February 21, 2011
KAMPALA – “Since you didn’t pay him the bribe, there’s nothing we can do,” announced the bald plainclothesman with the gap-plagued mouth.
I recounted to him how the short officer in the blue camouflage had charged across the dark, desolate roundabout waving a machine gun and demanding money from my girlfriend and me, insisting we had no right to be strolling through the town center (as if we were still living under Idi Amin, when violators of the night curfew were known to be shot on sight).
This was last Friday, election night. The streets were eerily dead, and it’s not a stretch to say that officer could have gotten away with blasting holes through us right there on the spot; just his word against…nobody’s. And so I was somewhat relieved to be standing in the grimy-walled, dim-lit police station with the blanketed bodies snoozing on the floors in the shadows. Yet another part of me worried what the officer might do next on a night that security forces had expected – and I now sensed had hoped – would be more chaotic.
I pointed through the station’s broken window toward the roundabout. “He’s right up there, 300 meters.”
A second man in a pink shirt backed by a swarm of beige-uniformed officers interjected, “He was just doing his job!”
“So aiming a gun and demanding money from people who haven’t broken the law falls under the job scope of Ugandan police?”
Several voices hissed at once, a babel of English and Luganda.
A dusty body in a dusty quilt on the floor beside the desk flopped like a near-dead fish.
“If you go on like this, you will be locked up,” warned the man in the pink shirt.
“You come back tomorrow and knock on door number eight,” said the gap-toothed plainclothesman.
“Why don’t we just walk up there now?” suggested my girlfriend, and I added, “We can point him out to you, and you can have a talk with him.”
I was told that the only untoward aspect of the officer’s behavior was asking me for a bribe, and even then, I was reminded, I hadn’t paid, so he wasn’t guilty of anything.
So my girlfriend and I passed the pinch-mouthed woman manning the metal detector, the same woman who on the way in had warned us, “We are very serious people here and if you’re not careful you’ll get yourself into trouble.”
Descending the front steps, I said to my girlfriend, “Let’s get out of this corrupt, undisciplined cesspit.”
That’s when an officer sprang from the shadows at the base of the stairs, gun at the ready. “Don’t talk like that. You leave now.”
As we neared the front gate, he shoved my girlfriend in the back, with the plainclothesmen and the others watching on from the top of the stairs.
Of course this episode could have happened in many parts of the world. So why do I mention it?
The controversial incumbent, President Yoweri Museveni, was on the verge of winning another five-year term that would extend the former bush rebel’s reign to 30 years.
No one here underestimates his role in transitioning Uganda out of a violent past toward a stretch of economic liberalization and expansion.
Where disagreement lies – and what made this election so contentious – is what another five years of Museveni will spell for Uganda.
Museveni’s supporters insist he is the only man who can maintain stability, and that whatever momentum has been lost over the last decade to mismanagement and a weak political will will be rectified by the two million barrels of recently discovered crude oil in the west of the country.
But, without reading too into to the assault and indifference we confronted on election night, it’s a reminder of the sheer depth of the rot that stands in the way of righting Uganda’s course.
The rot touches not only an errant officer here and there but seeps up to the top of security forces and just about every other institution here, from parliament to the education system – even religious leaders aren’t spared.
It’s reflected in the dusty, pothole-riddled trash heap that is Kampala, in the once distinguished but now overcrowded, under-resourced hospitals and schools. In the unchecked nepotism and graft. In the disillusionment of everyday Ugandans.
Museveni’s supporters argue – as has the president himself – that the problem isn’t him but those around him. That sentiment was reflected in Friday’s vote: while 68% voted for the president, many ministers were sent packing.
But, as they say, fish rots from the head; a leader’s fundamental task is to inspire good work from those around him/her. Failing that, he has failed as a leader.
Now Museveni is promising better education, wider highways, new districts (nearly doubling the total to 111 since 2002), a war on corruption, more jobs and a better economy.
Can he do it? Anything is possible. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that he’ll have to transform the system with his imprint that precipitated the mess in the first place. And let us not forget that no modern African leader let alone world leader has been an agent of progress after a quarter century of rule.
It’s no wonder why the common refrain of many Ugandans defending Museveni’s corrupt reign is, “At least we have stability.” Which, short of expressing hope and aspiration, is another way of saying at least not all has been lost.