Solomon Sserwanja: The stone that builders refused

Tuesday October 8 2019

Nicholas Sengoba

Nicholas Sengoba 

By Nicholas Sengoba

Mid this year, Ugandan television journalist, Solomon Sserwanja took the world by storm when a BBC Africa Eye documentary ‘Stealing From The Sick’ was aired. It is about the illicit sell of government drugs that are supposed to be distributed free of charge leaving many to die for want of especially anti-malarial drugs.

The well investigated story was the result of 10 months of criss-crossing the country, diving deep into a thick web and rackets filled with thick skinned individuals, who have a misguided sense of entitlement in as far as stealing government drugs is concerned.

It was a stupendous piece of rare investigative journalism, which is an endangered species in Ugandan media both print and electronic, of late. This anomaly is not for want of good journalists, we have so many; Barbra Among, Emma Mutaizibwa, Raymond Mujuni, Solomon Kaweesi, Walter Mwesigye, etc, produce very good stories.

It is just that good investigative journalism requires huge input in terms of money, good manpower and time. For instance, at one point while putting the pictures together in ‘Stealing From The Sick,’ a source is paid $2,000 (Shs7.4m) to deliver drugs. This, to a media organisation, is quite a pile, especially when the proprietor is looking closely at the balance sheet. They may not be willing to part with such sums for ‘merely’ making a story.

‘Stealing From The Sick’ had a crew of about five, including journalists and cameramen. Some cameras were hidden from plain sight and brought out very clear pictures, which says a lot about the deftness of those positioning and operating them.

One of the main complaints of our readers, listeners and viewers of newspapers, radios and televisions is the lack of well investigated stories or even investigated stories.


Most of what passes for jaw-dropping breaking news, are glorified reports; a result of press conferences called by people looking for publicity then a journalist picks up the pieces and builds up from there.

The others are product or policy launches, ceremonies, seminars, etc. Then of course there are ‘leaked’ documents mainly by an insider who most often may feel aggrieved when given a raw deal in a shoddy scheme; something they would never have done if they were well taken care of.

The cost and time involved is not something many media proprietors are willing to stomach because theirs is about profit, first and foremost.

Some journalist who may be motivated by seeing their byline quite often and, therefore, get accustomed to churning out quick stories, may find the need for concentration and attention to detail for long spells of frustration often hitting dead ends, quite taxing.

Secondly, many investigative stories that would resonate with many people are the ones to do with huge government expenditure and donor funding or government failures and deliberate law breaking.
This may get the media house and its journalists crossing swords with a jittery government like happens at some point in Stealing From The Sick. A closure of a media house in these tight economic situations is a major financial setback that none would want to experience.

These things leave many ensconced in the comfort zone of the news from press conferences, Parliament and other public events for which the risks of confrontation and litigation are low. Perhaps by doing ‘Stealing From The Sick’ with a global media powerhouse like the BBC gave Solomon Sserwanja and company the cover and confidence needed in these waters.

But that does not take away the fact that the risk has come with a reward. After being hounded by authorities in Uganda for bringing this story to the world, it is only right and fitting to congratulate Sserwanja.

He, like the biblical stone the builders refused, which became the head corner stone, was recognised and honoured by winning the fifth BBC Komla Dumor Award. You hope and pray that many more will follow in his footsteps and bring many such and even better investigated stories to light. In Sserwanja footsteps may many others follow.

The run up to Uganda’s 57th Independence Day celebrations has been full of exhilarating news with awards galore in the field of sport and beyond. But first on Sunday singing siblings, the duo Esther and Ezekiel Mutesasira, won the East Africa Got Talent Competition in Nairobi, Kenya and walked away with $50,000.

Then at the 17th IAAF World Athletic Championships in Doha, Ugandan Halimah Nakaayi won a gold in the women’s 800 mrtres posting 1:58.04, thereby breaking the national record.

Joshua Kiprui Cheptegei then followed suit with a great run in the mens 10,000 metres final, at the same event, in a time of 26:48.36, which is one of the fastest this year. We will not forget 14-year-old Kirabo Namutebi of Dolphins Swim Club Kampala, who won for Uganda gold medals in the 50 metre freestyle (27.33) and 50 metre breaststroke (with a new personal best 35.13, at the Africa Junior Swimming Championships in Tunisia in September. She became the first Ugandan to win two continental swimming gold medals.

Like Solomon Sserwanja all these achievers are youthful working outside what we traditionally know as ‘government structures’ and performing to the highest level.
Following these victories, the Uganda National Anthem was played prompting many on social media to say they felt ‘proud of being Ugandans.’

Young people are telling us that there is a lot of hope as Uganda turns 57.
Mr Sengoba is a commentator on political and social issues.