Uganda’s criminals teach us a lot about this nation

Author: Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • While these robberies are often presented as a new high, they aren’t. They have been a constant feature of economic and political contests in Uganda...

Tension as armed robbers terrorise Kampala suburbs”, Daily Monitor reported on Monday. The story nosed off with the dramatic robbery in Mukono last week, in which criminals in hoodies, masks, and armed with an AK47 rifle raided Spice Supermarket, shot a cashier, and made off with cash.

While these robberies are often presented as a new high, they aren’t. They have been a constant feature of economic and political contests in Uganda, as in many other countries, with ups and downs. They are sometimes the best window into the state of the republic, and the hearts and minds of its people.

Some years ago, we got a briefing by a security expert in Nairobi at a time when carjackings and killings of motorists were high. One piece of his advice blew me away. He said when one is held up by armed thugs, the first thing one should do is figure out how old they are.

Young criminals were inexperienced, he said, unable to assess accurately how much threat a victim who resisted posed. Because they were relatively new entrants in the criminal market, they had no “savings” stashed away, so they were more desperate and needed their heists to succeed at all costs. They were more likely to kill their victims, he said. The smart thing is not to resist or be too aggressive with them. You’d die.

The older more experienced criminals, he said, had a better assessment of the threat their victim posed. They won’t think that just because you are reaching into your jacket pocket, you are going for a gun, because they will have already “read” if you are likely to have a gun. And if you suddenly drive off, they are unlikely to shoot you. They are glad to wait for the next target because they have something kept away for a rainy day.

None of that, however, answered the question of why there was a wave of crime at that point. For that, he explained that the dramatic expansion in education and the economic boom of then-President Mwai Kibaki’s administration had brought very many young Kenyans to urban areas, and left a large number of them jobless.

This was a time when some people were growing very rich again. These factors had combined to make violent crime the means those Kenyans had chosen to get access to public goods.

As the 1980s closed, I was a young journalist at Weekly Topic, the nationalist publication owned by Sapoba Printers (which was owned by Bidandi Ssali, Kintu Musoke, and the late Kirunda Kivejinja). Though our editorial offices were in the heart of Kampala, Sapoba was headquartered, appropriately, in Katwe, the old Ugandan nationalist and independence hub.

Juma Waswa Balunywa, now Principal of Makerere University Business School, was a lecturer at the university, and also served as Sapoba’s Finance director. He used to drive a BMW coupe. One day he was rushing to a bank along Kampala Road. Upon finding parking, he took off quickly to catch an appointment with the bank manager. Only when he was in the bank, did he realise he had left his briefcase with money in the car.

After the meeting as he went back to the car, he noticed that he had left the windows down, and he hadn’t locked it either. He looked in the back seat, and lo behold, the briefcase was still there, and its contents intact!

It’s a story he was to tell and reflect on several times. Kampala wasn’t populated by more honest people then. The times were just different. The early reforms of the NRM government that had come to power in 1986, were beginning to kick in and the economy was booming. Donors were throwing money at Uganda like it was going out of fashion, and the foreign-funded infrastructure building binge had started.

The expansion had soaked up a lot of unemployed young people, and many folks had some money in their pockets. A deep reconstruction mindset had set in. The elements that fed crime were low.

From the late-1990s, things started to go out of whack. Education had increased and more young people were coming into the labour market. As Uganda globalised, free media and things like pay-TV DSTV grew, and tastes began to change.

The big billboards, with beautiful photoshopped women, hunky men, and nice cars broke out. New expectations rose.

A middle class, that had all but collapsed in 1972, re-emerged – and a section of it was becoming quite wealthy, while most of the growing urban population lived in poverty.

Kampala saw something it hadn’t witnessed in a long time. Bold military-style bank robberies, with a lot of firepower. Balunywa’s briefcase, not to mention the car, wouldn’t have survived.

The second age of innocence was over.

-Next week Part 2.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3