Questions to ponder about Covid-19 donations, Museveni and army officers

Sunday May 24 2020


By Musaazi Namiti

Uganda’s campaign against Covid-19 has been going swimmingly given the fact that we have not reported any death since the pandemic made its way into our country sometime in March.
We have been an oasis of (relative) calm in a region reeling from the turbulence of the coronavirus, which causes Covid-19. In East Africa, only Rwanda bears comparison with us.

The campaign to rein in Covid-19 has been ramped up, and donations from companies and individuals are pouring in. People donate with alacrity once they know there is a noble cause, and the donations will be made very public.

Donations can still help good causes even when they are anonymous, but people revel in the attention that comes with donating publicly. I first witnessed this in 1999 when Ugandans were contributing money to Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi’s wedding.

A global non-profit called the Bridgespan Group, which works with philanthropists, says people donate publicly because it makes them feel good and get recognition. It also gives credence to the cause and can inspire others to get involved.

I have paid close attention when the President is reading out names of organisations and individuals that have made donations, and I think there are intriguing questions that the donations have brought to the fore.

First off, if we can donate to fix problems like Covid-19, which has so far killed no one, why can’t we do the same to fix other problems that are known to cause death? For example, some Ugandans battling diseases that require treatment overseas have died because they cannot afford treatment. The government says it does not have money to help them, and they do not have money either. We could help save lives by doing the same thing we are doing for Covid-19.


Second, where does all the money come from? Several senior army officers, for example, made cash donations that dwarfed the donation of President Museveni, their boss and arguably one of the richest Ugandans, if not the richest. In a country where the average income is less than $600, people donating thousands of dollars, as the army officers in question have done, must be doing very well financially.

A third question is about Mr Museveni. He announced recently that he was going to donate a half of his surprisingly modest salary—Shs3.6 million, or $1,000. In his latest address to the nation earlier this week, he said he had declined to have his pay increased even when people who are close to him were telling him that he deserved more.

Yet with that very modest salary—$408,000 in 34 years—and despite the fact that he became President when he was a desperately poor man (his autobiography, Sowing the Mustard Seed, alludes to this fact), Mr Museveni has possessions worth many millions of dollars.

One of his known possessions is a vast ranch in Gomba District that sits on many square miles of land. When I was a student many years ago, I visited the ranch (then owned by a man named Kassim Kiwanuka) as part of a tour that our school organised. I could not believe the sheer size of the land. It is massive.

There are compelling reasons to ponder on these questions about our donors. Answers can help us understand how some of these donors have managed to grow rich with known meagre sources of income.

But there also equally important questions to reflect on as we continue to grapple with the Covid-19 crisis and the restrictions that have affected people’s livelihoods.

The daily updates given by the government about the disease suggest the number of confirmed cases is increasing almost on a daily basis.

Towards the end of March, we had 33 cases, but at the time of writing this article, 264 people, some of them foreigners, had contracted the virus.

Few Ugandans know the condition these people are in as the government simply tells the public that the patients are getting treatment. The public does not know, for example, the proportion of those with the virus who are seriously ill and those with the symptoms and are in a stable condition.

Since the World Health Organisation and medical experts have said some people contract the virus and only get mild symptoms and can recover without treatment, it is hard to tell how effective our treatment has been in preventing deaths.

If those who are quarantined and are getting treatment are not gravely ill, do we still need the lockdown? Do we have to keep jobless Ugandans, of whom there are millions, in homes with no source of income and yet we cannot feed them?

The writer is a journalist and former Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk