Folklore (or ordinary gossip) has it that during Apollo Milton Obote’s second helping as president of Uganda (December 1980 - July 1985,) a soldier, who was in distress because his salary had delayed, approached his commander for a solution.
The commander cynically responded that the gun he held was his mother and father and that he should put it to good use.
Soldiers turned to the roadblock to grab money and other valuables from travellers. For motorists, putting aside some loose change became part of the preparations for a journey for one’s safety.
Mark you, in this era many soldiers were officially referred to as Not Yet Approved (NYA). These were massively recruited into the army, mostly from northern Uganda, trained and equipped ostensibly to deal with Karamojong cattle rustlers but were not officially deployed and paid in military units. Governments usually do this to put unemployed youth on a leash, especially when unemployment is high. So was the case with Obote II since the economy had ground to a halt due to years of war. Overtime these poor malingering fellows took to using the gun to feed themselves.
Some of these actions were intended to sabotage Obote’s controversial government with its poor management of security agencies. Insecurity and indiscipline of the men with arms would put the government at odds with the general populace and speed up its downfall.
As the NRM guerrilla war was raging it was difficult to tell rebels apart from the general populace hence the need to keep soldiers on the lookout on the streets. Some claimed that the insecurity inspired by the State was to give the government justification to deploy heavily in order to keep people in check.
In fact, some of the brutal roadblocks were set up by people, who had infiltrated the chaotic army of that period. Because of the wayward brutal ways of the soldiers and policemen, it became risky travelling at night. Many who grew up in that period will tell you of the discos called ebizibya, where revellers danced from midday untill sunset and quickly rushed home. The brave and resilient stayed in the discothèque till ‘proper’ daylight to avoid the risk of running into money and blood thirsty soldiers acting under the cover of darkness.
That is why when NRA/M marched into Kampala, and there was no looting or soldier harassing civilians, people welcomed them.
Thirty three years later we have found ourselves almost where we began when NRA/M landed in town. Uganda the land touted to have one of the youngest populations in the world is living in trepidation. Well known groups of violent youths, some of whom include Kifeesi, B13, Naguru Arrow Boys, Bijambiya, Bukolwa Crew, Bad life, Lukanga, Cheap Stores, Kasolo Boys, Baboon, Ssobi are reigning terror on the city and its suburbs.
Some of these fellows are the hordes that have been to school but ended up without work because the economy has failed like it did in the ‘80s. Others came to Kampala to seek greener pastures because they were thrown off the land that is being grabbed relentlessly by those above the law, and with money too big to be kept in the bank without raising queries about its sources.
Some, because agriculture has failed and, therefore, there is no work in the rural areas.
Notably, some have, like the NYAs of the ‘80s, received military training as ‘crime preventers’ - but find themselves without deployment when there are no Opposition rallies to disrupt. They grab phones, handbags steal motorcycles, cars, attack mobile money kiosks and waylay people going or coming from the bank. They break into homes and jump into vehicles in the traffic jam to steal and run off with valuables. They use boda bodas and taxis to transport victims to deserted parts of the city and rob them at will.
They keep upping their game. The menu now includes kidnapping for a ransom and hiring guns from the police to carry out their crimes. Those who resist are likely to be raped or hit by iron bars if they are lucky or be killed and burnt. They have included contracted killing in their scope. As such there are very many areas in Kampala that are a no go area after 7pm or very early in the morning. Kiseeka’s Market is one of them, so is the Naguru area, where the miscreants have the advantage of disappearing into the slums.
Interestingly, police know about it but are almost as helpless as the victims. In fact many of the thefts down town are carried out in front of the policemen, who are at times outnumbered and overwhelmed to act.
One cannot help but wonder, is the NRM government, which is so conscious about security of life and property, being sabotaged by enemies within to turn more people against it? Are there people within its echelons who benefit from inflated budgets to fight crime?
Or are we back to the Obote era in the early ‘80s, where when the State is failing, it quietly looks the other way and ‘understandably’ allows young people to fend for themselves -lest they turn their raw energy on the government?
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues. [email protected]