By Jonah Byakutaga
As the USA & China continue squabbling like little children, I was reminded of several incidents growing up when a stubborn little fella, endlessly got into fights with his siblings, which were always followed by the siblings running to the parents to pass judgement, hoping for a punishment (needless to say this little fella always fell victim to the “home justice system”) – the guilty party always tends not to report the issue (think USA & China for a second). Many times the mother sent them away as she finished with the more important task of cooking & gently but sternly, like a true Mutooro lady (they never shout), told them to sit down and stop fighting or else they would be left home when it was time to go visiting – the worst punishment at that time.
To Mr. Trump & President Xi Jinping, now is not the time to settle your fight. Sit down and let us deal with the pandemic first. In the meantime make sure your younger sibling, the World Health Organization (WHO) has had his milk (read as funded). We shall seek for answers on WHO & China’s alleged complicity or negligence when the time is right. For now let us finish with the cooking (Covid 19 pandemic), then we shall punish the guilty party later.
Uganda has fortunately not lost a single life as I type this, so post-mortem might not be a fitting term, but nevertheless allow me dissect our response as a country over the last 4 weeks. I will start with the negative observations and happily finish with the positives, or put differently the dessert.
Our favourite song Corruption was belted out louder than ever. We have had a fair good share of scandals but this stands at the top simply because of the timing. While the rest of the country is starving & getting acquainted with poverty, a few big shots in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) found it convenient to make a few bucks. Astute businessman ‘Aponye’, whom I praised last week for his business nous, has been trapped in the carnage and reportedly lost his supply tender due to questions over possible background dealings in winning the tender in the first place. The officials at OPM who aided the process have been sent for a stint in the Luzira neighbourhood. You are innocent till proven guilty so I will accord the accused the same privilege for now.
The closure of the airport, an effective measure albeit done late, brought out another other ugly side of our deep rooted corruption. Powerful politicians allegedly made threatening calls to have their relatives released and walked through the airport with neither the option of quarantine nor any medical check. By now their names have been whispered everywhere and therein lies the challenge. The fact that no public sanctioning has been meted out is an indication that when this pandemic comes to an end, it will be business as usual and they will at worst be rotated in cabinet positions to less “juicy” ministries, a tiny slap on the wrist if you ask me.
The issue of quarantine for travellers from high risk countries also gave us a clearer picture of how things operate in our beloved country. A few current & former ministers, high ranking government officials had carte blanche on quarantine zones. Exorbitant fees were charged without consideration of the dire position these returnees had found themselves and to this very minute no intervention from government has been felt. I wonder, with schools closed, why they were not turned into temporary quarantine centres as the government re-grouped with permanent solutions. Perhaps the legendary Kyankwanzi could have also offered another such venue. Ignore me right now, I tend to get a wild imagination when dreaming up solutions.
To our dear President, there has never been a better time to make a stand against corruption. Thorough “independent” investigations should be carried out and followed by sacking of these powerful individuals who flaunted all public health regulations while endangering the rest of the country and a major overhaul of the OPM technical wing regardless of the findings. This is the central point of all government businesses and projects and this can’t continue any longer. Maybe a severe reprimand will set the tone moving forward.
While still on the topic of corruption, our dear Members of Parliament (MPs) politely asked their constituents to hold their beer, as they jumped into the fray not wanting to be left out. UGX10bn was “stealthily” sneaked through the supplementary budget requested for by government. What is amusing is we the public are expected to believe that the 10th Parliament & Ministry of Finance all did not know about these funds, which equate to approximately UGX20m for each MP. I have heard a few absurd explanations from some of the recipients arguing that they need to feed their constituents. I wonder how this will be done when only the national task force is allowed to supply food country-wide. My dear MPs, why don’t you request for these funds to be sent directly to the national task force, then hold them accountable if your voters are not fed. That advice is free and I won’t ask to be paid off your 20million.
Mentioning the task force reminded me of something I have failed to grasp. I found it rather strange seeing a few private companies donate “generously” and then a few others issue notices days later to their staff warning of an impending down-size of employees as they do not have enough funds to retain them. I just wonder if these donations could instead be kept by their accountants and paid as salaries to staff who badly need to keep their jobs. Several monarchs also came on board. A few like Bunyoro provided a clear outline on where their UGX60m would go, but the others “simply gave to government” to spend as they wish. Again I wonder, would these donations not be best served providing for their subjects, or at least purchasing of food stuffs to be handed out through the National Task Force representatives at district level such as the now relevant RDCs. Maybe there is another motive behind these generous donations that I have missed out on. Regardless we are grateful for the generosity in giving, whatever the motives might be.
The dearth in a few critical ministries has also been exposed like never before. We have watched for several weeks as our Ministry of Finance has failed to provide a comprehensive economic emergency plan for the country. Bits and pieces, all not fully convincing have been shared by Bank of Uganda, but they left more questions than answers; for example commercial banks have the leverage on loan repayment holidays. For those unfortunate not to own a private home, rent continues to pile up and still no respite from our financial technocrats. I read an analogy from one of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) bosses and allow me to paraphrase; “do not go after your only seeds for the next season’s plantation when faced by famine.” I have desisted from calling it strange since I am no financial expert, but common sense dictates I utilise some seeds right now, since it’s a famine that I might not live through to experience the uncertainties of the next plantation season. And, Ugandans saving with NSSF are only asking for 10 seeds to plant right now and fight the famine, not the whole sack of 100 seeds, leaving enough left for the next plantation season.
Enough on the Finance people, their Foreign Affairs counterparts deserve an equal mention. From the moment the 65 Ugandan students in Wuhan begged for evacuation and asked their government, charged with protecting them to come to their rescue, I knew it would all be in vain. At that point (end of January), flights all over the globe were not yet grounded & only 3 deaths had been reported in China. In addition all 65 students were healthy and they watched as classmates from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia & Bangladesh were evacuated home by their respective governments. I am convinced the government would have been able to quarantine and monitor them, considering that we have since been able to do the same for thousands of returning Ugandans, some of whom have turned out positive and from high risk countries. I wonder what the exact job description should be for our Ambassadors, or what the Embassies and Consulates are responsible for if not the safety of their citizens.
I promised dessert at the end of this meal, & as small as it is, I will still serve it out. Once again a hearty vote of thanks to H.E Yoweri Museveni. A glance at what is happening in some of our neighbouring countries makes you appreciate the leadership he, together with some of his cabinet members (particularly the team at the Ministry of health) have offered to Ugandans. The fact that we are still at zero deaths is further testament to a job done well. A few suggestions however, can we forget about buying vehicles for now & instead focus on acquiring Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) & fully equip our Regional Referral Hospitals as this is an investment that will live beyond the covid 19 pandemic. For the vehicles, just like was done during the CHOGM period, all government MDA vehicles can be commandeered with most civil servants not at work right now.
The security forces have changed tact and are now logically applying the directives of the President. It’s been a long time coming and I am glad that the forces charged with protecting and securing citizens are now majorly doing that. A few errant ones have taken innocent lives and our prayer is that they are brought to justice. Long may this sanity continue.
Finally as a country, this pandemic has posed a few interesting questions to both the leaders and the followers. I will leave you with a few; can we adopt hand washing as a new norm and way of life? Can moderate social distancing become part of our very active social lives? Can scientific weddings be fully adopted so struggling youths do not have to borrow money to fund extravagant weddings? Can all our universities adopt virtual learning as a way forward so students continue with their education during such times? Do we need to travel to places of worship when we can watch the full service on television at home? Can the relatively clean and empty capital city be maintained in similar manner? I know we tried and failed with Pioneer buses but a functioning public transport network of buses and trains would reduce on congestion in the city centre.
I just woke up from my dream as I typed the last paragraph, but it starts with individuals, I will do my part. Over to the rest of you.
@JonahByakutaaga on twitter