Writing about wealth, political economist Karl Marx argued that the rich could only become rich after an arguably long period of accumulation. Marx’s formula follows that being rich is a result of engagement in some productive activity – for some time.
By implication, the highroad to wealth is defined by both smartness and patience. The investor has to be intelligent enough to keep their workers happy and prevent them from rebellion – as the former appropriates their labour time in the name of profits.
As a young man growing up in the countryside, the wealthy people in our villages were the most intelligent. There were two categories: farmers and public servants. The farmers often owned large coffee or bananas plantations, or had plenty of livestock or both. Either way, they attended to their possessions meticulously.
Since big plantations or livestock never thrived on only family labour, rich people often hired services of migrant labourers – often from south-western Uganda and Rwanda.
But employing people to keep any plantation or livestock productive for years was no small feat. At public functions, whenever these rich farmers were asked to speak, they were not only articulate and witty, they were also humorous, emitting sense through each sentence.
When public service was a productive and respectable industry – especially before the privatisation frenzy – the best brains, who often happened to be medical doctors, veterinary doctors, accountants and senior public administrators, were the rich of the village. Thus, they quickly became local councillors or parish chiefs. In their public appearances, these men were measured in their actions. They were careful in their speech and respectful to their less-fortunate brethren.
They were neither arrogant, nor flamboyant. Although their tastes – in fashion, automobiles, spouses or dishes – were sophisticated, they were never braggadocios. In sum, this well-cultivated public outlook operated in sync and also served to explain their wealth.
When I came to Kampala sometime in the late 1990s, my belief that intelligence equalled wealth became even more concrete. There were no young tycoons – except if this wealth was inherited. The rich men of that time (and most have actually remained rich), Gordon Wavamunno, Aga Ssekalala, BMK, James Mulwana, John Ssebaana Kizito, or Boney Katatumba all kept simple public profiles. They never drove vehicles with personalised plates.
Neither did they spend long night-hours in dim-lit joints ogling women’s behinds or gulping inexplicable compounds down their throats. You rarely read about them in the gossip pages of newspapers.
Indeed, they had become rich and famous only in their late 30s and early 40s. In a very Marxist sense, wealth took a bit of time to accumulate. Mark you, this is not romanticising the past, but a portrayal of a general pulse.
In the period that followed the 2001 election, a key shift happened. We were ushered into an era of rich idiots who, like Norbert Mao’s night dancers, have trouble explaining their wealth.
These are mostly politicians and elite thieves! Most of them are young and poorly-educated. To them, chaos and disorder is standard operating procedure – either with guns or sticks! You find them cruising in expensive automobiles such as Range Rovers and other SUVs from which they dispose of empty water bottles along city streets.
They are impatient to wait in traffic, and since they drive dark-tinted huge cars, they shamelessly drive on the advancing side. Our scrawny underpaid traffic officers fear to touch them. You find them parked on pavements or pedestrian walkways. They build mansions in wetlands or road reserves, unapologetically grab land, and spend like they own Bank of Uganda.
Incidentally, money has a way of sculpting a powerful image for those who have it – including idiots – as their utterances are often backed with (purchasing or political) power. For their money-acquired statuses, our dullards often get media and open-air invites to comment on matters of national importance.
Sadly, these elite gangsters can barely make a coherent speech. Instead, they mumble about their wealth, and chant praises to the government of President Museveni. When cornered, they resort to empty chants about being the majority.
Sometime, they retort: “Go to court!” gloating over their political advantage with the justice system. But if the French Revolution of 1789 taught the world anything, it was how it dealt with idiocy – of the likes of Marie Antoinette.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.