Monday September 16 2013

Pathetic spectacle of Uganda’s priorities

By Muniini K. Mulera

Dear Tingasiga:
It is an indelible image, a photograph I took while visiting Kabale Regional Referral Hospital last year. It haunts me even as I drift into the merciful respite of sleep. A little boy, age unknown, but not more than 3 years old, scrapes the bottom of a saucepan, a futile hunt for morsels of food. It is impossible to capture in words the indictment that the image passes on our society.

The little boy, name unknown, was recovering from kwashiorkor, a childhood disease of protein-calorie malnutrition that is, for the most part an economic disease. I call him Kamanzi, the brave one.

Kamanzi’s big eyes staring at the ground to his right, clutches the empty saucepan with his left hand and licks two fingers bravely and hopefully. His is a world of no leftovers, of no dessert, of no predictable meals, of no birthday cake, of survival by God’s grace through the generosity of strangers. It is a world of unspoken gratitude for the complete mercy of his minders.

Kamanzi, and millions like him are probably invisible to Uganda’s rulers. It is impossible to imagine how one sees that lad and is unmoved by the senselessness of the luxury addicts that rule the land. The reality of Kamanzi’s life will be familiar to my neighbour in Mparo, Rukiga County who recently walked the 2 to 3 kilometer journey to the nearest Health Centre IV, hoping like most women that she would walk home with a bundle of joy. Instead she delivered a stillborn baby.

She was lucky of course, for she too could have died, joining the 6,000 Ugandan women who die every year due to pregnancy-related causes, most of them preventable. Though last year’s news of a reduction in maternal mortality rate from 450 to 310 per 100,000 live births gave us reason to celebrate, we learnt early this year that the rate had regressed to 438 per 100,000 live births.

Such numbers are boring until one discovers that the lifestyles of the rulers have a direct bearing on the survival of Ugandan babies, children and their mothers. Among the major causes of death of pregnant women are excessive bleeding.

A woman with obstructed labour or one with impending shock from bleeding might be saved if she had access to a well equipped and well staffed ambulance to rush her to the nearest health facility. Uganda’s ambulance pool, almost exclusively serving the urban centres, invites urgent attention. A brand new state-of-the-art, no expenses spared ambulance costs less than $250,000 in North America.
Unaffordable you say? Not when you consider some of the comforts that Uganda’s rulers allow themselves. To celebrate Uganda’s 50 years of independence, the Ugandan ruler acquired at least one Mercedes Benz Pullman S600 whose sticker price is at least $1.4 million.

The cost of the President’s Benz would have acquired six top-of-the-line ambulances, with lots of spare change. And if the Ugandan ruler really cared about his people, he would not have spent $55 million on a Gulfstream G550 plane to ferry him on endless junkets around the world.

$55 million would get you 220 top line ambulances, ensuring that each of Uganda’s mini-districts would have two each, giving the country’s critically ill and women in labour a better chance of survival.

It is all a matter of priorities, of course. The Ugandan regime happily throws money at luxuries and other unaffordable, unprofitable ventures while the majority of her citizens make do with little. Kamanzi is not on their radar.

Uganda’s rulers measure development in terms of show-off things along with mega-projects and clay-roofed mansions rather than in terms of human development. They argue that the President’s life is worth that kind of spending, a not-so-subtle way of affirming their belief that the President’s mortal body is more precious than the lives of millions who vote for him.

That is one reason why I salute Ms Joyce Banda, the President of Malawi, who sold her country’s presidential jet at $15 million. The plane, a French-made Falcon 900 EX that was built in 1988, had been acquired by President Bingu wa Mutharika for $22 million because the plane “matched his status as president” of poverty ridden Malawi.

Mutharika’s was a supreme arrogance shared by other rulers upon whom a younger President Yoweri Museveni poured contempt back in 1986. I can recite by heart one of the most inspiring statements in his inaugural speech as President of Uganda on January 29, 1986.

“The honourable excellency who is going to the United Nations in executive jets, but has a population at home of 90 per cent walking barefoot, is nothing but a pathetic spectacle,” Museveni said. “Yet this excellency may be busy trying to compete with Reagan and Gorbachev to show them that he too is an excellency.”

The Old Museveni would have felt the pain of little Kamanzi and despised those who would throw money at a super-expensive German car and an American luxury jet with a stratospheric price tag.

Dr Mulera is a Daily Monitor columnist based in Canada.