Ugandans of a certain age and who grew up around Kampala will remember a time when crime was so rampant, gunfire was the soundtrack to which city residents went to bed.
The crime was discriminatory and one could tell where you lived from which crimes you saw. When we lived in the upmarket Muyenga neighbourhood in the 1980s, the criminality we encountered was for rich people: There was Kisolo Muwanga, a neighbour and big shot in the Central Bank, who lost a large sum of money to a live-in relative; then there was another neighbour, I think Majugo, who worked in the Education ministry, who was carjacked in front of us ending his and our early morning school run.
When the tide of fortune ebbed and we moved across town to more modest digs in Bukoto, we encountered poor people criminality: The boys from the slums in Kamwokya and Naguru played with us by day then returned in the night as guides to more muscular relatives who carted away whatever they could carry. Bedtime meant dismantling the living room furniture and carting away to the relatively more secure bedrooms, whatever we could carry.
The thieves came every night; no mistake went unpunished. Forgot a chair cushion? Gone with the night. Dinner left over? Swallowed in the night. If they had ventured past the living room into the bedrooms, they would have found us trembling with fear, hugging whichever precious item – radio, flat iron, suitcase, et cetera – we had been deputed to guard that night.
It took me a while to understand why they never came to the bedroom, though: it is because we would have recognised them, as some were indeed neighbours!
If you happened to overhear the burglars rummaging through your kitchen cabinets you were expected to raise the alarm by screaming while fanning your mouth with one hand. Of course, no one came – but if you looked out of the window, you could see lights being blown out and hear the sounds of bolts being checked and double-checked.
The same neighbours would then appear in the morning as some form of communal loss assessors, interjecting their faux commiserations with a solemn shake of the head and a loud sucking of air through the teeth.
But we were children of war. We knew what it meant to find our way home through a hail of bullets whenever the city came under attack; burglars were irritants, not existential threats. We were also willing to give the new government the benefit of the doubt and this was soon repaid.
On full moon nights (which we always saw thanks to chronic electricity shortages), the streets were teeming with kids playing ball games or riding bicycles while older ones, hormones raging, bounced up and down on the trampoline of life, trying to make sense of love and lust – and impress Angela from Block C.
The current crime wave is not new. It is not even as bad as that we had in 1979/80 or in 1986/87, but it is different in at least one major aspect: It is an economic problem being treated with law enforcement medicine.
Here are some quick numbers: A million Ugandans are born every year; 400,000 enter the job market; the economy creates less than 10,000 formal jobs each year; one in 10 Ugandans owns or co-owns a business – one of the highest rates globally – but with expensive capital and a high cost of doing business, most such businesses die within a year or two.
Between 1992 and 2006, the number of Ugandans living in extreme poverty fell from 52 to 31 per cent, before falling further to 19.7 per cent in 2013. But the real story here is that those numbers were built on sand. Between 2005 and 2009, two out of every three people pulled out of poverty fell back in. And the real number of people living in extreme poverty increased from 6.6 million in 2012/13 to 10 million in 2016/17.
So, in summary: An army of young, unemployed and often unemployable men and women are marching from the countryside, where the rural economy has collapsed, into the urban areas in search of jobs and survival. The crime wave of the ‘90s and early 2000s was driven by the buccaneering spirit of adventurers (in the army, in Congo and at home), the presence of small arms, and opportunists. This one is existential. It is driven by young people with no income, no jobs, no assets (Ninjas).
You can ban hoodies, register motorcycle riders, collect DNA and install cameras on the streets, but none of those can stop sufficiently desperate Ninjas. The ideas of old sound sub-optimal.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org