Journalists know that the best of ‘classified’ stories are easily accessed in bars and eating joints – where senior public servants, politicians and thieves dine.
For Kampala, these places include rests such as Fang-Fang, Javas Café or Kampala Club. Or bars of five- star hotels. But there are less sophisticated eating joints patronised by the same people for different attractions.
I have once narrated the story of a renowned local food joint in Wandegeya called Sebankyaye. This place is not your high-end restaurant for specialised menus and fork-and-knife dinning.
Renowned for its tastier pillau and luwombo dishes, lovers of beef are served bulky pieces, and one can order for extra soup for free. You sit in the open. There is no privacy or reservations as a table for four could be shared by peers or complete strangers. Sebankyaye is also known for its curvaceous and friendlier maids. While eating joints tend to exclusively hire skinny girls for service, Sebankyaye is an equal opportunity employer.
Makerere University staff and the elite of Wandegeya frequent the area. Elderly public servants with a weakness for luwombo fancy this joint. Indeed, during the lunch hour, the place is overflowing with hungry caterpillars. For quite some time, I have dined there too. It was here about two years ago when I eavesdropped a high stakes conversation.
The narrator was explaining to a bunch of colleagues about why traders in downtown Kampala may never stop rioting – and why every time they strike, they are so ferociously contained.
His speech was meant to give context to the promiscuously rising rent which is also stubbornly collected in dollars – even for no-toilet malls.
“Look, they are victims too,” he started after a fellow diner opened the subject. “You think these landlords do not care about the consequences of their actions? Of course, they do! But pity them, they have no choice.”
The authority with which this obviously privileged public servant spoke forced his friends to listen and not interrupt. Greying, tall, well- kempt and stylishly tucked in like a high school teacher, this fellow cut the profile of an old-man-about-town.
“Look, there is a mafia in this town. When the president admits to it, he is telling the truth. Tamale Mirundi is not mad either. There is actually a mafia in town,” he reassured his friends.
“The problem nowadays is that the president who set the mafia rolling has now lost control over it. For his otherwise acute obsession for power, these boys have learned to bring him money for elections and patronage, but at the same time harass businesses for personal gain,” he said in a sombre tone.
“Let me explain. All the rich businesspeople in Kampala are known to the boys in security service – who night-crawl as the mafia. They have a directory and keep track of businesspeople accounts like they were their bankers. Rich people are required to make financial contribution to NRM projects without which they could not make their wealth. Ever wondered why demonstrations against rent increase as we move towards the election? the narrator asked rhetorically.
“It is because the mafia is more legitimate and busier around this time – hunting for themselves and boss’ election. See, at CMI, ISO or JATT offices, these boys have displays of businesspeople accounts on their computers the way they will appear in Barclays or Stanbic Bank if you visit the branch manager. Once invited to either Naguru or Nakasero, these boys ‘politely’ ask for contribution.
“We see all these billions and millions on your account, what do you use these monies for? All these profits; why not ‘support’ government work,” the narrator said, making a voice of a mafia boy. The cost of failure to contribute is far higher than simply ‘supporting’ government work. Look, contribution can be negotiated.
But once the boys choose to punish you for non- contribution, it is a different story. They might block your imports at URA in Jinja or Nakawa for months. They might unleash the tax authorities or banks and have you bankrupted in a day.
Or you could be accused of money laundering with even severer consequences. You are left with one option. The money is delivered in cash either in a backpack or box. No wire transfers.
In return, you are assured of protection from ‘encumbrances’ such as URA or rioting vendors. This is the world, folks, and will continue as long as our man is in office,” this nation-builder concluded. I called for extra soup, as they too turned to other matters. I left wondering whether this narrator was not one of them.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.