Honour Oulanyah by addressing why he died in a distant land

Author: Muniini K Mulera. PHOTO/FILE 

What you need to know:

  • Oulanyah’s status in the country’s pecking order, and his position as uncrowned leader of the Acholi, elevates his death to national bereavement. A massive state funeral will be held, with colourful ceremonies at which Uganda excels. Cost no object.

Dear Tingasiga:

 The premature death of Jacob L’okori Oulanyah, Uganda’s speaker of parliament, a few days shy of turning 57, has dampened my spirit. Another human being, a fellow citizen, silenced by ruthless death, reminding us of our mortality.

 Oulanyah’s status in the country’s pecking order, and his position as uncrowned leader of the Acholi, elevates his death to national bereavement. A massive state funeral will be held, with colourful ceremonies at which Uganda excels. Cost no object.

 The President and other politicians will take advantage of the occasion to enhance their political stocks. Those eyeing the speaker’s chair will position themselves as worthy successors.  Then we shall quickly resume business as though we have not just lost a brother whose disease ought to have been managed in Uganda.

 Lest we forget, there is grief in other homes across the land this very day. Uganda, with a population of about 48 million, nearly 80 percent of whom are below 30 years of age, has a crude annual death rate of 6 per 1000 people. That is 288,000 deaths every year, or about 790 deaths every day.

 Most of the deaths are either preventable or treatable. The dead are normal human beings, their lives no more and no less valuable than those of the president and his family, or those of the country’s titled men and women who believe they are entitled to better health care than citizens Kidega, Kijambu or Kibahiiganira.

 Even as we mourn our friend and brother Oulanyah, we should honour him by addressing the circumstances that led to his death in a distant land. We should not shy away from interrogating the cost of his care in Seattle, Washington, and that of many others that have been flown abroad for healthcare that is denied their fellow citizens.

 When Tumusiime-Mutebile, governor of the Bank of Uganda, died in a Nairobi hospital two months ago, I was depressed by both his passing and the circumstances in which he died. The governor of the Bank Uganda, chief custodian of the country’s financial system, was evacuated to a hospital in another developing country. Think about that for a moment. That he was under the care of a team led by a Ugandan-born, Makerere-educated medical doctor, was painfully ironic. 

 The story has been the same for very many among the privileged class, both in government and opposition ranks.  They practice a social apartheid that Norbert Mao, the leader of the Democratic Party, reportedly reminded his listeners about while attempting to defend the huge cost of flying Oulanyah to the USA on a chartered commercial jet. “All government officials are entitled to specialised treatment if their condition is complicated,” Mao reportedly said.

Mao neglected to address the injustice of this social apartheid in a country whose Constitution commits the people to build a society “based on the principles of unity, peace, equality, democracy, freedom, social justice and progress.”  Left unsaid by Mao was that the rest of the citizens whose conditions are also complicated must depend on prayers alone. Mao is not alone in holding this view. As he rightly pointed out, the opposition and the ruling party are united in their belief in entitlement to the best that money can buy at the expense of most of the citizens.

I do not have the most current figures of public spending on the ruling elite’s healthcare abroad. In 2017, President Yoweri Museveni put the annual figure at $75 million. The president assured the country at that time that such wastage of public money would be solved by a new $250 million “International Specialised Hospital in Uganda (ISHU).”

Described as “ultramodern”, ISHU was supposed to be built at Lubowa, Kampala. The money to build the hospital, in the form of loans, was reportedly committed by Afri-Exim Bank, Eastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank, Barclays Bank, and ABSA Bank. By 2019, the cost of the unbuilt hospital had risen to $397 million, a staggering amount that was approved by parliament without apparent clarity about what the taxpayer was paying for. 

Last time I checked, ISHU was like waringa, the imaginary mobile dark shadows that terrified us during our childhood explorations under the moonlight in Mparo, Kigyezi. Waringa was an illusion. Today’s children should start calling it Ishu in honour of the illusory hospital at Lubowa.

It is just as well that the much-anticipated hospital has fallen into the ditch of corruption and dysfunction that has killed other projects. Had it been built, ISHU would have served a minority of Ugandans. Like other Kampala-based organizations, ISHU’s location in Kampala would have served the money-advantaged residents of the capital city, not equally deserving citizens from places like Yumbe, Abim, Budadiri, Kyotera and Rukiga.  Furthermore, a new hospital would have faced the same systemic dysfunction that afflicts the current national and regional hospitals. New concrete blocks, fancy glass, and tiles, and the most modern equipment, however glamorous, are not a substitute for an efficiently and honestly run health care facility.

 If asked, I would have advised the government to invest money in Mulago and other existing hospitals to upgrade them to international standards, complete with honest, transparent, and accountable management and service providers. Alternatively, several new $50 million hospitals, strategically located to serve citizens, not just to win political support, would have been a better investment than the nearly $400 million dollars earmarked for the waringa at Lubowa.

 The bottom line is this: We need a mindset change in our country. Acknowledge the sanctity and equality of every Ugandan’s life. Museveni’s life is not more and not less precious than that of peasant Kaggwa or Bitanyagurika or Lawoko. Good healthcare is a human right, not a favour by the rulers. Provide excellent healthcare all over the country that meets the needs of the president and the peasant alike.

 This is not news. That was Uganda 50 years ago. That is what most developed countries did many years ago. Here in Canada, a prime minister’s son and a welfare recipient’s daughter are treated with similar dignity in the same emergency department according to their level of illness and time of arrival.

 I write from experience. It is one of the reasons why Canadians do not need lectures about patriotism. They have a stake in the country. Their country.

 Muniini K. Mulera is a Ugandan-Canadian social and political observer. [email protected]