How are we to make sense of the senseless murder of that young woman, Susan Magara? Or of the fact that her two fingers, cut off to point out the seriousness of the ransom demand, were not enough to appease her abductors?
The cynical view is to see the uproar over the murder as evidence of classism; after all, the murder of a reported 20 young women around the city over the last year did not generate as much grief or anywhere near the Shs100 million bounty the police have offered for leads to the perpetrators of the latest crime.
Another view is to merely see it as yet more evidence of rising crime and police incompetence. After all, as one eagle-eyed journalist pointed out, the body was dumped not far from where the Police Council was meeting to brainstorm, as seriously as one can between bites of samosa and spiced African tea, on how to fight crime.
But this is all predictable and pedestrian. There must be something more fundamental. How did we go from a city where men fell out of nightclubs at cockcrow and staggered home with only ladle-wielding wives to worry about, to one in which robbers send invoices and local purchase orders ahead of their collection visits?
This column has no answers, but available scholarship on crime elsewhere has some illuminating thoughts. The first and most obvious issue at play is inequality. The more inequality exists in a society, the more likelihood of crime occurring, particularly accumulative crime that seeks to redistribute incomes.
But inequality has existed for as long as humans have lived in communal societies so what else has happened? There is plenty of evidence to show that criminals carry out cost-benefit analysis like every one else; where investors measure the risk of failure against the return of investment in one asset class or another, criminals weigh the risk of getting caught against the possible reward if successful.
In a more equal society, the gap between the richest and poorest is narrow and the benefit of crime is lower, and vice versa. Similarly, in a country with an effective State, including law enforcement, the higher the risk of being caught – by an effective police force, for example, makes crime a less attractive proposition. Combine State efficacy with lower income inequality and you get lower crime.
In addition, there is the impunity created by the power of example. If a powerful tycoon gets away with grabbing a swamp or a forest reserve, a street urchin is more willing to take his chance with your necklace.
But how would the criminals pick out their victims? In one of the audios released by the police, a woman pleads with a man on the end of the line to reduce the ransom demanded.
The man calmly and almost reassuringly responds that the money is not too much because – apparently – he knows the net worth of his victim’s family.
This isn’t surprising. Research shows that crime rises faster in societies where the rich have conspicuous consumption of their wealth than in those that don’t. This is clear in places like Johannesburg, Sao Paolo or Nairobi, but Kampala?
It could be that in our case, it is less about the flaunting of wealth that is likely to drive crime and more about the poor state of public services. In the case of the former, it would be easy to pinpoint those taking their kids to school in helicopters or walking around with sub-county budgets on their wrists; in the latter, anyone with a private car or who doesn’t stay in a floating hovel in Bwaise is game.
Those who make their money at the bottom of the pyramid, shoulder-to-shoulder with both salt-of-the-earth types and assorted undesirables, know this too well: It is not uncommon to see a ragged-looking fellow enter a bank and then somehow pulls wads of cash from his socks to fill a small suitcase. Many are wealthy but they have learnt to camouflage themselves in the jungle.
Susan is just the latest victim, of greed, envy, impunity and incompetence. She joins a long list of victims of a society that has allowed millions to remain stuck at the bottom, while failing to protect those willing to work hard and honestly.
What is the point of working long and hard only to be waylaid on the way home or have to walk around with bulging socks and the most miserable rags one can wear? How long before good men and women take the law into their own hands and outsource their protection to the least-worst criminals?
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org