It is ironic that while the UPDF's main role is to protect the country, some of its officers have turned on the citizens, writes JOHNSON TAREMWA.
Statistics from the army General Court Martial (GCM) show that theft, robbery, aggravated robbery and murder are some of the commonest offences by UPDF soldiers. But the army has rejected suggestions that this is because the government has neglected the soldiers' welfare.
According to a source at the Makindye-based GCM, on average, between 15 and 25 soldiers are court-martialled for stealing from - and murdering - taxpayers. The statistics seem to reflect the rise in gun crime in the last two years - but also on the army's determination to clean its house.
"In a year this court can charge over 200 officers with cases of aggravated robbery, robbery, attempted robbery, simple robbery and theft," an officer at the GCM told The Observer.
Army sources told us that many more soldiers are charged with criminal offences daily countrywide, especially as some units have their own courts. The Special Forces Command (SFC), for instance, tries its offenders at their court in Entebbe. In addition, every division, brigade and battalion has a court martial, another military source pointed out.
"The Makindye court martial used to work three days a week but due to the increase in criminal cases, we now work daily like any other court," a court official said.
The above figures could not be independently verified, but a perusal of court documents is instructive. For example, between March 15 and March 18, some 49 soldiers appeared before the GCM on various charges at different stages. Of these, 13 (27%) are facing theft-related charges while four (8%) are on murder.
The former offences include aggravated robbery, where the offender seriously injures the victims. Sixteen soldiers (33%) appeared for "offences related to security".
According to the cause list, most of the officers involved in the crimes were at the rank of captain and below. An Observer inquiry into the drivers of this soldier-related gun crime points to poverty and idleness. Many army officers, one senior security operative said, are attached to particular units but have no specific offices to keep them busy.
"In addition, most of them are poor and are not allowed to engage in economic activities and they have guns; so, they resort to robbery for survival," the operative said in an interview.
The operative said most soldiers take home a small salary.
"For example, a graduate officer at the rank of lieutenant does not earn more than Shs 550,000, meaning that those below him earn like Shs 250,000, which is not enough and is not even paid on time. So, majority of them resort to robbery to make ends meet," he said.
According to another soldier, many of his colleagues are choking on loans.
"What I can tell you is that most officers have loans from [the army] Wazalendo Sacco and other commercial banks and most of their salaries are remitted to banks to pay loans and at the end of the month, they have no savings and have needs; so, they use their guns to make more money," he said.
At a recent press briefing, Fred Enanga, the police spokesman, said that Julius Chelimo, who led the attack on a police station in Kapchorwa, was a UPDF deserter. He said Chelimo had earlier been arrested for aggravated robbery.
Police recently arrested two officers attached to SFC on suspicion of stealing Shs 700m from Kireka and Muyenga. They were identified as Mark Nyakaraingwa and a one Sgt Chemonges.
"For the last two months, cases of armed robberies in Kawempe division almost tripled and people lost millions of shillings and properties," said an officer attached to the police's Flying Squad, the lead unit cracking down on violent crime.
Contacted for a comment last week, the UPDF spokesman, Lt Col Paddy Ankunda, admitted that some army officers participate in criminal activities. However, Ankunda insisted that these are isolated cases of indiscipline, adding that whoever is found guilty is severely punished, including by dismissal from the army.
Ankunda said the UPDF is determined to root out criminal behavior from the forces, but rejected analyses linking crime to the size of the soldiers' salaries.
"Those who rob don't do so because they earn less; they are simply greedy and some were born robbers," he said. "Our welfare is very good so there is no reason why our officers should get involved in robberies."