State funerals spark debate on costs

What you need to know:

  • Almost a decade after Obote’s death, the debate over how much taxpayers should pay for State funerals remains very alive. Also very animated are depressing whispers about the regrettable graft which shrouds state burial expenditure. 

When public figures die, depending on their station in Ugandan life, a state funeral has become the fashionable sending-off option. 

So, the May 2, 2023, slaying of State Minister for Labour, Col (rtd) Charles Okello Engola, was always going to shine new light on the financial burden that comes with funerals that span days when the State takes over arrangements.  

Strictly speaking, and with all due respect to his widely reported exploits in the army, Col Engola wasn’t due for a State funeral.

Uganda’s Constitution guarantees a State funeral for only the President, Vice President, Speaker of Parliament, Deputy Speaker of Parliament, Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice and Prime Minister. And so, he got an “official funeral”.

The law grants the President authority to declare official burials, which oblige the taxpayer to pick up the funeral bill. 

Money is released to pay for food and drinks at the residence and burial; funeral parlour services; grave construction; church fees; tents, chairs and mobile toilets; public address systems; transport for immediate family; security; coordination expenses for the organising committee; grading access roads to the burial site and the condolence package.   

Col Engola was laid to rest 12 days after his death, probably leaving his extended family out of pocket given the cost of feeding the unending stream of mourners who swarmed their upcountry home.  It was reported that expected official assistance from Kampala was slow in coming.

Before the minister, former Supreme Court Justice Ruby Aweri Opio had died the previous year. He had also been a noted son of Lango Sub-region, with a profile which demanded much more than your ordinary funeral. 

The Judiciary Administration Act lays out what government must spend on burying a Supreme Court judge. But even with that contribution, it was reported that Aweri’s relatives were left holding the bag, Shs36.8 million in unpaid bills. 

That experience informed some novel proposals when preparing for Col Engola’s burial in Oyam District.

“Let there be no cooking at funeral functions and we see if mourners will go away without finishing the burial ceremonies because they have not been given food and drinks,” the Daily Monitor quoted Joseph Olet, chairman of Lira Business Community Welfare, as proposing during preparations to bury Col Engola.

Putting together State and official funerals is the responsibility of the Office of the President. That office will have at its disposal a considerable sum under next year’s Budget. A steep increase in allocations from Shs219.1 billion to Shs250.7b was approved by Parliament. 

Would these billions not be better spent on Uganda’s creaking social amenities like the crumbling road infrastructure; for the collective benefit of souls still alive in Uganda? 

That question continues to haunt the lavish send-offs laid on for ‘big men’ -- for some reason we have invariably had dead men at state/official funerals. Not a woman in recent times yet.

Consider that around the time of the most recent official funeral, Kampala Capital City Authority was under sustained attack on social media and almost everywhere over the pothole menace ruining cars, costing the economy dearly as traffic increasingly ground to a standstill. 

The authority came up fighting, protesting its dilemma: it requires at least Shs100 billion to repair the roads which are in a very sorry state.

But the people inside the Finance ministry allocated a token Shs26 billion, pleading pressing financial constraints in the national coffers.

The KCCA executive director, Ms Dorothy Kisaka, therefore, laid Kampala’s dead and potholed roads at the feet of poor finances. 

But billions have been poured into State funerals, provoking government spokesperson Ofwono-Opondo to attack his own government. Opondo lamented the waste and misplaced prioritisation are rife in government. 

Opondo, who is executive director at the Uganda Media Centre, wrote in his column published in the state-owned New Vision that the country is being short-changed through these costly burials.  

“To the best of my recollection, no other country in the East African Community does these fantastical charades when sending off their dead. They seem wiser and humbler, yet some have better economies than us. But not so ours that’s modernising, and undergoing ‘socio-economic transformation’ in a hurry, prosperity for all and steady progress,” Ofwono-Opondo, government spokesperson, as quoted in his column in the New Vision.

The first documented big splash out on a State funeral during the National Resistance Movement era was in 2005 when Apollo Milton Obote, Uganda’s first and only post-independent executive prime minister, and two-time president, died in exile.  

Dr James Nsaba Buturo, then State Minister for Information, said Shs800 million would be spent to cover medical costs Obote incurred abroad, especially in South Africa where he died, and other funeral arrangements. 

That was a princely sum in those days. It raised eyebrows in some quarters.

When Obote’s body arrived in Uganda in October 2005, it was said his Kololo house didn’t have befitting furniture and curtains except hired plastic garden chairs. 

So, the government said the Shs800m would, among others, cover medical fees, payments at the undertakers, air tickets, hotel accommodation, residential furniture, as well as curtains and bedding for all three Obote residences. 

Almost a decade after Obote’s death, the debate over how much taxpayers should pay for State funerals remains very alive. Also very animated are depressing whispers about the regrettable graft which shrouds state burial expenditure. 

Some public officers apparently look at death of a fellow official as an opportunity to line their pockets.

When the charismatic and universally admired Speaker of Parliament Jacob Oulanyah died last year from multiple organ failure precipitated by cancer, the initial budget prepared by the national organising committee chaired by the Presidency minister Milly Babalanda was Shs2.5b. 

This excluded medical and funeral home bills in the US, as well as expenses of flying back the body.  

Officials kept adjusting figures; first to Shs1.8b, and then Shs1.5b. The final spend was not publicly disclosed. But the reduction in the budget didn’t sit very well with MPs from Oulanyah’s Acholi- sub-region, who complained that this was disrespectful.

“We can call people from northern Uganda, from Uganda to contribute [money] to bury the Speaker. We are here praising him, but down there [in Oulanyah’s village] doing another thing altogether. That is our concern. And who has the right to reduce the budget approved by Parliament? Who has a right?” Kilak County MP Anthony Akol said. 

A very angry Akol attacked the burial planners, telling them: “The budget had been approved at Shs1.8b and you go and sit on your desk and reduce it to Shs1.2b! You even change the figures the way you want. You look at where you can benefit instead of looking at what can make us have a decent send-off for our brother, the fallen hero of this country.” 

In January 2022, Central Bank Governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile also died. 

An estimated at Shs409.5 million budget was drawn by the ministry for the Presidency and Kabale District local government where Mutebile was a native.  

Top on the list were allowances worth Shs131.6m for 182 security personnel over seven days; Shs11m for emergency repair of the road to the former governor’s home in Kabale; drinks, food, tents and others cost at Shs244.83m.

As is the case with this sort of things, scandal tends to lurk in the sorrowful shadows.

In February 2022, the Iteso Paramount Chief Emorimor Augustine Osuban Lemukol died from coronavirus. President Museveni declared he should be accorded an official burial being a cultural leader.

It would take two weeks before he was laid to rest at his ancestral home. 

It didn’t take long before Iteso Cultural Union pointed accusing fingers at officials in the Public Service ministry. 

They literarily accused the ministry of burying a considerable chunk of the money which the government had released in unknown places.

“The Ministry of Public Service asked the teams in Tororo and Soroti to send budgets for their activities but they did not see the money. Even the clearing of the compound, painting the home, and feeding the mourners in Entebbe and Soroti, the government did not give the money,” Prof Francis Omaswa, who coordinated the Emorimor’s send-off, complained.

Prof Omaswa advised Parliament to demand accountability for what was released to bury the late Emorimor Osuban. Nothing seems to have come of this demand as yet. 

Uniform Policy
Following public outcry over the large sums of cash being splashed on State funerals, the Ministry of Public Service came up with proposals in September last year for Cabinet consideration. The intention was to standardise funeral and burial expenses for notable Ugandans.

The document titled: “Uganda Funeral Management Policy 2022”, proposes that it should cost Shs500m to bury a sitting president and vice president; Shs300m for a former vice president, Speaker of Parliament and deputy thereto.

A similar amount was proposed for the chief justice and deputy and other eligible judicial officers. 

An Inspector General of Government would also take Shs300m to the grave upon their passing. 

Public service mandarins then suggested that funerals for ministers, a Leader of the Opposition in Parliament who dies while in office; prime minister and MPs would be capped at Shs240m. The cash-strapped country waits…