Mbale disaster and the unprepared Disaster Preparedness ministry

Author, Musaazi Namiti. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Government must give the ministry everything it needs to help Ugandans.   

Nature is sometimes called mother nature because we rely on it in a way a child relies on its mother for food and other needs. But nature does not always act like a mother and can be disastrously indifferent to humans.

It can unleash weeks worth of rainfall in one day, and the result will be death and destruction resulting from floods. 

That is what the people of Mbale have been dealing with. A downpour started in the evening of last Saturday when no one had the vaguest idea it would go on till daybreak. By the time it stopped, entire villages had been submerged; homes had been destroyed.  Villagers who know next to nothing about swimming had to learn to swim to escape death or to pray, probably the most ineffectual solution to problems. As of Wednesday, this newspaper was reporting that the floods had killed 29 people, including children and a UPDF soldier.

In times like these, the victims look to the government for emergency assistance. The last thing they want to see is inadequate disaster-preparedness plans, which is becoming the byword for the Ministry of Disaster Preparedness. 

Although the NRM manifesto (2021–2026) is premised on protecting life and property, one of its five key priorities, the government and the Disaster Preparedness ministry have always struggled to help Ugandans hit by natural disasters. If the response is not maddeningly slow, it is woefully inadequate — or, tragically, both.

Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja managed to travel to the villages devastated by the floods hours after the downpour — and has pledged financial assistance to the victims. But given the stupefying incompetence of the government she serves, it may take months before some would-be recipients receive the money. 

The money may even be stolen. The Office of the Prime Minister has a history of overseeing programmes involving large sums of money that are sometimes not accounted for. There have been complaints about how cash donations for Covid-19, partly managed by the same office, were mismanaged. And 10 years ago, a top accountant named Geoffrey Kazinda, working in the Office of the Prime Minister, pulled off the mother of all embezzlements when he fudged figures to help himself to funds meant for the Peace, Recovery and Development Plan for Northern Uganda (PRDP).

A court that sentenced Kazinda in September 2021 to 40 years found he had amassed wealth amounting to Shs4.6b, although he had an annual income of Shs84m. 

Before the Mbale disaster, the Disaster Preparedness ministry had a crisis unfolding in Karamoja where hundreds are facing starvation. The ministry has not done anything to feed the Karimojong.

The Ministry for Karamoja Affairs has not done anything either. Media reports say at least 900 people in the region have died from hunger.

To be fair, low-income countries, of which Uganda is one (forget about middle-income status talk), have a hard time managing disasters. They are always pressed for money, but they have to budget for disasters that may or may not happen. Common sense dictates that you spend money on pressing problems, of which Uganda has many, and pay scant attention to those that can wait.

Having said that, governments are formed to provide leadership, and leadership is needed most in times of crises. The government must give the ministry everything it needs to help Ugandans affected by disasters. The Prime Minister and the Disaster Preparedness minister can and should work together. Sadly, as things stand, the PM is, in effect, the minister. Mr Hillary Onek is invisible.

Mr Musaazi Namiti is a journalist and former, Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk
[email protected]    @kazbuk