The Sungusungu of Tanzania

Sungusungu emerged from the ethnic Sukuma tribe as grass-roots law and order organizations. Fed up with violence that plagued the country following the war with Uganda, rural villages started forming their own militias, known as “sungusungu” to protect themselves.

In 1978 Uganda's civil strife spilled over the border into Tanzania. To distract from the internal conflict, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin sent troops to Anschluss, a chunk of northern Tanzanian land. Tanzania quickly sent 100,000 troops to the border. War was on. Thousands were killed and displaced. The conflict ultimately ousted Amin, a fine gentleman of a leader who killed upwards of a half-million of his own people during seven years in power. 

Ouster of murderous neighboring dictator aside, the war was still tragic for Tanzania. Despite being invaded by the Ugandans, the country was left with all its war debts and per-capita income has continued to shrink there ever since. (Uganda finally paid back the debt in 2007.)

Postwar, there were a lot of men with guns along the Ugandan-Tanzania border. Cattle theft rose, as former soldiers became rustlers. Two villages formed local militias. The cattle rustling stopped.

Soon the militias spread, gaining the name Sungusungu, and eventually providing security of all of northeast Tanzania. By 1981 the Sungusungu were an actual law enforcement agency, legitimized by the federal government, and arresting and prosecuting anyone they deemed a criminal.

One of the first things the Sungusungu did was ban witchcraft, as any modern law enforcement agency would do—really, who likes witches?

What started as a cattle protection agency quickly became a female murder machine: Sungusungu have killed thousands of women on the charge of witchcraft, a vague if not completely fake thing. How do Tanzanians tell if someone is a witch? Well, albinos are obviously witches because they are not black. And women with red eyes, commonly caused by burning cow dung when wood is lacking, they're witches, too, duh. Poor widows or unmarried spinsters? Witches.

The Sukuma tribe has a history of violence and aggression against women. So femicide by their militias comes as no surprise. In fact, the cleansing of “evil” women in the form of witch-hunts continues across Tanzania today. 

Another cool side of Sungusunga justice is the guilty-til-proven-innocent clause, which is basically the opposite of Western law. Petty thieves are jailed and considered guilty until a private trial deems them otherwise. Conviction rates hovered at about 97% at first but are now down to 93% thanks to the Internet and mobile phones providing evidence of innocence.

Despite the murder and human rights violations, the Sungusungu have been effective in reducing crime, much like, say, the Taliban were in Afghanistan. Unlike the Taliban, the Sungusungu never hosted a terrorist who attacks America like Bin Laden, so no one cares if they follow international law. On the flip side, Tanzania’s urban areas remain crime plagued. The capital Der Es Salaam is one of Africa’s most violent cities, and crime rose there 10% in each of the last two years. This at a time when Sungusungu have ceased operating in urban areas. Maybe urban militias are the solution.