Beyond Uganda’s failing morals

Jacob Katumusiime

What you need to know:

  • People refuse to help not because they don’t feel for others but because the history of helping in Uganda has taught them to fear the injustice of the law.

Wilfred Muhwezi was a father of four, with his first born in Primary Seven. Wilfred was a High School teacher, a Parish Chief in Mbarara and a Gombolola Internal Security Officer (GISO) in Ibanda.  In the last week of April 2023, he perished in a road accident on a ruined section of the Mbarara-Ibanda highway. Wilfred was carrying his wife, also a teacher, and their three-year-old lastborn child on a motorcycle when they were hit by an overtaking Isuzu Forward truck. 

The eyewitness account of a Boda-Boda rider turned Wilfred’s burial in Ibanda into a moral challenge. He narrated that while Wilfred lay terribly fractured and struggling for his life by the roadside, the first local responders to the accident scene begged passing cars to assist and rush him to hospital in vain. In fact, one of the cars that did not stop was of a relative. The truck that hit him made a run for it and some Boda-Boda cyclists pursued it until the driver abandoned it, taking to his heels. Wilfred’s accident scenario was just a repetition of the norm on Uganda’s roads. How do we make sense of the “heartlessness” that hears cries for help and never comes to the rescue? Where did the morals go?

To make sense of the Ugandan public’s moral degeneration, we need to understand the state’s praxis of the law. It is common practice for the Uganda Police Force to distressingly interrogate Good Samaritans on matters to which they only came to offer a helping hand. Road users who meet accident victims in isolated places now just pass by, refusing to call the Police in fear of being unkindly followed up. For the victims who have made it to the hospitals and clinics alive, the Good Samaritans sometimes have been charged with paying admission fees or purchasing first aid kits as though they were prepared for the accident. 
The hospitals and clinics have even transformed themselves into prisons, detaining the Good Samaritans until relatives of the victims have arrived. In some instances, families of the victims turn against the Good Samaritans and the uncritical laws of Uganda allow for such treachery to thrive. For a state that lacks an adequate emergency ambulance infrastructure, instead of at least rewarding those who help accident victims, several Good Samaritans have been remanded to prison.

People refuse to help not because they don’t feel for others but because the history of helping in Uganda has taught them to fear the injustice of the law. Is it not an irony that while Uganda’s general public opinion regards boda boda riders as exemplifying the epitome of our society’s moral decadence, the boda-boda riders have continually proven to possess the humanness that our society loses on a daily basis? If an accident presupposes a misfortune that is not deliberate, then the first rescuer of an accident victim could even be the other party involved in the accident, in case they are not injured themselves.
However, for fear of prosecution, many drivers choose to run away after causing an accident. I have heard that some drivers even reverse the car to make sure they finish off the victim because it is easier to litigate with a dead person than a survivor.

Uganda’s moral degeneration as seen through the eyes of road users reveals a significant failure at the political level. The state has failed on service provision of safe road networks, reliable medical facilities, and trustable justice systems. 
Therefore, no matter how many road safety awareness campaigns shall be conducted, if the masses cannot trust state institutions involved, Ugandan roads shall remain deathbeds for millions of other people. Unless the ruling government redirects its political priorities, the mass of disillusioned individuals it is cultivating is a recipe for disaster. The mainstream consciousness within Ugandan society is that they are on their own.

We buried Wilfred in the absence of his wife, who being critically fractured was rushed to Kampala. Mbarara Regional Referral Hospital could not operate her, and referred her to Mulago National Referral Hospital. Whereas Wilfred died as a diligent public servant, Mulago derailed what was supposed to be an emergency operation on his wife, and the family was forced to rush her to a Private Hospital.

Wilfred’s brother in-law who is a Lecturer at Makerere University is yet to believe that despite his commitment for the last many years teaching this country’s next generation, his sister could not receive the bare minimum medical service from a reputed state institution. This state seems determined to frustrate our dedication to it.