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Friday, February 25, 2011

At least it was peaceful….

‘At least it was peaceful.’  With this high praise from the international community, including the rather limp statement from our own dear UK Minister for Africa, the Ugandan Presidential and Parliamentary elections are well and truly over, give or take the odd rumblings emanating from disappointed Opposition candidates.  EU and Commonwealth observers have issued their interim statements pointing to vote-rigging, misdirection of public funds, lack of a ‘level playing field’ for Opposition candidates, including denial of a media presence, etc etc, but concluded that, when all was said and done, the elections were ‘peaceful’.  Well, that’s all right then.

And has it been peaceful?  Depends what you mean by....

According to the Encarta Dictionary ‘peace’ means:  freedom from war, or the time when a war or conflict ends; tranquillity – a calm and quiet state, free from disturbances or noise; a state of mental calm and serenity, with no anxiety; harmony – freedom from conflict or disagreement among people or groups of people; law and order – the absence of violence or other disturbances within a state.

Law and order?  There have been, and still are, a lot of localised disturbances, and a few full-blown riots, right across the country, and a lot of intimidation, mostly armed, but it hasn’t been like Kenya, Tunisia, Egypt or Libya.  And if the Opposition ever had a chance to bring the people out on the streets, they threw it away.  Ugandans want peace: they will put up with any amount of injustice, bullying, intimidation, inequality and unfairness just to be safe.  And who can blame them?  Discontent will fizzle out into resignation.  Nevertheless, the Wikileaks documents from the US Ambassador to Uganda are interesting, about Obama having waited for Besigye to do something and being prepared to support. 

You have to remember, though, that we have a lot of elections going on in Uganda just now, not just the ‘big’ ones other countries may be interested in.  What’s the picture there?

The election for the Mayor of Kampala had to be abandoned on Wednesday because ballot boxes across the city were found to be stuffed with ballot papers pre-ticked in favour of the NRM candidate.  Yes, there was violence, though it will not have got into the UK papers which, naturally and rightly, are much more concerned with the terrible events in Libya just now.  Lots of pictures of bloodied people caught up in the election violence have been splashed across the front pages of our newspapers and descriptions of rioting in various places.  Journalists representing a number of newspapers have been beaten up and arrested, and the local radio stations were kept busy all day.  And, yes, like last week, we also got a lot of warning messages from VSO and the High Commission about staying in and keeping out of trouble.  In fact, we have been advised not to go to Jinja at the weekend as there have been sporadic but violent clashes on an almost daily basis there.  We won’t go to Entebbe either, because we would have to drive across a difficult bit of the city.  So we remain trapped here, as we have been for two weeks. 

Elections at LC5 (local council) level across the country which were being held at the same time as the mayoral elections were much the same, with minor disturbances and the usual accusations of vote-rigging; not cancelled, though a low turnout.  Well, why wouldn’t there be?  Difficult to see much point.  And we have two more election days next week to look forward to, plus the rerun of the mayoral election.

One of the peculiarities of local government in Uganda is the number of levels within it, five altogether.  Five levels of jobs, five levels of salaries, five levels of expenses or ‘facilitation’, five levels of patronage, five levels of bureaucracy – nice work if you can get it.  So, for every £100 leaving central government and destined for, say, school inspection, there are five levels to get through before the poor district inspector on the ground can get his or her hands on it and go on his or her inspections.  For that is how it is done here.  Travel and subsistence (or per diems, as they are rather quaintly called here in that widely spoken local language, Latin) are claimed for in advance, not retrospectively.  But, I can hear you say, does that not make it difficult to monitor, control and account for expenditure?  Indeed...a fair point.  However, remember, people in Uganda will not necessarily have the wherewithal in their bank accounts to pay for travel up front, and may not trust the authorities to refund them anyway.

Given all that, the number of people who want to ‘monitor’ schools is less than surprising, including people at the level of a UK local council Chief Executive or Finance Director.  You see, those facilitation allowances....  All you do is find a nearby school on the main road, turn up, sign the visitors’ book, stay for ten minutes, have a word with the headteacher (if s/he’s there!) and go.  And the poor District Inspectors of Schools (DIS) get torn to shreds in the newspapers because of all the schools up mountains and in the bush which are never inspected.  Many inspectors cannot afford to fill the tanks of their motorbikes.

And this is repeated on an enormous scale right across the country for every form of expenditure for every form of service for which local councils are responsible.  The money, when it gets to where it is intended, may be just a trickle compared with the babbling brook which, it is claimed, left the Finance Ministry.

However, this is the way it is done, so next week we will have more elections: for LC4, LC3, LC2 and LC1.  Given the apathy about local government elections in the UK, you can imagine the lack of interest among ordinary voters here given the events of the last couple of weeks.  Think about the number of man hours wasted as people cannot get into work, or are afraid to, or think there’s a good excuse not to?  What about all the lost school hours which are irreplaceable?  One of the reasons given for schools remaining closed was the need for parents and administrative staff ‘to rest’ after the elections.  Children do not get a second chance at education anywhere, let alone in Uganda.

Still, nobody died last week, nobody died this week and, we hope, nobody will die next week.  What have died are the last breaths of democracy, if it was ever more than still born.    UK commentators have customarily referred to Uganda as 'one of Africa’s few democracies’.  Democracy is the free and equal right of every person to participate in a system of government...., Encarta again.  Free and equal?  Hummm…..

And what do governments do?  They provide public services and ensure law and order.  And in Uganda?  You will have read in earlier posts on this site about Ugandan schools.  As for health, there is virtually no government health service once you get out of Kampala, and the conditions in the national government hospital here are so bad that the patients went on strike the other week: silly people, they expected treatment!  What else was it that Encarta said about peace: a state of mental calm and serenity, with no anxiety?

No, there were no sudden deaths in Uganda during the elections.  On track record alone, however, we can predict that there will be deaths following the results, slow, inexorable and unacceptable deaths – of women in childbirth, of newborn babies, of ill-nourished children dying of preventable diseases.  On track record, if patients even get as far as the health centres, they will find them empty of staff, empty of the drugs which have been sold off on the black market, and empty of any sense of dignity.  Women will continue to give birth on mats on the floor because they do not have enough money to bribe the hospital staff for a bed.   This is what peace is like in Uganda.  Yet who knows if a different result would have changed all this?  How would we know?

Isn’t it odd how content we Europeans are to apply double standards when dealing with Africa?  If Uganda had been Britain, would the comparative peace of the process have been the final yardstick by which the validity of the outcome was judged?  The qualities of government inscribed on the Scottish Parliament’s mace are wisdom, justice, compassion and integrity, not a bad set of values for any government at any level, national or local, to abide by.  It doesn’t mention peace.


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