Do whatever you do in Uganda but please just do not be poor

Author, Benjamin Rukwengye. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

So, people steal and cut corners because that’s how you escape the inconvenience of illogical laws and policies and their even more illogical enforcers.

Let us start with the clarification that there are levels to these things. Think of it as a ladder where there is always going to be someone above.

So, whatever money you make might not be enough to insulate you because someone is making more. But also, that at a certain level high up above, it will also come down to whose you are and who you know.

There is a large swamp in Bunga that stretches along the shores of Lake Victoria, through Muyenga, Bugolobi to Luzira. Part of is the Gaba Road section which is infamous for flooding and cutting off the road every time Lubaale Musoke visits Kampala city and its suburbs. In some areas, that swamp has been all but drained and the papyrus is now replaced by concrete for homes and businesses.

But since the people responsible for this encroachment are high up on the ladder of wealth and power and this columnist is way below here, let us leave the job to the National Environmental Management Authority (Nema) to deal with. Except, they won’t. Unable to deal with serious crime because of the money and power of those committing it, Nema has instead turned to poorer people down the ladder and passed a raft of penalties for environmental offenses. One of those is that you will pay a fine of Shs6 million for driving a car without a dustbin because you will be guilty of littering.

Of course, the most likely amount you will pay is anywhere between Shs5,000 to Shs20,000 and it will not be to NEMA. It will be a bribe to a traffic police officer to let you off the hook. Do you know why you will be paying that bribe? Because even if you have a car, your money is just not yet at the stage where you won’t get waved down and pulled to the side for a dustbin spot-check. The guys building and living in swamps will likely drive by, amused at how a policeman can stop you.

Speaking of the Police. This week police arrested 11 activists and charged them with inciting violence and assault for protesting the delayed prosecution of very senior government officials implicated in the stealing of iron sheets meant for the poor and vulnerable people of Karamoja.

The saga in which the Vice President, the Prime Minister, her first Deputy, the Speaker of Parliament, the Government Chief Whip, and several cabinet and state ministers are implicated unfolded a couple of weeks ago but none of those implicated has been brought to book. Even those that have admitted are still sitting pretty in their offices and driving home in posh SUVs that don’t have dustbins.

Do you want to guess why it is the activists that got arrested and not the self-confessed beneficiaries? Just don’t be poor. The Karimojong from whom the iron sheets were stolen are, statistically, the poorest Ugandans – and yet, Ugandans are quite poor. Your average Kampalan’s interaction with a Karimojong likely doesn’t go beyond viewing them as beggars on the streets. They aren’t there by choice.

Yet, if they decided to protest their quality of life – occasioned by bad extractive policies – or even chose this iron sheets scandal as the rallying point, guess what would happen? The accused would issue orders for summary arrests and require that the ones on the streets be unceremoniously ferried back to Napak and Moroto.

This in many ways explains why people will go to all manner of lengths to steal public resources or extort from those seeking service. It is the single most guarantee of moving up the ladder in a country where ingenuity, hard work, honesty, and forthrightness are not rewarded. So, people steal and cut corners because that’s how you escape the inconvenience of illogical laws and policies and their even more illogical enforcers.

It also explains why those who work in government face such immense social pressures to amass wealth and do favors for everyone in their circles. That’s what happens with systems where only a few have any realistic chance of getting to the top, leaving no breathing room at the bottom. The task for those who care is to work at getting more people to go up the ladder or else risk bringing everybody down when those at the bottom decide to pull it away. Right now, they are doing a shabby job.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.