In September 2005, with the United States still reeling from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Government of Uganda announced a $200,000 donation to America. The announcement was met with derision from many, particularly those critical of the government, with three arguments. First, that as a poor country unable to wash its own face, Uganda had no business wasting precious dollars on the richest country in the world, whatever misfortune had befallen it.
Secondly, that the money offered wouldn’t make a difference anyway. The cost of the hurricane, in 2005 dollars, ranged between $80 billion and $125 billion. Uganda’s generous support to the American rebuilding efforts represented 0.00025 per cent of the lower cost estimate. With about 300,000 homes destroyed by the hurricane, our contribution was the equivalent of helping the Americans rebuild one house, without finishing.
The third argument, presented as an explanation of the two points above, was that the Uganda government was just “playing politics”. At the time, Parliament was preparing to remove presidential term limits from the Constitution.
This was controversial; none of the millions of Ugandans consulted by the Constitutional Review Commission had asked for their removal; the clause had only been smuggled into the raft of proposed reforms by Cabinet, and MPs would be paid a bribe of about $2,000 each to vote yes.
Uganda, cynics said, was bribing America to look the other way while it shafted its Constitution. Notably, after the constitutional amendments, there were no donations from Uganda when Hurricanes Sandy in 2012 and Maria in 2017 struck America and the Caribbean causing comparable damage.
While the moral argument makes some sense, the political argument makes a lot more sense. America did not soften its stance on democracy in Uganda because of a $200,000 cheque, but being friends made it harder for Washington to hold Kampala to the same standards it held the likes of Harare, on political or human rights. Politics is populist.
In this regard, I believe attempts by Opposition groups, led by FDC and People Power, to provide humanitarian relief to communities reeling from the economic impact of the coronavirus disease, are opportunistic and populist, but I disagree with attempts to criminalise them.
Politicians, the world over, look for opportunities to sell themselves or their agendas. Many are the church services or burials that proceed interminably because politician X has been invited to “greet the people” or “say one or two words”. This is as true of incumbents as it is of those seeking to unseat them.
If an Opposition group wants to distribute maize flour to people hungry and unable to go to work, the correct thing is to outline safe ways to do it to avoid crowding and spreading the infection. They could, for instance, be restricted to dropping the aid outside without human contact, and do it in small numbers.
I am not a culinary expert, but I strongly suspect that maize flour distributed by an Opposition politician tastes similar to that distributed by one from the ruling party, the government or by the Red Cross.
These measures, populist as they are, can only be done in a few areas and will be overshadowed by the government’s own relief effort when it begins. And if they end up bigger or better than those provided by the government, the recipients are still better off, and the problem is much bigger, and not with the givers. Philanthropy can be political, but it should never be criminal.
The Health Ministry has also asked Members of Parliament to put their ambulances at the disposal of its teams to medevac patients. I doubt that an Opposition supporter fighting for their lives would refuse to be carried in an NRM MP’s ambulance.
These are unprecedented times; we need to rally around the things that unite us, not those that divide us. To accuse one who is trying to feed a starving man of attempted murder is morally wrong and politically unsound.
If we can give to Americans to be in their good books, we should more than encourage everyone with means to give to Ugandans to be in their good hearts. We can deal with the politics after the pandemic.
*With credit to Luke of Antioch, Syria, circa 84 AD.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter. email@example.com.