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Politics

The untold story of Kampala’s counterfeiting business

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By Charles Kamya Ssentamu

When President Museveni’s rogue (NRM) policy makers introduced a law in parliament that would require coffee farmers to be licensed, many observers looked at the move in ethnic terms. They believed this inevitably to be the latest plank in a suspected, long-term creeping plan to anchor a “Rwakitura hegemony” in Uganda.

But while that might not be far from the truth, what many did not realize was how the bill fits into Museveni’s obsession with controlling any enterprise. That includes the different sub-layers of operations in Kampala’s criminal underworld.

The tale of a young college graduate – one of the very many in Uganda that after graduating these days have very little chance of securing employment in whatever profession they’ve acquired skills – is very eye-opening. This young man, Tony Sejjemba was one of the lucky few that had the means and wherewithal to try their hand in private enterprise.

Sejjemba went about setting up a small graphics business in the printing and design hub along Kampala’s Nasser Road. That was earlier this year, and the young entrepreneur was not completely blind, or deaf to the downside risks he was assuming. Nasser is notorious as a hotbed of counterfeit and forgery, and Sejjemba knew he was wading into dangerous territory. Still, he wasn’t prepared for what hit him.

Nasser Road is organized crime territory. The people that work there, making counterfeit, or forged documents on order and in broad daylight cannot do so day in day out, month after month without “protection” from “very big personalities”. Sources say that’s not only factual, it is logical. The counterfeiters and fraud merchants of Nasser for a fee will deliver anything – from a forged land title, a driving permit, a national ID, to passports, and visas of a number of countries.

The only sacred cows (documents) that the counterfeiters of this place will not touch are Buganda Kingdom marriage certificates or titles for land owned by the Kingdom, and the Kabaka. That, according to observers is because of ethnic loyalties by the majority of the people that manage and run the crime racket there.

“Even the ruling big shots will not dare antagonize the many subjects of the traditional head in whose traditional jurisdiction they operate,” commented one observer.

The ruling family Mafia – the concealed but real kingpins of Nasser Road – having long ago made their peace with the Kabaka, then ring-fenced the counterfeit business for themselves. One that has not gotten their blessings from that Mafia – which also counts selling young Ugandans into slave labor in the Middle East amongst its activities – cannot run a business on Nasser Road. That is what Sejjemba found out, very expensively.

It is on this road that all manner of scams from the Great Lakes Region happen, such as securing travel documents, for known fugitives from the law, that look as good as anything legit, which then enable them to travel the world. While Kampala security forces will once in a while stage a “raid” to “clean up the area”, what has not always been clear is why and how the suspects are able to escape incarceration, only to continue from where they stopped.

For the young Sejjemba the puzzle would unravel a couple of months after he opened shop. Arriving to work one morning, he found his premises had been broken into and all his equipment, save per chance an external memory drive that held vital backups of some of his clients’ work, had been carted away overnight.

Puzzled but convinced this was the work of ordinary thieves, Sejjemba went about rebuilding his business and investing in what he believed was more impregnable burglar proofing. What he did not realize though was that he was up against an unusual adversary – one licensed and protected by the state only for those that had “blessing from higher up”. Sejjemba had never “had a discussion” with anyone “close to the First Family”.

Advice for him came from a rather unexpected source. In the hustle of chasing for contracts, Sejjemba has never paid attention to the elderly, unkempt-looking figure who always was near the main access to the building where he worked. Whether he arrived for work before dawn or left well past midnight, Sejjemba had subconsciously noticed this seemingly forlorn figure out of the corner of his eye.

He never asked why, assuming the wizened man to be one of the many destitute people that hang around Kampala with no work. Up to now Sejjemba wonders what prompted the old man to tell him about the racket. Did he simply take pity on him, or was he an emissary sent to warn the intruder that his presence in a zone reserved for licensed criminals was unwelcome?

He might never know but the old man was generous enough to narrate what had happened during the night Sejjemba’s shop was raided. Long after everybody else had called it a day, three vehicles bearing what looked like government registration number plates pulled up outside the printing hub and disgorged a dozen men.

Some were in civilian clothes while other wore combat fatigues and carried guns. Using master keys, they opened the main access and made straight for Sejjemba’s small shop. Within minutes, they had ransacked the place, taking away whatever they deemed important. He reported the incident to a nearby police post where nobody appeared to be keen to investigate the case. Sejjemba decided to take the old man’s advice.

It was time to leave this territory to those it belonged to.

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