Thursday March 20 2014

Petty crime: Unpublished story of the economy

By Karoli Ssemogerere

There is a silent war raging in many urban and peri-urban communities of the rise in organised crime that is exacting a toll on many families and communities this year. The police seem to be overwhelmed or uncertain on how to approach this problem even though appropriations to police have never been higher.

First has been the rise of unsolved murders by gun toting bandits. These bandits have targeted businesspeople and civil servants for unknown reasons, and in a few instances, the police themselves. The normal refrain for most of these murders are that police are conducting investigations, without bringing anyone to book. The sophistication of weapons is also on the rise.

The murder of a former assistant commissioner in the Ministry of Works, Patrick Bisuuti Balamu, was accomplished by rifles mounted with silencers in Entebbe in a manner that still befuddles his family and former colleagues. Once again police, in a big media splash, forwarded some theories but never succeeded in bringing even a single suspect to book.

Two months ago, another species of gun-violence claimed the life of a police officer in Kajjansi at a mobile money outlet. He was accused by colleagues of randomly responding to an alarm alone only to be met by as many as seven gunmen.

Bukedde newspaper has reported meticulously on the rise of urban gangs that have ‘districted’ parts of Kampala for themselves. They are organised bag snatchers, have wreaked havoc on motor vehicles painlessly picking locks to steal valuables at shopping centres and grabbing mobile phones from drivers in Kampala’s notorious traffic gridlock. They are aided by regulars who have ordained to themselves the duty of stripping public infrastructure.

This week, a Kampala Capital City Authority official, Mr Robert Kalumba, had his arms up in the air when confronted by the ‘darkening city’ - many streetlights have been vandalised. The vandals have not spared solar energy panels marketed as ‘clean energy’, the proper translation of which should be ‘clean money’ for the thugs who are making a market safely from public goods on the streets.

For a period last year, boda-boda cyclists were victims of riders who boarded their bikes with no particular destination in mind. They may have been saved by boda boda registration to weed out wrong elements. Taxi drivers last year also made news riding off with passengers in the night before robbing them and dumping their passengers. The New Vision lost one photo-journalist who was robbed and killed before his body was dumped on what should have been a routine trip home after work.

The profiles carried in the press report to some serial killers with trans-state tentacles - Mbale, Iganga, Jinja, Kampala, Entebbe, Masaka. It is little surprise that these form the epicentre of tough economic times. Drought, infected soils and ill-thought experiments have reduced what were once fertile soils into mounds of soil.

Writing a thoughtful piece in the New Vision, the presidential adviser on poverty alleviation in Busoga, Maureen Kyalya Walube, noted that sugarcane plantations had pauperised village folks who were now in the throes of money lenders and jackals who had assumed the role of middlemen to sell sugarcane to the large sugar factories. Kenya has already made a decision to shut down 10 out of the 11 state-owned sugar millers in Nyanza Province, labelling them unprofitable. Uganda has sugar millers but they grow sugar for something more lucrative - tax breaks that subsidise imported raw sugar and molasses at rock bottom prices. The same applies to cooking oil millers who produce only as much as to fit the tax criteria that allows them to import refined cooking oil and simply repackage it.

The old cash crop and market-based agriculture is now limited to the old West where families, granaries and communities are still intact. This economic transformation partly explains the rapid change in land ownership in Buganda; rural urban migration to cities that don’t offer much of a livelihood with anaemic job growth.

Where the police exist - and police posts have multiplied, it cannot keep pace with the rise of petty theft. Thieves always have enough resources to game the feeble criminal justice system. Bail money is lucrative and encourages magistrates to freeze cases or dismiss them in order to share bail money. There are a host of other illegal charges criminals meet to keep the system flowing. If you lose a mobile phone, you pay a fee to ‘track’ its loss, and you will probably have to pay for a police statement. The bigger your inventory, the higher your charges for photocopying paper and other accessories that go with reporting crime.

A national ID project is unlikely to dent crime, if it is not matched with the colonial unpopular ‘poll-tax’. Poll tax or graduated tax is a regressive tax but its universality kept track of mobile and transients in the economy. It discourages organised idlers who in turn breed crime. It will check the explosion of nonstop entertainment that is turning many established neighbourhoods into ghettos.

Mr Ssemogerere is an Attorney-at-Law and an Advocate.