In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown some commentators were enthused by the high levels of compliance by ordinary Ugandans to official directives. This was evidence of the legitimacy of the State in general, and the current regime in particular, they said.
This argument suffered from a recurring flaw of confusing correlation and causation. In plain English: Just because people do what you ask them to do doesn’t mean that they are doing it because you asked them to do it.
So while some people stayed at home because the government asked them to, others did so because of fear of the unknown, because of what they saw others doing elsewhere, and because of logistical inconveniences.
In fact, it did not take long for people to start wandering out of their homes and trying to find their way back into their normal routines. The relatively low number of confirmed cases and the absence of a fear factor from deaths have only added to this pressure of people straining at the leash.
This is where the legitimacy of the regime and the depth of the consent of the governed should be tested. Why are the same people refusing to respect directives from the same sources? As it is, a lot of the consent has seeped away through the loopholes of impunity, inconsistency and ineptitude.
Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng is on the whole personable and there is an endearing quality to her having worked her way up the ladder. It was surprising that she did not simply apologise for appearing in the middle of a crowd without her facemask – it happens to many of us – then order everyone in the crowd to be tested and self-isolate.
The real reason many people were upset, however, is not that Jane removed her facemask and put her foot in her mouth; it is that a day or so earlier, an Opposition MP had been arrested for appearing before a similar crowd, with a mask on.
This pattern, of letting pro-regime politicians and supporters mill around while restraining those opposed to it, has been repeated elsewhere.
This, Dear Reader, isn’t just a fly in the ointment; it is the crux of the problem. The rule of law is built around the notion of all men being equal under the law, and the State acting as a fair maker, arbiter and enforcer of the said law.
The State acquires its legitimacy and the consent of the governed by demonstrating competence and fairness, be it in the distribution of resources, the settlement of disputes, or the treatment of citizens.
When you allow the middle class to sip their vanilla lattes in the malls, but continue to stop the wananchi from selling their wares in arcades downtown, you create a sense of injustice.
When well-intentioned plans to distribute food to vulnerable groups are caught up in the cobwebs of corruption and political partisanship, you erode trust.
And when public health guidelines are unclear or incoherent – schools will open, might open, won’t open, may open, oba first wait, nkebyo – you create the impression of incompetence.
As a result, you are stripped of all levers of leverage until you are left with the primal monopoly of violence. None of this is surprising; State capacity is measured in the tools used to obtain and maintain citizen consent, whether it is in getting them to pay taxes or wear masks in public.
If you buy more anti-riot equipment than ambulances or personal protective equipment for health workers, or recruit more LDUs than nurses, it is inevitable that your LDUs are more likely to go around beating people instead of handing out facemasks.
Many citizens gave the State the benefit of the doubt at the start of the crisis, and deservedly so. But competence isn’t sold over-the-counter and the weeds of mediocrity are notoriously stubborn.
The resulting ineptitude and impunity in the application of the rules has slowly eroded the consent of the governed, thus requiring coercion.
Just because people don’t do what you tell them to do doesn’t mean that they can’t do it; sometimes it is in their best self-interest to do as you do, not as you say.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.