If you somehow needed to drive through Kampala, last week on Thursday or Friday, you must have noticed how deserted the city was. It is a scene you learn to expect, every time security agencies come down hard against any city protests.
I needed to pick new spectacles because I had lost my last pair on a hike in Koboko – so I had no option, but to head out, even as people in several WhatsApp groups advised against it. Along the way, I started to wonder if anybody ever tracks the cumulative economic cost that altercations – the kind that lead to city shutdowns – have on the economy.
Failed urban planning means that we have industrial areas right in the middle of the city, which probably affects production and trade in times like this. Taxis, boda-bodas, market vendors and roadside hawkers, shops in nearly every arcade and other businesses simply shut down.
Of course, I felt guilty for thinking about the economic cost every time citizens face off with security agencies. Guilty, because what is loss when you have 50 citizens reported to have been killed by the armed forces! So whoever does not show up the day after, is doing so purely out of self-preservation.
But you see, there is a strong connection between those who say they care about the economy and are willing to kill for it, and how much investment comes in when they actually come good on their threat. Let me illustrate. You might have seen social media clips where Uganda is referenced in not so flattering ways.
Looked at in isolation, they probably stir amusement or ridicule – depending on where you stand – but cumulatively, they speak to the kind of image we have created about this country, and bear a bad net result.
There is a lot to pick from. You could go back to 2012, when Spain was negotiating a bailout for its banks. The Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, sends a text to his Finance Minister, urging him to push a hard bargain because, “...Spain is not Uganda.” Or how the rogue MI6 agent in Skyfall, the 2012 Bond movie, Javier Bardem, says with a click, his technology can “rig an election in Uganda.”
You could also pick the ridiculously gorgeous Kerry Washington, beauty pageant skit, or the Fox news correspondent with his tirade about Uganda reversing election results; or the South African businessman, Magnus Heystek, bemoaning his country’s slide to the pits, and how the next downgrade will put them in the same league as Uganda.
So how does a country earn these stripes? How does it achieve this unenviable reputation as the reference point for the undesirable. Well, a friend helped with a quick answer, when I asked about the economic cost of the city riots. My argument was that if the government had demonstrated that they don’t hold much regard for human life, they, at the very least, probably care about the economy – which they say is being destabilised.
His response was that if they could bundle the chief executive of the biggest company in the country onto a plane at night, and have him deported, then perhaps it is not the economy they really care about. And this is how it all adds up:
First, you get notorious for pilfering public funds and getting away with it. Then, you have some unqualified people deployed to deliver public services they clearly have no capacity or means to – which means that there are no strong systems to ensure work is getting done as it should.
Soon, you end up with a citizenry that is agitated because nothing is moving for them. And because of the first two choices you made, you have no systemic recourse or confidence to engage, beyond the rogue tactics, which usually amount to beating up, jailing, shooting and killing some of them, so that others can learn from that example.
Meanwhile, all of these things get reported in places where you are so keen to attract foreign direct investment from. Which means the money you so desperately crave for doesn’t come, because for all your begging efforts, you have not demonstrated ability to manage what you have, and instead, strongly dealt with those who dared call you out on it.
So in the grand scheme of things, it is not clear who knows what is going on, if nobody is taking care of the economy or of the people for whom it should work.
Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds. firstname.lastname@example.org