Sunday June 1 2014

Politicians turn funerals into arenas of cheap politicking

By Bernard Tabaire

Funerals are sad enough affairs. But they gather people. We call them mourners (family, friends, neighbours, well-wishers). Politicians call them crowds (potential voters), and they see a rally. Given half a chance, they turn funerals into active political arenas.

Which tends to leave thinking people seething: have you no shame, You Politician?
I went to bury a relative on May 11 some 200km out of Kampala. I needed to head back to the city the same day. The politicians had other ideas.

Speech time came near the end of the Requiem Mass. The LC-I chairman was a decent man. His remarks were as sensible as they were brief and clear. Good example he has set, I thought. That was too soon. He invited someone from the LC-III hierarchy before resuming his seat. The LC-III man called on an LC-III woman who invited someone who… like that, like that.

Common in almost all the “condolence” speeches of the politicians, was an emotional ending – a plea to be re-elected in 2016. Yet there was virtually no emotion when talking about the deceased.

Okay for me so far. I could still zoom off back to Kampala at 5pm to beat darkness, narrow and poorly maintained highways, and general driver insanity.

Then a member of the family had the inspired idea that because every office holder present had asked for votes, anyone present who was challenging for 2016 should also come forward and “greet” mourners. Fairness.

I am Y; I am running for LC-III councillor for this area. Unlike my opponent, the incumbent, who just said he will pay for one of the children of the deceased for one school term if elected, for me I will pay fees for a term whether elected or not. Applause. It didn’t matter to mourners that the guy had just misrepresented his opponent. The incumbent never said he would pay fees only if elected. He promised to pay fees for a term. Full stop.

May 2014 is about two years before we vote for most councillor positions. But, babe, are politicians campaigning! I didn’t see but was told that the mother of the incumbent woman MP walked out when a potential opponent of her daughter slammed the MP for being absent at the funeral. For me, she swore solemnly, constituents are very dear and I would never abandon them in their time of need. Right.

Back when Uganda was innocent, the LC-I chairman would welcome mourners to the village, say a few well placed words and invite the LC-III chief, then the area MP and finally the LC-V boss, assuming all were present. Finished.

Now every little shady man or woman running for every inconsequential elective slot must have a turn at the funeral microphone. A two-hour funeral turns into a four-hour show of meaningless politics. I eventually headed out just before 6pm, exhausted by all the politics at the wrong venue.

No matter, poverty fuels this behaviour. The bereaved family is down on cash, probably having nursed the deceased for months, even years. Any money coming in at funeral time is most welcome. And politicians and political-wannabes are an easy source.

So the family rents mourners and the politicians get to announce their intentions before this captive group. For that they must leave the family with “something” toward meeting funeral expenses.

From what I saw, those gunning for LC-V and MP jobs contributed anything between Shs20,000 and Shs50,0000 and each contributor happily announced the figure. Big applause.

Contenders for lower positions gave Shs2,000 or Shs5,000, and most didn’t say the amount. All we heard was: I am now leaving the family something for funeral expenses, to muted applause.

I have no idea how much the family got from the more-than-20 people who lined up to show face to potential voters. Whether they knew the deceased was secondary.
Nothing is nauseating, however, when politicians push and shove not because they love the dead so much, but because they want to use the corpse for political advantage.

In Bukomansimbi days ago, senior DP and NRM leaders jostled over the body of the brother of the founding leader of the DP. Police intervened.
I know politicians are always looking for a crowd they can hijack for a pittance, and that nothing is sacred in politics. And that families are so poor they will hand the microphone to anyone who will posture and leave behind a few coins.
But I still condemn the practice. Poor or not, families need to provide dignity to their dead.

Mr Tabaire is the co-founder and director of programmes at African Centre for Media Excellence in Kampala