Several years ago, when I lived in England, a childhood friend of mine – currently a British Army soldier - visited me.
Because I forgot to provide him with a visitor’s parking card, which he was meant to display on his car, we found a parking violation penalty ticket attached to his windshield after his visit. When I advised him on how he could try to appeal and evade the penalty, he revealed to me that as a soldier, he was required to abide by all the laws of the land, including those he did not believe to be fair.
Yet, in the geographical space dubbed Uganda, it appears that to get away with anything, you only must state that you are a soldier or have some kind of connection to the State House.
While there are genuinely State House employees who use their positions to their advantage, a majority are simply masqueraders. It seems that as long as one can successfully feign some kind of connection to State House, they can easily fluke front seats during ceremonies, be exempted from payment of dowry, get free car rides, eat free food in restaurants, resist court orders and police arrests, among others.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t even matter what level of connection one has with State House. One can be a cleaner, receptionist, food vendor, stationery supplier, or even, just a friend of a friend of a friend who works in State House.
And the confidence with which the masqueraders speak about their connection to State House can delude you into thinking that they can secure you a next-day breakfast meeting with the president. From big issues such as land wrangles to minor ones such as applying for a passport and getting it in a timely manner, it appears that nothing can be secured without a special government connection.
From high-profile government officials to ordinary citizens, it appears that certain activities cannot be executed without making a reference to the president. The most prominent ones include those who call the president on the phone and put him on loudspeaker during public gatherings.
We have also witnessed several ordinary citizens who protest by walking from distant upcountry locations with the intention of making it to State House and speak to no one other than the president himself. Never mind the fact that all districts have RDCs who would supposedly resolve some issues without necessarily referring them to the president.
One is left wondering whether that is a sign of micro-managing or an illustration of how close the president is to his people. As a consequence, overreliance on the presidency undermines the rest of the institutions.
Yet, a closer look at some of the issues commonly referred to the president reveals that with a little more belief in the existing institutions, some matters could amicably be handled by a competent LC-1 chairperson. As a society, what happened to our abilities to locally resolve our conflicts through mediation, compromise, persuasion, compensation and punishment?
The level of appeal to the highest authorities is alarming. Soon, married men and women who are denied conjugal entitlements and athletes who get muscle strains while playing for Uganda will also call the president.
We will soon start calling the president to find out the next day’s weather forecast. Even school students who are dissatisfied with their exam results will start calling State House.
While State House is a national establishment, it appears that some people take their State House entitlements to a whole new level.
When a culture of impunity thrives for too long, you end up with ministers who cannot respond to court and police summons unless that summon is endorsed by the president; major generals who shoot at civilian’s cars and deflate their tyres because their children have been inconvenienced; major generals who physically harass female traffic officers for doing their work and later publicly describe all legislators as stupid; ministers who boast of having the “majje” (army) on their side; and deputy attorney generals who prematurely walk out of special land committee inquiries and assure the committee that nothing will be done to them, even if the matter is referred to God!
As a comrade of mine recently re-tweeted, “we should never give up on ourselves as a society. There was a time when we thought that the boda boda culture and mannerisms [unprofessionalism and deliberate traffic violations] were irredeemable.
However, Safe Boda has shown us different. If we all try enough, we can still have a society where our aspirations to uphold the rule of law becomes a tradition, regardless of our connections to the powers that be.
We can still have a society where, regardless of our political positions, we can apologize when we humanly err and in some extreme cases, we resign when our actions/inactions terribly fall short of the standards of the offices we occupy. It is only then that we will never care so much about who becomes president as long as competent people occupy the right offices and are diligently paid for their work.
The writer is a social worker in Alberta, Canada.