Colonial adventurers venturing into new lands often faced similar circumstances. They had superior technology, which is what allowed them to travel across great distances to colonise, rather than remain at home to be colonised; and which allowed them better firepower, often gunpowder against native bows, arrows and spears.
However, they also faced two crucial disadvantages: They were often far outnumbered by the people they sought to colonise, and lacked local knowledge of where to find food, water, shelter, or how to navigate the foreign lands. There were two broad ways to overcome the second challenge.
First, was to use deception, which ranged from having mesmerised local chiefs sign over their kingdoms in exchange for a few beads or the odd mirror, to capturing the local chief and holding them to ransom.
The second, and most common, way was to divide and rule. A marginalised section of the population was offered redemption in exchange for turning against their fellow native oppressors, or greed offered to those who’d long nursed ambitions to advance their own interests. It rarely failed.
There might have been something disturbing about recent footage of a four-star general saluting a three-legged man goose-marching to animated cheers, but there is nothing to laugh about President Museveni’s overture to disaffected ghetto youths willing to trade local knowledge for side-mirrors.
Neither is the selection accidental. The best local collaborators are those with more ambition than talent, especially those with a history of trying their hand at some endeavour and being found out by the market. The conquistador, when he arrives, promises redemption and glory; all they have to supply is cunning and detailed maps of the local palace.
Politically they also primarily serve three important roles. First, they give the conqueror veneer of nativity; he is one of us, they say, and has always been. He has just been too busy dealing with more pressing matters elsewhere, but has never really forgotten us.
Second, they serve as alternative routes to glory. The local kings or opinion leaders come to power and retain their positions by offering or promising rewards to their followers. In Buganda, the colonial adventurers won over the support of local dissidents by promising and offering positions in the new political order and large tracts of land.
Direct cash infusions, in the case of the ghettos, are a much cheaper alternative to providing housing, water or digging sewer lines. They are also particularly effective if they short-circuit all known formal channels, including party officials and can draw a direct reward connection to the political beneficiary of changed voting intentions.
In other words, while it is bad manners for Madam Catherine Kusasira to “undermine” and talk down to elected party officials in the capital, it is good politics because it sets up a competition for favour and attention of the Conquistador-in-Chief between different camps in the party.
Yes, it is good to be loyal to the party officials and to remember all the hard work they put in, but if they were so good they would have won the city for the President in the last election. They didn’t, and in fact, he lost market share; so competition among the sales teams is good, if you think about it.
The third role is perhaps the most insidious and politically important. The political threat emanating from the ghetto is asymmetrical; you cannot respond to it conventionally, say by granting them district status or appointing Shabba Ranks to cabinet, or Dreadlock Soldier to the UPDF.
The best way to deal with it is to remove the wow factor by creating political look-alikes. Like vaccination introduces variants of the same germ into the body, the best way to deal with a Bobi Wine problem is to create very many Bobi Wines; there is no limit to the number of ghettos, or ghetto presidents for that matter. They may not come with legitimacy or support immediately (depends on how quickly they are able to divert resources to the disaffected) but they create a very useful distraction. See how much column space and media attention they have commanded, for instance, in recent weeks.
So while the pivot to the ghetto looks untidy, it is good but ultimately desperate and short-term politics. See, the political fights have shifted from civil war (LRA, UNLA), to Parliament (see the 6th Parliament, for instance), to the streets (Walk-to-Work, and Besigyemania) now to the ghetto. We are scrapping the bottom of the barrel and sooner or later, something will have to give.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org.