminals. I would advise people to secure their homes. A dog is also useful as it alerts you when there is trouble," he said.

Sungusungu groups, not all of them former criminals and drug addicts, are becoming more popular across Tanzania's major towns and cities.

Almost every area is being patrolled by volunteers taking shifts. The whole group is paid between $2.50 and $5.50 per month per household. On average they take care of 40 homes.

Not new

But sungusungu or vigilante organisations are not new in Tanzania.

They were started in the early 1980s, soon after the war with Uganda's Idi Amin, by the north-western livestock-keepers of the Sukuma and Nyamwezi tribes.

These groups were popularised by then Home Affairs Minister Augustine Mrema. He has now crossed sides and is chairperson of the opposition Tanzania Labour Party (TLP).

He explained why he made vigilantes legal.

"The crime rate had reached alarming levels. We did not have enough police officers to cover the whole country, and the few we had were posted in urban areas. People were being robbed at gunpoint and living under constant fear.

"So I asked the public to form their own vigilante groups to protect themselves and their property. But they were not allowed to use violence," said Mr Mrema.

However, in this 21st Century, Tanzania still needs more policemen.

And there are no official statistics to verify that there are less criminal activities.

In rich areas people feel safer behind their concrete walls with barbed wire fences, patrolled by armed security guards and dogs.

Should vigilantes be legal? Do they bring peace and security? Do any of the issues in this feature affect you? Send us your comments and experiences using the form below.

A selection of your comments will be broadcast on the BBC's Focus on Africa programme at 1700 GMT on Saturday 16 September 2006.

Your comments:

I am from Tanzania myself. The issue is for Tanzanians, it is the immediate solution to the crime problems. However, there is a sharp rise of mob justice because these sungusungu are not trained. Once they catch a thief, they give him a punishment of whatever comes to their minds first. So we solve the crime problems by committing more crimes, without actually accepting it. Until the government train and increase more police, or train these sungusungu (which is the same as increasing police force), then we will still be substituting one form of crime to another. And we should remember, this is the 21st century.
Amani Kitali, New Haven, CT, USA

I live in Mbezi beach one of the posh areas in Dar es Salaam. When we fist moved there thieves broke into our house and stole our cattle. We then decided to keep a watchman but he slept on the job but always awake at the end of the month to receive his salary. My father then organised the sungusungu that now patrol the entire block we have never been robbed since then and we all feel safer because they are people we know well. Another plus is that all member of the block have to pay and we each end up paying less for good services. sungusungu also helps to solve the problem of unemployment which is rampant in Tanzania.
Catherine Luanda, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

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Country profile: Tanzania
30 Jun 06 |  Country profiles


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