1/11 This question of background checks is related to many other questions that we have debated here on UAH, including that of the tribulations of Uganda Police, the ubiquity of violence in Ugandan society, and broader questions related to our general capabilities across the board. Even when you look closely at the debate on political participation, the autocratic propensties of leadership/political elites at every level of society (not just in the state, a point we often refuse to acknowledge), the question of the capabilities of a pre-industrial, mediaeval society always catch up with us.
2/11 Now, background checks: what are these? What do they entail? Me, myself, Corporal Otto: I was born in a banana plantation at the back of our kitchen. My illiterate grandmother was the midwife. My dining table, the placenta, for the 9 month intrauterine phase of my life was eaten by our dog, Popi. There are no records anywhere in Uganda that I was ever born. In places where they carry out background checks, things start from there: you are born in a hospital, your DNA is harvested, your blood group is established, bottom line, you get onto some database. You are registered with a general practitioner in places where there is a national health system, and every ailment you get is placed somehwere on a database.
3/11 You will go to school and this is compulsory, lest your parents end up in jail, and that means you will end up on the national educational system database. You will be mistreated by your booze-loving Mzee and end up on the vulnerable children’s database. Your parents will be entitled to child benefits, that will place you on the revenue services database. Your parents may get you a passport, and you will end up on the Home Affairs database. Every trip you make abroad will be logged somewhere, right from your infancy. And they will automatically have your finger prints.
4/11 As soon as you clock 16 years, you will see a card coming through the post, telling you that you have a social security number (SSN) or national insurance (NI) number depending on the country. Because all your correspondence comes to you by post, it means that your physical address is known, by post code or zipcode. You don’t live at “ekikkilira, kumpi nekiyinja, noyita kumuyembe, kumpi nakavule”. No! If you are Otto, yours will be, 117 Coffin Grove; Death side, Warwickshire; CV40 10QT; United Kingdom. In other words, you are on some one’s radar.
5/11 As you advance in your education, you will be entitled to a student’s loan. You will open a bank account where monthly instalments of the loan will be deposited. Every time, and whereever you draw cash, and where ever you do shopping, that is logged somewhere on a database. You will take bus/train rides using a students swipe card. Where ever you swipe it, someone knows already which city or town you are visiting. You will own a mobile phone, and not pay-as-you-go, but contractual. Whenever and where ever you make or receive a call, that is logged somewhere by GPS.
6/11 You will have a login to use the computers in your local library or your campus. When ever you use those computers, that is logged somewhere. You will have an email address. What ever you do with that address and whenever you log in, that is captured somewhere. Some camera will even have already recorded some of your biomentrics like the character of your iris…without your knowledge.
7/11 If you live in a country like Britain, which has 1 CCTV for every 13 members of the population, the highest CCTV density in the world, everywhere you walk, you are advised to smile, because you are on camera, being recorded somewhere. If you acquire a driving permit, you are already on the database of the agency that licences drivers and vehicle owners, by address etc.
8/11 In other words, where ever you are, you are leaving a massive electronic footprint, and that is the real content of your “back ground” in that “back ground check” that you are wondering about in the Ugandan context. In countries where individuals have such a huge electronic footprint, by the time police come to you to arrest you, you know they have their data: you just ask with a smile, for the handcuffs to be put on your wrists, because in your heart, you know they have the data: wamenikamata, bankutte, bangemye!
9/11 The other day we were talking about safe houses and torture and so on. Where people undergo subtle surveillance like I have tried to describe above, there is not torture. It is not because of democracy, as some of us argue here simplistically, it is because you do not have to whip some one to get information from him. You have it by just one push of the button. In Uganda, you lack that background information, whether on criminals, prospective judges ( I heard of a Senior Justice Kalanda who was found to have used some one else’s papers to advance his education), MPs, presidents, let alone military recruits.
10/11 So, let us get real and understand what makes things work or fail to work, instead of spending all our time ridiculing ourselves, wishing that we were like others, and generally cursing the dark without ever lighting any candle.
11/11 The lack of such infrastructure as I describe above accounts for such proverbs as “Ente endhirugavu enakuleta”, in other words, I can’t catch you now but when darkness sets in, you will come back to roost……I think that is Lusoga, your language. In other settings, whether it is shining or not, they will get you. Why?
Lance Corporal (Rtd) Otto Patrick