Machetes or bombs, it is still election season

Boda boda riders waiting for customers at a stage in Kampala

Boda boda riders waiting for customers at a stage in Kampala

About 10 years ago, I was rushing through Kampala’s streets when I chanced an old boy of mine astride a boda-boda.

He was beating other riders for me to ride with him. When we locked eyes, I realised this was Peter Matovu – not real names – my OB from Bishop Cyprian Lwanga High School, Kyabakadde. It was about six or seven years since we last saw each other. About four years earlier, I had just finished my bachelor’s degree at Makerere, and was now junior editor at Fountain Publishers.

I was impatient with life, and buzzing with ideas. You can imagine the suppressed horror for me seeing Peter riding a boda-boda. I mean no disrespect to folks in the boda- boda business, but Peter often ranked among the first five in our class.

How did he end up in this blighted industry – again, no disrespect – meant for academic flops?

He must have read my mind, and decided to break the ice: “Mwana, bino ebi-jacket tobitya, ndi steady, tukola mirimu gya gavumenti,” he said as I jumped off the bike and reached for my wallet to clear him. He declined the fare.

Throughout the entire ride, we had only spoken about missing friends, and memories from the old times. We had spoken about Archbishop Lwanga, who during our high school days, was still bishop of Kasana-Luwero.

Becoming the archbishop of Kampala gave us immense pride. [May the Lord be pleased with the work of Archbishop Kizito Lwanga, the man on whose hands we earned our futures].

“Eno ye offiisi, mwana,” he carried on telling me that he was not necessarily a boda-boda rider but, rather, a government spy whose camouflage was boda-boda riding. “Abaana bangi mu bintu bino.”

Upon telling me that they were many in the boda-spying business, he also cautioned me that if I ever jumped onto a bike from King Fahad Plaza, any stages around Parliament Avenue, or the National Theatre or Luwum Street, I should be careful with the rider.

Most riders at those stages are operatives. But also, he added, with a bit of humour, “if you ever want to know dirty things in government, be sure to pick bikes at those very stages; ebyo ebyana byasama.”

Those boys will tell you things because “they are also unhappy with the system. N’obusente butono.”

While we parted, I asked him whether he still found time for football—he had been good—to which he answered, “there we were also many in sports betting.”

Because I always want to know things, I often go to town just to pick bikes at those stages. I love them especially that the rider starts with Bobi-Wine or Kizza- Besigye-type of stories laying their traps.

I often gladly jump in. Sometime in April this year, I was on one of those bikes when a clearly bitter spy-rider started off by moaning the November 2020 protests.

I detected the trap. “They killed those people for nothing,” he stared. “Waa, they were rioting, they brought it unto themselves,” I challenged, setting my own trap.

“Laba fala!” he rebuked. “Did you see those videos of people ferrying used car tyres to burn? Why were they not arrested? Because it was us, ffe abakozi ba government,” he came back.

Hmm, I groaned. “Those people with red tops undressing people in yellow were us. We were everywhere, in teams,” he continued.

Feigning to call out his bollocks, I challenged more directly, “kyogamba oli mbega?”

As if he had not heard my question, he simply carried on, “Nze nkubuulira, abo tebali ba People Power.” And then he dug deep to demonstrate he was legit.

He showed me his weapon carefully stacked in the belly area of his jacket, and also asked me to look at his rusted boots. They looked military. He then asked, “okya mbusabusa?” Nope, I told him, I believed him.

Since he had killed the engine – I had reached my destination – the conversation continued. I learned he had lost a friendly neighbour to the so-called “stray bullets,” something which hurt him deeply.

I felt he had told this story to many travellers. He would go on to tell me – what almost everybody was saying – that Museveni’s campaign team was so afraid of Bobi Wine’s People Power becoming riotous at the end of the election.

They spent entire weeks debating ways of dealing with these boys. They had to move ahead of them and send warning signals to Kampala. To warrant a display of extreme power, they had been tasked to make the protests more dramatic, more violent.

Sounding like Charles Rwomushana, he added emphatically, prophetically, “And I can tell you, there is more coming.” There was a short silence.

“Museveni tali sure. Alina obalaga pawa mumuveko,” he continued going on to tell me that the trick was simple: “Kola obutujju, blame it on your potential opponents, which then justifies tighter measures and restrictions. Your opponents will be forced to keep disciplined; will be thoroughly weakened.” Simple.

While we parted, I recalled an incident at Kasangati during the Walk-to-Work protests, which I witnessed with absolute amazement. A section of boda-boda riders who had seemed to be escorting Kizza Besigye all of a sudden turned austere, started beating co-protestors and giving instructions to uniformed soldiers.

Isn’t that amazing? Anticipating that not many people would be escorting Kizza Besigye to town, boda-boda operatives were to walk with him, and generate protest energy.

But from nowhere, the numbers of protestors swelled, forcing them to quickly switch roles. As I watch the machete massacres in Masaka and now the half-hearted, half-interested terrorism allegedly committed by ADF, and ISIS, I cannot help but think about the lore of that boda-boda rider who had lost his neighbour to stray bullet.


The author is a political theorist based at Makerere University

© 2016 Observer Media Ltd