If there are any lessons to take from the last three weeks—and the murders that shocked the country—it is that our poverty, our penniless lives, have reached suicidal levels.
This is clearly a more dangerous threat. This meaninglessness of life exemplified by security servicemen — with riffles — exposes a condition that has been hidden for long. Finally, the boil on the buttocks is breaking open, and that yellowish, sometimes greenish opaque liquid, will be everywhere.
The truth is, the men and women walking Kampala’s streets are nothing but ‘the walking dead.’ They are lifeless zombies in the movies that somehow manage to walk the streets. But they are blood-sucking zombies, nevertheless. Life has lost all meaning.
After knocking life from pillar to post, finally, a tired and frustrated soul convinces itself that it is better to be dead than brave the ignominy and embarrassment of poverty. (Especially in Kampala where subsistence comes from offering labour and not tilling the land).
This state of depravity, which makes death by suicide liberating, is not new in human history: slave trade historians tell stories of hundreds of men and women aboard the slave ships to the Americas, who found it more dignifying to drown at sea than be dragged into ignominious enslavement.
Writing in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Mahmood Mamdani captures this similar sentiment among potential suicide bombers in occupied Palestine: a graduate engineer ready to take own life in a suicide mission tells a reporter that it was not true that they were ready to die because they were stupid and uneducated, but that their education meant nothing if deprived of a chance to live to their full potential; with dignity and humanity.
Pushed to the extremity of deprivation, nature always fights back, and often, crudely, violently. It seems we are witnessing this condition — of perceptible enslavement, loss, blankness, anxiety, future-lessness!
Were more people to have instant killing weaponry, perhaps mere anarchy would be loosed onto Kampala. It is not just the non-payment of emoluments, but our poverty ‘as a collective condition’ where especially for those trying their hands at business — big and small — things are terribly failing apart.
KILLERS AS ORIGINAL VICTIMS
The shooting incidents of the past three weeks succinctly capture the anxiety and sense of loss across the country. Indeed,
the killers are the original victims, and their violence is simply derived from their depravity and pain. And this pain is not their own making (say out of laziness or bad luck), but of the poverty-inducing shackles around all of us.
It is not that UPDF officer Pte Wilson Sabiiti, who shot the minister for labour, Col Charles Engola, was a deranged lunatic ready to kill. But that he was ready to take his own life to escape his pain. Sadly, like a suicide bomber, he diagnosed the source of his pain as being his employer, and decided to go out with him.
So was police constable Ivan Wabwire, who shot the moneylender along Parliament avenue. In an absolute act of suicide, he confidently returned to ensure there was no life left in him. Wabwire was the first victim himself—not a victim of the moneylender, but a victim of the ecosystem of pain and depravity in which himself and the moneylender interacted.
His actions signal to having reached the peak of endurance. So was another security guard Rogers Atuhaire, who committed suicide along Lumumba avenue. There were no victims for him, but a tiredness with life. Had he identified a perpetrator of his pain—even if wrongly—they would have gone out together.
Then John Okudi, a Saracen security guard in Tororo who shot and killed a colleague over a misunderstanding. This anger and recklessness ought to be understood as tied together by a single thread - the shackles of this economy. These lives of precarity have turned all of us into victims.
SYMBOLISM OF COL. ENGOLA’S MURDER
Col Engola’s murder is specifically instructive. After news broke, and the story went that the officer had gone for long without payment, public opinion was split.
Many Ugandans (a) identified with Pte Wilson Sabiiti’s story of working without payment for extended periods. Many Ugandan employers—both private and government—struggle to pay their labourers.
(b) Since Col Engola’s was a minister in Museveni’s government, the wananchi saw him through the eyes of our ever-oppressive government, and his murderer as the wretched toiling under this government. And in all fairness, many Ugandans want Museveni’s government gone (and anyone or anything associated with it).
To this end—and this worries me more than anything else—Pte Wilson Sabiiti came to be seen as an inspiration; a hero of some sorts—a ‘victim becoming a killer’— as Mahmood Mamdani would phrase it, justifying the violence of yesterday’s victims.
It is not surprising, therefore, that there were campaigns (not sure to what degree of success) to mobilise funds to pay for his wife’s medical bills who was due for labour, and also general financial support to the family.
It is not surprising that pictures of officers in uniform seated inside KFC enjoying chicken became instant sensations. I guess this is why the government of Uganda is still held onto his body so as not to create a hero out of him at his funeral.
The more sobering point here is that like nature, exploited, abused, denied and deprived, the banks are bursting. Like Katonga bridge on Masaka road, nature is fighting back. And for nature, its fights are often bloody and indiscriminative.
The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University