No more excuses: Government must compensate school fire victims

Sunday November 18 2018

President of the Opposition Democratic Party

President of the Opposition Democratic Party (DP), Mr Norbert Mao 

By Norbert Mao

It is becoming uncanny that every 10 years students die in school fires! On June 8, 1998, ADF rebels attacked Kichwamba Technical College in Kabarole District. They locked the dormitories and set them on fire, burning 80 students to death.

Twenty seven of the students were burnt beyond recognition and were buried in a mass grave. The rebels also abducted more than 100 students. In every campaign since then, President Museveni has promised to compensate the victims. However, 20 years on, the compensation has remained elusive.

In June this year, some of the victims were interviewed by Monitor. One of the survivors, James Burolerwo, accused the government of paying more attention to the needs of the rebels than that of the victims. “I spent six months in rebel captivity. I was rescued by UPDF and the government promised us compensation, which never came to pass,” said Burolerwo.

The report also quoted another survivor, Rogers Kanti, saying “Government does not care about the lives of its people. Many of my colleagues got bad injuries which left them incapacitated. They had hope in the government to at least compensate them, but this did not happen. One wonders if really this government knows the pain we still carry.”

When Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda was contacted for a comment on the status of the long overdue compensation he said: “The government is fully aware of the commitment it made and will compensate the victims when the funds are available. The government gradually fulfils these promises and it will be handled.” Now that is typical of a man who seems to have the highest boiling point in Uganda. One can be sure that this mantra will continue while the expectant victims continue to wait.

On the night of April 14, 2008, 19 girls were burnt to death at Budo Junior School in Wakiso District. The dormitory door was locked and there was no emergency exit. When then Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura visited the school after the fire, he lamented thus: “This is criminality. How do you convert a classroom into a dormitory? This is murder. Children are so congested like soya-beans. Are there no standards for constructing modern dormitories in this country?”

The parents of the victims demanded compensation but the government refused. Yet the same government had compensated families of victims of the July 11, 2010, twin bomb blasts and the Namungoona petrol fire that killed 40 people. The parents decided to go to court. Eventually five years after the inferno, the government agreed to pay Shs287m as compensation. The government paid some Shs140m but it is not clear whether the full agreed compensation has been paid.

The latest fire gutted a dormitory in the wee hours of November 12. Ten boys have been confirmed dead. Site visits by the authorities showed that the arsonists fastened two padlocks on the dormitory door before setting the building on fire. The windows were heavily burglar-proofed and the dormitory has only one exit. The villagers who came to rescue the students took a long time to break the padlocks. The police fire trucks arrived after two hours.

Following the usual well-worn script, the police promised to carry out thorough investigations and bring the perpetrators of the arson to book. I doubt whether anyone takes these statements about apprehending and punishing perpetrators seriously anymore. To begin with many investigations have been commissioned but none of the reports have ever seen the light of day.

Secondly, the victims need help to heal from the trauma and financial support to rebuild their lives. Blaming the victims or giving excuses why regulations are not strictly enforced will not do. The victims deserve healing and compensation.