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Don’t blame the hustler blame the game” in response to Muwema

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“Every hood gat’ their own hustlers But this is the hustler’s anthem HUSTLE HARD” – Ace Hood

By Angelo Izama

Dear Editor,

In his most recent article your columnist Mr. Fred Muwema, while ignoring most of my arguments to his earlier gratuitous conflation of the crimes of kidnapping with the broader issue of counterfeiting, once again provided little by way of evidence or even argument to back up his claim that proper regulation of counterfeiting can lead us to the doors of violent kidnappers.

It appears his purpose is to draw your readers’ attention to the negative effects of counterfeiting by piggybacking on the current public sense of insecurity following the spate of violent murders and kidnaps in Uganda. Let us agree that counterfeiting can be harmful and that criminal entrepreneurs may on occasion engage in distribution of counterfeit products as well as kidnapping.
However, there is little value to public policy on crime detection and prevention to suggest an evidentiary lead claimed in his first article that to fight kidnaps one must fight counterfeiting.

Moreover, before we return to the serious matter of flaccidity of law enforcement in general and elite capture of the regulatory space – let us observe the following. Terrorist organisations may dabble in kidnapping and ransoming without needing to supplement their income from running counterfeiting operations. Likewise, counterfeiting networks need not operate kidnapping operations to be successful and often do not.

There can be a link, but it must be taken on the merit of each case.
In the port area of Kismayo, Somalia for example, a thriving illicit economy is probably benefiting Al Shabab militants who separately kidnap and kill their victims. These terrorist networks are reportedly taxing transit of the illegal charcoal trade transiting through the port areas as well as other imports – not excluding counterfeited products. In Kampala, according to one estimate over 60 per cent of spirits, whiskeys and wines are counterfeit. It does not follow that the proprietor of Brisk Bar on Wampewo in Kololo is running a kidnapping ring or that “Charlie” and “Elvis” or Ange Noir/Guvnor as well as Silk Lounge, both popular bars and clubs are criminal masterminds with a ransoming side income.
In fact, there are more serious aspects of organized crime in East Africa such as the drugs and narcotics trade that allegedly involve unofficial cover of certain elements in security to guarantee passage through airports and ports – that have no connection to kidnapping for ransom but may explain some other types of violence associated with such protection rackets.

It would be helpful for Muwema to consider that the particularities of the kidnap and ransom epidemic right now along with other crime waves such as the human/child sacrifice wave in recent times as well as the school and market fires (and Iron Bar hitmen). If one were to situate counterfeiting within these waves – will it show some evidentiary link? Probably not.

Mr. Muwema, in calling attention to some of the harm caused by counterfeit products, is also only kicking the can down the road of the issues bedevilling illicit economies. The dark economy in Somalia is an outgrowth of state failure for example and it follows that one cannot jump to regulation without understanding the context within which illegal and harmful activities occur. As a matter of fact, illicit economies are critical for the survival of disadvantaged sections of our community, the “marginalized and underprivileged” or to put it directly to the majority outside the narrow elite that live and operate in controlled (and protected) spaces. Without a commentary on their so-called criminality – these illegal economies are the legitimate “hustle” of the underprivileged. To “hustle hard” is to survive by any means necessary where opportunities are unavailable. This is the only morality worth paying attention to – survival.

A lot of social mobility depends on illicit economies. “Fake it till you make it” is not an empty aphorism for the hustlers in Kampala’s 67 slums who may be counterfeiting the bulk of products for common use. They see these activities as real avenues to progress and it is likely Mr. Muwema’s downtown clients who pay in cash (and not cheques or credit cards) will have a connection to the informal economy where the hustle is hard and to survive one has to hustle hard (though I recently learned that over 80 per cent of law firms in Uganda are themselves not registered to pay tax so we know the hustle is everywhere).
If Muwema were to walk up the strip of bars and clubs next to his office at night – the hundreds of “ghetto Cinderellas” who color the night life of Kampala and give it its reputation as a fun-loving city shall likely be dressed in Asian knock-offs but are still essential patrons to Casablanca, Big Mikes, O’Leary’s or Riders.

An artefact from this cross pollination from downtown hustle to uptown respectability is how it is accepted in Uganda that lower denomination dollar bills have a lesser value.

I remember going to exchange dollars at a forex bureau in Forest Mall in Kampala. My US $20 bills were segregated by year and given a lower value. I told the teller nowhere in the world does the same dollar have different values and asked why it was in Uganda. She said this was how business was done. A graduate from Makerere University, I reminded her that the “tradition” of putting a higher value on more recent bills originated downtown from the “Magendo” era when scarce forex had led to an increase in fake currency. To make things work the downtown traders, the forebears of the Kampala City Traders Association (KACITA), many of who were smugglers of coffee and other items, devised a culture on dealing with only latest bank notes. Many of them became legitimate businessmen and realised their hustle. One of them (convicted for money fraud in the United States), my friend Al Haj Nasser Ntege Sebaggala, became Mayor.

As the head of the Uganda National Bureau of Standards Dr. Ben Mayindo observed this month, speaking about fake products in the market “We know them (counterfeiters) but we cannot kill them because these local industries are the backbone of industrialization, they employ Ugandans and develop the economy”. The Anti-Counterfeiting Tsar (Dr. Mayindo) did not have to jump to a fantastical association of fake products with violent criminality but he did concede that the fake industry today is the real one tomorrow (I will leave out the story of Movit Products Limited for another day).

Finally, and returning to the general question of the political economy of crime. As Charles Tilly, the British sociologist theorised in “War Making and State Making as Organised Crime, illicit economies like other protection rackets benefit the elite. It is unlikely that Muwema will purchase fake drugs (I hope not) but I bet every 80 cents of a dollar from a counterfeit drug ends up with some elite fat cat. It is the elite that can organise protection from regulation and regulators. It is the elite who also seek to extract value from the control of these activities.

When I first encountered the story of fake Hepatis B vaccines – my reaction was to read it as an attempt by one group of elite racketeers to corner the million-dollar market (mostly private) of Hep B vaccine. How else would one explain away the regulatory oversight that had allowed millions of so-called vials into the market already? It was someone’s racket. There are many of them and in the last article I mentioned specifically the racket around sacket alcohol and sports betting which have successfully avoided taxation being better protected for now.

Finally,these rackets can get out of hand and distort law enforcement capacity in general. They can also get violent. After the 2006 election and forced to think about political transitions I initially looked to Pakistan and Egypt (because of the large role the military plays in politics) as well as Indonesia (which had a dirty democracy superintended by military rulers who started off with a nationalist ideological socialism like the National Resistance Movement (NRM).

In 2010, I had an interaction on both issues (crime and governance) with the former Inspector General of Police Gen. Kale Kayihura (the last time we also met). It was a brief breakfast at which Gen. Kayihura (who first caught my attention as the ideological captain of the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces (UPDF) as Political Commissar. He used the term “centrifugal forces” to warn about change in Jinja and forever had my interest). The meeting was meant to talk about the upcoming election. I had been briefly held for writing in the Monitor (together with Henry Ochieng), that entrenched regimes risked triggering people power protests.

This meeting was to precede the people power upsets in Tunisia and then Egypt which formed the policy of violent crackdown by the Uganda police on protests in general. However, at the time we met to discuss a view I had on the position of the police. I suggested to the General that increasing crime including the iron bar affair were being driven by the deteriorating economy which was hurting particularly the inner cities.
I drew a comparison between rising inflation and crime (looking at the police crime statistics themselves that showed that majority of crimes had an element of the economy in them). I urged the General, therefore, not to conflate the wave of criminal instability with some overtly political reason (such as urban insurgency) since the same crime could clear if economic conditions improved. In similar vein the police could do little to change the economy which was a matter for other government departments.

Suffice to say this conversation had no impact on the official policy of the Uganda police which cracked down hard on the economic crisis after the election typified by the “Walk to Walk” protests that occurred under severe economic strain and high inflation. Later Gen. Kayihura would also adopt a view that employing high numbers of young people as crime preventers could serve as a solution to keep both crime and protest low. It did not work.

Today the political economy of crime looks closer to Mexico. Violent criminality in that country exists side by side with a thriving democracy and shows how out of hand things can get. At that point even if one concluded that criminal network dabble in many enterprises including counterfeiting – it will not help Muwema’s argument.

The hustle in some of Mexico’s drug towns is truly hard.

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