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The “Masai” and Miraa: Public Authority, Vigilance and Criminality in a Ugandan Border Town
Recent studies on vigilante groups show how they often begin as popular schemes for imposing order, before degenerating into violent militias which contribute in turn to social and political disorder. The Masai, a group of khat sellers and consumers in the Ugandan border town of Bwera, represent a more complex case. By using vigilance tactics in the provision of security, the Masai actually help to shape public authority within Bwera town instead of creating institutional chaos. They also provide a range of services, imposing a degree of order on illegal cross-border activities in the area. However, a closer look at the Masai shows that their vigilance activities are mainly performed out of self-interest, as a quid pro quo enabling them to continue their illegal activities of smuggling, general criminality outside town and illegal drug use. Therefore they straddle the ‘crime or social order’ dynamic, representing a criminal gang of illegal drug traffickers which also provides services for public community interests. As such, they contribute to both order and crime.