In 1986, Kampala welcomed a new type of authority. After enduring two decades of irresponsible abuse of position and authority, Ugandans sighed with relief when the National Resistance Army took power and put an end to the crude conduct of rulers, their hangers-on and about anybody else who had money.
The NRA found a city away with unregistered cars, then called ‘Nagoya’ – someplace or port in Japan where most of the unregulated reconditioned jalopies came from. In one swoop, all unregistered cars were impounded and the owners forced to regularize them. Those who have lived long enough are surprised, or rather disappointed to see that in the year 2020, we have slid back to such disgusting abuse of position by some elite who now blatantly drive cars without number plates and no police officer of whatever rank dares call them to order.
Ugandans had from independence time knowing the elite of society to also be dignified people. Yeeyisa kikungu (He conducts himself like a VIP) people would say of a person with diplomatic conduct because high rank was also associated with refinement and decorum. Even after the violent overthrow of monarchies of 1966, the high-ranking persons, their democratic deficit notwithstanding, did not exhibit thuggery and blatant abuse of position, treating the rest of the citizenry like trash and abusing the very institutions of the state. This came with the military take over of the state in 1971.
Because the new military leaders had their own baggage of inferiority complexes, they moved quickly to previously acknowledged social credentials especially high education credentials and decently acquired wealth. When yesterday’s sergeants became overnight colonels, they started physically beating up doctors and professors to extract respect violently. Most Indian business elites were kicked out and their assets and premises are given to city porters who sang regime praises. “Nasoma wa?” (Where did I go to school?) became their rallying call to ridiculed better but cash-strapped educated people whose salaries had been eroded by runaway inflation. The era of bayaye (urban riff-raff) had come.
The fall of the military regime, however, did not deliver Uganda from dominance by bayaye. The miscarriage of democracy in form of the mismanaged elections of December 1980 landed the country into a five-year civil war giving those in authority and their elite in the early eighties an excuse to continue with disgraceful behavior in public, citing insecurity.
Finally, the NRA, took power in January 1986. Most of its commanders were university graduates. Some were postgrads from European universities. The public went into a honeymoon with enlightened, polite military personnel that respected the civilian citizenry, something they had not fathomed in their lives. Their child soldiers had more discipline than the adults they had helped liberate. The NRA proceeded to expand the revolutionary legislature through nationwide elections. A constitutional commission headed by Justice Benjamin Odoki was constituted and it spent years gathering, analyzing people’s views and finally drafting the people’s constitution. Yet another general election was held, this time for a constituent assembly that spent nearly two years debating and refining the people’s own constitution, which was promulgated in 1995, 25 years ago.
Now as Ugandans celebrate the silver jubilee of their own constitution, respect for the law and institutions has slipped. It has actually slipped to the extent that the bayaye are back, with the elite blatantly abusing the procedure. Those who frowned at Nagoya unregistered cars are now again watching some new elite driving cars without number plates, in broad daylight in Kampala, daring any police officer to touch them. The Colonel Juma Butabika’s of the 1970s have new admirers emulating them in chasing the public off the roads this time using their noisy lead cars with heavily armed personnel.
And now the bayaye elite has landed us where we never imagined we would reach even in our worst of nightmares – in the cesspool of coronavirus. Although the government -cabinet, and ministry of health – had tried to protect the country from the virus by blacklisting high-risk countries and instituting quarantine measures for arrivals from such places, the elite bayaye frowned at the measure and forced their way out of the airport/quarantine. Some reportedly paid bribes of a hundred dollars or less, to go and start infecting the public.
So blinded by the impunity that has become their way of life that the jet-setting bayaye did not even realise that by breaking the quarantine, it is their own families that they were first exposed to risk of infection. Again privilege. Still, the Respect for the rule of law was expected to take root but raw power has blinded them to the extent that they did not even ask themselves how they would be treated while in hiding.
That is how low impunity has driven the country. The society which has looked on as impunity multiplies are paying the price for keeping quiet.