Two Friday nights ago my son Jack, 18, was swilling beer with a group of friends in Fat Boyz, a cheerful, crowded but quite well-appointed bar not far from us, when uproar broke out as a crowd of angry customers set upon a man they suspected of stealing, or intending to steal, or being the accomplice of another guy who was stealing or intending to steal, purses and mobile phones. Nothing was found on the man but he was given a sound beating anyway and crawled off drenched in blood. The bar’s armed private security guard stood by watching.
Jack tried in his lanky way to intervene but was told in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t watch out he too would find himself at the wrong end of avenging fists and boots. It wasn’t his first brush with such rough justice either. A couple of months back he witnessed much the same scene during a wedding party in the Kampala Rugby Club.
Nor are these scenes confined to night-time partying inflamed with liquor. One often hears of suspected pickpockets getting pulped in markets in broad daylight.
None of this quite squares with the touristic impression of Uganda as a place of great human warmth and friendliness, nor with its reputation as a devoutly Christian (and in parts devoutly Muslim) country. So do these eruptions of social violence signal some underlying, communitarian cultural thing; or maybe some socio-psychological wound, the mental scar of civil war?
I think not. Leastwise, an altogether simpler explanation is that the forces of law and order do not function at all smoothly here, so people naturally enough take the law into their own hands.
There is plenty of crime to be angry about. Guide-book wisdom has it that Kampala is still quite a safe city by comparison with bigger African metropoles, but there is an ample supply of youngsters growing up in slums with precious few opportunities for flourishing honestly. War- or AIDS-orphaned street children from ‘up country’ are the thin end of a thick wedge of unemployed youth. This, too, at a time when rapid but uneven economic growth presents ready spectacles of new wealth that seems to have sprung up overnight and out of nowhere. Those hungry for prosperity dream of short-cuts. It is a perfect environment for corruption, fraud and, on the lowest rungs of the opportunity ladder, for petty crime.
We have lost count of the mobile phones and wallets quietly lifted from Jack and his buddies during their studies of Kampala night life. His older brother, Enrique, at university in Entebbe, now takes the precaution, when going out boozing with his college pals, of burying his room keys under a bush. Go like a wise gambler, with only what you can afford to lose.
Nor have we of the sedate older generation escaped untouched. A gold chain was snatched from Kate’s neck on a trip downtown within a few weeks of our arrival. Our battered old car has suffered from downtown parking too: wing mirrors unscrewed and nicked from Nile Avenue within days of arrival; passenger door forced three weeks ago, and electric window controls staved in, all for the sake of a crate of beer—whoops!—temptingly left on the back seat in a Dewinton Road parking lot.
It is easy to imagine the police being overwhelmed by the size of their job, even though private security companies in fact to do the lion’s share of protecting the propertied classes. But recent events close to home suggest that the state’s contribution to public safety is beset with problems other than mere overwork.
Towards the end of last year Jackson, one of the G4S security guards regularly deployed to our residence, was woken in the night by three men who smashed down the door of his much humbler home, attacked him with a machete and made off with the few possessions left over from the last time he was robbed. Neighbours called the police who, according to Jackson, apprehended one of the assailants.
We have heard from police sources that there is an annual spike in crime just before Christmas, and that criminals target the homes of guards from private security companies looking for guns with which to shoot for bigger fish. (Our G4S guards do not in fact carry weapons.) This should provide reason enough for the police vigorously to pursue suspects in such cases. However, according to Jackson, the officers investigating his case knew, from the man they had arrested, who and where the two accomplices were, but refused to go after them unless he, Jackson, provide them with 20,000 shillings (USD 10) for ‘transport.’ This seemed so tall a tale that, having already paid for the gashes to Jackson’s head to be stitched up, we declined to advance him the necessary cash.
A week later our other regular guard, Fred, disappeared. At first we feared that he had been the victim of a similar attack but Jackson eventually tracked him down to Luzira high security prison, where he had been detained on a charge of stealing a motorbike. Coincidentally, one of Fred’s older brothers has worked for many years in Luzira, where he is a senior warden.
Knowing Fred as we did it was hard to believe him capable of any such crime. Fred’s version of events, when we eventually got to hear it, after he had languished in jail for a month, was disarmingly simple. Late one night there was a commotion in a neighbouring house. He went outside to investigate and was promptly arrested and charged with theft, as were nine other bystanders.
We only got to hear this account after agreeing, with Jackson and Fred’s prison warden brother, to put up one third of the 300,000 shillings [USD 150] ‘bail’ that it took to get him out of prison. Enrique went up a couple of times to the Kampala City Court to witness the legal proceedings, to the evident discomfiture of various officials who shut him out of the room in which the business was conducted.
‘Bail’ in this case did not mean—we were assured by those familiar with the system—that Fred would later appear in court to stand trial. Rather, he would be required to report to the police at intervals and, after a while, the charges against him would be dropped. What about the bail money that was handed over in cash? That would simply be swallowed up by the criminal justice system, or the pockets of people who work in it.
Even if Fred is in fact an accomplished villain, which I doubt, his story seems to reveal a distinct danger for other migrant hopefuls in the squalid neighbourhood of Kamwokya, only a mile away from our leafy suburb. To all the other trials of life is added the risk of getting arrested for something you didn’t do, having to pay money to get out of jail, and then trying to resume your life as before. In this last respect at least Fred has been lucky. G4S seem not to think him an accomplished villain either, for they have given him his job back, counting his month inside as his annual leave.
Crime of a different kind has now all but ruined our housekeeper, Teddy. The trouble came via her son, a student at Makerere University, who fell victim to a ludicrous, get-rich-quick fraud.
The Student Guild (union) organized a social event, sponsored by a local brewery, with live acts. Alongside the usual bands there was an entertainer who did magic tricks with cell phones, hurling one into the distance and then making it reappear. He then told the audience his own number, hinting at business opportunities.
Teddy’s son called and was, over the course of several weeks, persuaded to stump up more than 3 million shillings in cash (USD 1,500) on the promise of a magically rapid and large return. He invested his own tuition and accommodation fees for the semester, borrowed heavily from other students, wheedled more cash out of his mother and sister on various pretexts, and even sold off household assets—an old laptop computer and desktop photocopier that previous employers had given Teddy. Only last week did the son tell Teddy all this, once the con-man’s sweet talk had turned into threats and extortion, and it became clear that the only magic here was the way that all that money vanished into thin air.
It is hard to imagine an unhappier mother and son in Kampala right now. Teddy has worked for years to put numerous orphaned nephews and nieces through school, but now it is her own son, her only one, who has let her down spectacularly. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a feckless child. Teddy is left heavily indebted, talking now of selling her little strip of land back home in the village, her only old age security. The son will almost certainly have to make his credulous way through life without a degree.
The police, on Teddy’s account, added to this tragedy only an unwelcome element of farce. On hearing the tale they proposed setting a trap for the confidence trickster. Teddy was persuaded to stump up more cash as bait. Her son set off on a boda boda motorbike with the money, met the con-man at an appointed place and handed over the extra loot. The police were at this juncture supposed to swoop and make an arrest. Unfortunately, however, they were stuck in traffic several miles away in a ‘special hire’ taxi—a car, which Teddy had also paid for—leaving the magical villain to stroll away with another wad of notes.
With policing like that it‘s easy enough to see why a general public routinely harassed by petty crime should, when the ‘Stop, Thief!’ cry goes up, vent their spleen by giving the presumed culprit a good kicking rather than calling the cops. It’s not just a quick and satisfying reprisal, it might even be fairer, or at least less random, than what the criminal justice system dispenses.
It seems like an unfortunate indicator, though, of how the nation-state building project is faring.
Kampala, March 7 2010