Wednesday October 20 2010

What if the trapped Chilean miners had been Ugandan?

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The rescue last week of 33 Chilean miners who spent 69 days trapped underground after the mine they were working collapsed, was one of the most viewed television events ever in most parts of the world.

It is, therefore, a story that does not need to be repeated. The question that interests us today is; what would happen if a similar mine incident occurred in Uganda? How would we as a society, and then our government, respond?

We have had a few small and biggish national disasters and emergencies, and they provide us with some clues as how we might act if we had had a Chile-type mine accident.
1. The proper place to start is how the First Citizen, President Yoweri Museveni would react. We saw Chile president Sebastian Pinera at the mine several times. However, at all times he stood a respectful distance away in a corner, and was always among the last people to greet the rescued miners.

In his speech, he said the historic rescue was proof of the tenacity and courage of the miners, and the greatness of the people of Chile.

In Uganda, I think President Museveni would do as he did with the landslide disaster in Bududa early in the year—he would show up at the mine with an AK-47 rifle strapped to his chest.
Secondly, he would not stand aside like Pinera. “Mzee” would take over and direct operations. Or if he were able to stand back, certainly he would have the first honour to greet the rescued miners.

Thirdly, he would argue that the rescue was a statement about the fundamental change brought by the NRM government. The Uganda people would not be mentioned. At this point, I think it is important to state that we are not interested in judging whether the Chilean approach is better than Uganda’s would have been (that the readers can do for themselves). We are content only to point out the differences.

2. I sense though, that we have started on too optimistic a note. I think a Ugandan mine rescue attempt would not get off smoothly like Chile’s (which was achieved a month earlier than some of the world’s leading experts had predicted). If the Chogm conference of 2007 were anything to go by, the decision to buy the equipment to begin drilling would be delayed until at least one miner had died.Then a Chogm-type crisis would be created, in order to allow for the suspension of procurement rules.

The Ugandan mining minister, his permanent secretary, and a range of political fixers would all get a cut on the purchase of specialised mining equipment. Like Chogm, there would only be enough money left to buy second-hand equipment, which would arrive late. The stage would have been set for a monumental catastrophe at that point.

3. My friend Pastor Martin Sempa and MP David Bahati would show up at the rescue site. They would allege that one of the miners is gay, and therefore he should not be brought to the surface, as it was God’s plan that he stays in the ground. Only the heterosexuals, they would argue, should be rescued.

4. A range of criminal activities at the rescue site would also have distracted the police.
Being Uganda, both the mine owners and the relatives of the trapped miners would carry out child sacrifices in the night, in the expectation that such rituals would bring luck to the rescue operations.

5. Not all relatives, of course, would carry out rituals for the rescued miners. There would also be quite a few of them sabotaging the recovery equipment in the night, and bribing the rescuers to mess up the operation. Why? So that they can inherit the trapped miners’ properties, and even their wives.

6. Another of the things that would starkly have been in Uganda is that, as we are wont to do, we would bring politics into it. In Uganda, the miners would have been mostly opposition supporters. Ruling party members have a lot of ways to make easy money, than undertake the risky business of mining.

I know of two or three pro-government columnists who would condemn the mine owner for employing opposition supporters, in the first place, and propose that the opposition miners repent for their “misguided” ways first. The FDC would stage protests near the mine, accusing the government of a plot to bury the opposition-supporting miners. The Kiboko Squad would be called in to beat them off.

7. Finally, the event would never have been covered by such a wide array of local and international media. For local media, only the pro-government outlets would have been allowed. The independent, sometimes labeled “opposition” and “monarchist”, media would be locked out.

8. Likewise, the international media wouldn’t have got a shot at covering. The new regulations governing accreditation for events where the President is involved are so Byzantine; it would take six months to clear. In the end, the miners would be rescued. However, only three would be rescued. The other 30 would have died. Going by our standards, even the three would be a miracle enough.

cobbo@nation.co.ke