‘Stealing back’ – Uganda’s Nasser Road, political posters, forgery and resistance

There is a huge demand for forged documents in Uganda from academic documents, bank statements, birth certificates, to identification cards. In the capital Kampala these documents are commonly made on Nasser Road. Kristof Titeca and Yusuf Serunkuma write how in the context where the state, and private institutions are considered widely corrupt the delivery of various services and documents is regarded as indispensable. The power of political posters designed on the road is explored by the authors.

By Kristof Titeca and Yusuf Serunkuma

Around 2014, the story goes, a man walked to Mulago Hospital – Uganda’s biggest hospital – looking for a death certificate to declare himself dead so that he could escape loan repayment.  The hospital snitched on him and called the police. “But hadn’t this man heard of Nasser Road?” one commenter asked.

Strange as it sounds—someone seeking their own death certificate to fleece a bank—it is insightful at two levels: first, there’s a huge demand for forged (alternative) documents in the country. These range from academic documents, bank statements, birth certificates, to identification cards and several others. Second, while illegal as defined by the state, practices of forgery and counterfeit are considered as practices of survival: ‘Kweyiya’, loosely translated as ‘sketching an existence’.

There’s one major address in Kampala where these documents are commonly made: Nasser Road. It’s the heart of the country’s printing industry, filled with shopping arcades, each of which are jam-packed with graphic designer studios, printing places, and numerous shops. Whichever document is required for any official purpose, a passable fake can be made by this street—if not unmistakable from the original, it would be aesthetically better than the official one if you worked with the right designer.  A common joke being that, for a reasonable fee, Jesus Christ’s birth certificate can be printed there.

The issue of ‘Nasser Road degrees’ has been regularly debated in the Ugandan press—with moralistic lenses—with frequent allegations of politicians using these degrees to clear the bar for permission to run for election. In 2018, Uganda’s speaker of parliament ordered a crackdown on the road, for what she considered the ‘serious impact on the country.’

In a recently published edited volume, and together with photographers Badru Katumba and Zahara Abdul, we write about Nasser Road, and one of its most visible products: political posters.

The street and its posters must be firmly understood in Uganda’s political and economic context, and particularly the limited social mobility for its citizens.  For example, 2017 statistics show that 9 out of 10 Ugandans who have completed any form of education cannot find a job. Somewhere in the region of 700,000 people join the job market every year regardless of their qualifications, but only 90,000 of these are lucky enough to find something to do—in a space where political connections are considered crucial. All of this happens in a general context in which the state, and private institutions (banks and other corporations) are considered widely corrupt, ineffective and slow in the delivery of various services and documents.

In these general circumstances, with few opportunities for the unconnected, it’s perhaps not surprising that fraud and forgery begin to be regarded as legitimate options – as an opportunity to ‘steal back’. Getting a job with fake documents is considered an act of survival, and for some, an act of resistance and bravery – beating a system which is considered structurally unfair. As the Kampala police spokesperson explicitly argued in an interview in 2018: “This is a crime that has great support from the society. ‘Abantu mubaleke bafune emirimu,” (loosely translated as ‘leave people to get jobs’) people say in support.”

In other words, in a situation of difficult economic circumstances, resorting to fraud can be considered a legitimate act of resistance, a “weapon of the weak”. The fraud perpetrated in and through Nasser Road is thus seen as a form of redistribution, a legitimate right exercised by the Wananchi – the ordinary citizens. In the words of an analyst, “forgery is a public service provided by Nasser Road to address a systemic imbalance in opportunities in Uganda”.

As Yusuf Serunkuma has written, “Indeed, as a centre of power, Nasser Road has many times redefined people’s identities, created new futures, contested, and outwitted official power for the advantage of the ordinary person.” One analyst would describe Nasser Road noting that “it’s not the American dream, but the Ugandan dream: Nasser Road is often the only way to get a job, or get rich, in these circumstances: through fraud”.

A journalist described this in strikingly similar terms noting that, “in Uganda, you have two ways to get rich: you either work with the authorities, meaning you’re related to a politician, an army commander, or someone in the ministry – you name it. Or you use fraud. In fact, both are closely related!” This perception also explains some of the nicknames given to Nasser Road, such as “the road of those with sharp minds” (Oluguudo lw’abagezi), or “Uganda’s Silicon Valley”.

One of the most visible products of the street are its political posters, commenting both on national and international politics. Strikingly, they display images of international figures that many regard as villains, such as Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein. The aesthetics include a mixture of images copied from the internet and flashy colours, showing Hollywood action figures such as RoboCop or Rambo, but with their faces replaced by those of national and international political actors. In these images, it is arguable that ordinary people aspire to have the powers of these movie stars and would use these powers, if they had them, to fight against the often extortionist, extractivist, unfair but apparently officially sanctioned institutions because they form a part of the state. What becomes clear is that people who produce and also buy these posters have a critique of officially sanctioned power and are thus willing to associate with any alternative centres of power that seek to challenge these officially sanctioned institutions.

The above context also helps to understand the posters’ politics and aesthetics: the main characters are presented as being locked in a contest with the powers that be—often the officially sanctioned national or global institutions. In doing so, they rely on the theatrical, the supernatural and the impossible to combat these injustices. The designers of Nasser Road translate the concerns, wishes, and hopes of the wider population into the poster design.

In other words, in a situation which many perceive to be oppressive, action heroes in battle outfits are presented as being ready to take on these oppressive structures of power. Thus, it can be argued that RoboCop symbolizes the impossible task of bringing justice to an unjust system. In the words of one designer: “They think their heroes, RoboCop, are getting ready to battle their tormentors. To them, buying the poster is a way of identifying with the efforts of their heroes to change the status quo, for the benefit of the underprivileged in society.”

This is the case for both fighting at the international level – fighting imperial structures – and the national level. Whereas the Museveni government has always been characterised by political repression, this has intensified over the years. For a long time the Museveni government was widely regarded as an example of a ‘hybrid regime’, characterised by both democratic and authoritarian elements; yet over the years, this has evolved into outright authoritarianism.

In this context, many argue that the posters are a source of hope, allowing them to dream of a better future, and visualising how success is possible even in difficult circumstances: “It shows how Bobi Wine was small, a boy from the ghetto, and now he can go to the state house. When you see the poster, you can start dreaming: you’re down, and you go up! People get ideas from this, they’re inspired.”

The posters are not only a metaphor but also a practice, a form of activism. They are considered a relatively safe way of expressing political support, which one commentator called “a totem of their political and social struggle (…) in times when political rallies are banned in Uganda, these posters have efficiently formed the glue that holds political movements together.” By hanging it in their houses, the poster becomes visible and invisible at the same time, expressing support within their social networks, but hiding – as much as possible – from the reach of the state.

This particularly is the case for posters displaying opposition leaders, for which designers and distributors of posters therefore feel specifically monitored. And indeed, at particularly contentious political moments, Nasser Road and its posters have been raided – confiscating opposition posters, arresting the designers and distributors and seizing printing machines.

Nasser Road is emblematic of many spaces in the world: a place of innovation and contestation against repressive regimes, at both national and global levels. It uses print, and fraud, as a way to contest closed and repressive regimes—a ‘weapon of the weak’ in dire circumstances; whose morality and legitimacy is very different from its legality. The posters are a particular product of this space, and a rare form of political expression which can operate at both national and more global scales: they are not only able to contest the national regime but also international structures. Similar to humor or radical art, it’s a rare platform of contestation in repressive circumstances.

Nasser Road – political posters in Uganda is edited by Kristof Titeca.

Kristof Titeca teaches at the Institute of Development Policy at Antwerp University. His work lies at the intersection of political science, development – and area – studies and relies heavily on field research.

Yusuf Serunkuma is a columnist in Uganda’s newspapers, scholar, and a playwright. In 2014, Fountain Publishers published his first play, The Snake Farmers which was received with critical acclaim in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. He teaches decolonial studies/new colonialism and writes regularly for ROAPE

Featured Photographs: photographs and posters in the text are reproduced from Kristof Titeca’s Nasser Road


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