Saturday April 5 2014

It’s citizens who pay for the mess politicians make

By David F. K. Mpanga

A few months ago, a split in the leadership ranks of the military-political establishment that runs Uganda made headline news for a few weeks. The reporting of that story caused the closure of this newspaper for a while so I will not tempt fate by speaking its name again here; you all know who and what I am talking about.

On one of the mornings that the goings on between the protagonists of that particular drama was splashed across the front pages, I stopped by the side of the road on my way to work to buy the papers from my friendly newspaper vendor.

As always, I greeted him and made some passing small talk, asking him what was in the news that day. His answer was as quick as it was witty, “Era bali mu katemba wabwe. Byandi nyumye naye ate bikkossa ffe!” (loosely “Just more of their drama which would have been interesting to watch if it was not us who will suffer in the end.”)

On the morning of writing this piece, I stopped by the same vendor to get my daily news fix. Tossing the papers through the window on the passenger side of my car, he said his usual cheery good morning greeting and then said “Ah! Baabo bazeemu!” (loosely, “There you are! They are at it again!”). A quick glance at the papers showed a tabloid headline screaming about an alleged coup plot that had been foiled. I didn’t read the accompanying (largely unsubstantiated) story until much later in the day but I spent most of my traffic-hampered drive to work contemplating about what is going on in this country right now.

Several images and thoughts ran through my head. The shocking pictures of a bishop, wearing his collar, being manhandled by policemen amidst swirls of tear gas. The mild mannered retired General harassed to the point of a public display of exasperation. Splits and lack of consensus amongst the ruling party and the elite in general. Widely publicised allegations of NRM cadreship overshadowing the police’s calling to serve and protect all Ugandans. Now we have uncontroverted allegations of a foiled coup plot.

Very few things shock or worry us these days. We have chosen to live somnambulant lives; collectively sleepwalking as a nation, blissfully unaware of the increasingly worrisome signs. We would rather dwell on European Champions League soccer and alleged cannibalism in Rakai than wake up to the fact that this bus seems to be drifting dangerously off course.

In all these things what troubled me the most was the fact that the people who are stirring and heating the pot the most will be the least affected by the negative consequences of what they have done. We have failed to engender a culture that holds the elite politically, socially and practically responsible for their mistakes.

If nations were goods in a store, they would be fragile goods; once broken they are very hard to put back together again. Shop keepers who trade in fragile merchandise have a dilemma. People who buy their wares often want to inspect, touch and feel them before committing to purchase.

Yet as they do so before making payment, the prospective customers may break or irreparably damage the goods thus causing the shop keepers loss. So how do the shop keepers ensure that their prospective customers’ curiosity is satisfied without running the risk of loss of merchandise before receiving payment? They put up a clear sign on the shelves saying “you break it, you own it!” In legal terms, the sign means that when the prospective customer picks up the fragile merchandise, he or she accepts to pay the full purchase price in the event that the merchandise should become damaged during or as a result of his or her inspection.

In many ways, for the nation states in this part of the world, it would seem that the politicians and ruling elites have reversed the popular “break it-own it” principle.
Their job is to stuff their bellies, pockets and boots with loot and to stoke up all manner of trouble and tensions in the quest to get to and stay at the top of the pile. It does not seem to matter to them what public goods and services we have to forfeit in order for them to enjoy the life to which they feel divinely entitled. After all, they can bypass all of the poor or non-existent goods and services by sourcing the best from abroad. For the politicians the sign says “we break it, you own it!”

There is always a pliable, long and quietly suffering population to bear the brunt of these reckless mistakes.

It would seem that the men and women who make them always get away with the least suffering.
So even as the actors in the political drama stage new twists and cliff hangers, I felt sorry for my children and the innocents across the nation, stuck here because we made the mistake of being born here. We are the ones who are going to own the mess that they make.
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