Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hurray, stormy days are here again!

Storms in Kampala
Friday was the turning point. After unprecedented temperatures building up for weeks, 30 to 32 degrees in Kampala and up to 39 degrees elsewhere, on Saturday the weather broke.

We had heard thunder rumbling away all afternoon and the clouds gradually darkening. Then, on our way to Cayenne, a nearby watering hole, the sky turned an angry red and the red dust suddenly swirled head high so we could barely see in front of us. Pedestrians dashed across the road, clutching babies and loaded with shopping, trying to get under cover before the storm broke.

The low rumbling became loud crashes right over our heads. Trees waved wildly and lightning flashed above and around us. The rain poured down, washing across the streets and flooding the drainage channels. And so it continued, all that evening. After a brief respite at 11 o’clock, it started all over again at 3 o’clock in the morning.

This will be the weather pattern for the next few weeks: warm bright sunshine, thunder rumbling away in the background and then sudden outbursts of violent wind and rain. The weather people say that the rains in the western highlands and around Lake Victoria will spread to the rest of the country by the end of March. Seventeen people have died already and we can expect more deaths and injuries from road accidents, floods, lightning strikes and falling trees, walls and roofs.

Rainstorms across the countryside
However, the stormy weather is welcome - except for the casualties, of course. People across the country and not just in the usual drought-prone regions, have been suffering badly from the extended hot season. Food and water shortages are now acute and many animals and poultry have died. Bush fires have burned down huts and killed people. They have torn through huge stretches of the national parks in western Uganda, as well as sugar cane plantations, natural forests and urban markets. Scores of families are homeless as a result. And in Karamoja, over in the north east close to the famine-struck areas of Kenya, people are trudging 14 kilometres or more for water and are already hungry. Rain storms are good.

The priority now, of course, is to use the rain properly: for communities to build dams and set up irrigation systems to boost harvests and increase food security; and for the country as a whole to take action to preserve its wetlands and forests for the future. Only by protecting its water catchment, will the country’s future – and vital - agricultural and industrial development become possible.

Uganda and its national parks

Rumblings within the corridors of power
And tempests have also begun to rage in the capital: not too many out in the streets, unlike this time last year, but a lot, it seems, within the corridors of power. Thank goodness again. Rain storms clear the air and clean the ground. They bring down rotten trees and scour out the filth and debris lurking in gutters. They fill water courses and prepare the ground for the new green shoots of recovery.

A Tullow tornado
Gales continue to swirl round Parliament House. The Government has just signed a Production Sharing Agreement with Tullow Oil (an Irish oil exploration group, whose critics usually called it ‘British’) about the extraction of oil from the Albertine Rift Valley in the western kingdom of Bunyoro. Nothing wrong with that, you might think…except that Parliament had specifically passed a resolution halting oil transactions until the necessary legislation had been passed. MPs assert that the draft agreement does not provide sufficient protection for the country against rapacious foreign investors.

The kingdom of Bunyoro
Nevertheless, the resolution was not much of an obstacle to the President who simply ordered the Minister for Energy and Mineral Development to ignore it and put her name on the papers, letting loose a veritable tornado among both Opposition and his own NRM MPs for ignoring the will of Parliament. This action fuelled speculation that 'some people have already been compromised and therefore transactions must go ahead even if it means defying Parliament.’ (The Daily Monitor)

Oil is due to start flowing 36 months after the papers have been signed. Mind you, Andrew Mwenda of The Independent is very sceptical about the idea of continuing debate in Parliament, saying it just gives more opportunity to MPs to dip their personal buckets into the oil reserves.  Tullow has already passed on two thirds of its interests to France’s Total and China’s CNOOC.

The President said he had fought a resistance war and repaired a ruined economy; he would not let ‘economic saboteurs land him into mistakes [sic]’. This is a storm that may not die down quickly.

Lake Albert and the oil

A tsunami of corruption allegations
Two Cabinet Ministers have just been swept away by a tidal wave of accusations that they approved inflated compensation payments mounting to Shs150 billion of taxpayers’ money to two businessmen whose land was taken over for use as a market.  The Public Accounts Committee seem to think that some of the shillings drifted back in their direction. The high tide is likely to deposit both culprits in the law courts. Furthermore, the former Attorney General was reduced to pleading for mercy to the President himself for his guilt in approving the compensation claims - while also hinting at the existence of past government deals which he might just think about making public. An interesting belief – that a letter can influence the judicial system.

Also caught up in the swell was the respected Governor of the Bank of Uganda, though he is still managing to keep his head above water. Some have claimed he authorised the payments following pressure from the Finance Minister. The Governor may also be paying for his public, and possibly brave/unwise, disagreement with the President’s decision a few months ago to purchase $400million fighter jets using cash from the foreign exchange reserves.

The waves triggered by the compensation payments have certainly risen very high indeed, as high as it is possible to imagine. It is said the two Ministers, ballast tossed out of the Presidential ship, were pushed under before they could drag anyone else down with them. Whether they’ll ever be found guilty, of course, is another matter, as is whether the money will be recovered and returned to the public services from which it was stolen.

The sacking now makes 10 vacancies in the Cabinet: the two new casualties joining the other eight whose integrity has been questioned. NRM MPs are falling overboard at an unprecedented rate. Yesterday there was an emergency meeting of the NRM caucus, down by the calm waters of Lake Victoria.

Downpours drench MPs
When floods recede, they sometimes reveal hitherto hidden structures.  It has taken two months for a secret deal to come to light which gives each of the country’s 375 MPs Shs103 million (nearly £30,000) to buy a ‘luxury’ gas guzzler car.

Yaslin Mugerwa in the Daily Monitor points out that the lifetime cost of treating an HIV/Aids victim is Shs20 million, which means that each vehicle could help save the lives of five people. The whole Shs38.6 would treat more than 1,875 Aids sufferers.  300,000 poor Ugandans cannot afford anti-retroviral drugs.

The subsequent outcry has been enormous, even for Uganda. A torrent of abuse characterised by the word ‘greedy’ has rained down upon the honourable members. Apparently, this kind of money could ‘operationalise’ the entire health structure of a small district, with 100% staffing (unheard of in Uganda). The timing of the news, of course, was bad, coinciding with threatened strikes by desperately underpaid teachers. Each car would pay the salaries of 345 primary teachers.

MPs had already asked for a Shs50 million individual advance, a removal of taxes on their new cars and an increase in monthly salary from Shs15 million to Shs19 million.

One piece of comfort for the common man is that, given the whirlpools swirling around Uganda’s potholes just now, the garage bills for the ‘greedy’ MPs will be astronomical.

And various lightning strikes
The Presidency has just requested a Shs92 billion supplementary budget to ‘pay for special meals and drinks, welfare and entertainment.’ It also includes Shs2.3 billion for maintaining the presidential jet,  Shs11.6 billion for ‘donations’ and Shs8.8 billion for travel at home and abroad. This is the second of such payments to State House. Five months ago it got an additional Shs66.6 billion. If the request is acceded to, the State House budget will apparently balloon to more than Shs158.6 billion— more than twice the 2011/12 Budget for Mulago National Referral Hospital, according to the Monitor. The money could also have been used to meet the Shs75 billion required to answer teachers’ demands for a 100 per cent salary increase.

The sum also vastly overshadows the Shs7 billion which the Ministry of Health is struggling to find to treat 3,000 children in Northern Uganda struck down by a mysterious ‘nodding disease’. Its initial request for a supplementary budget had been turned down, so funds have been re-allocated from elsewhere in the health budget.

Children with this degenerative disease present with nodding heads, running saliva, stunted growth, seizures, mental retardation and malnutrition. At risk of falling into open fires, many spend their days tied to trees to prevent accidents. A Junior Health Minister has just reassured Ugandans that ‘only 170 deaths’ had been registered. Others say 200, but who knows how many have been quietly buried in hard-to-reach areas. There is no diagnosis and no treatment – except for anti-epileptic drugs to control the nodding.

Acholi MPs have been frantically trying to draw attention to what should be a national emergency. The disease first appeared three years ago, though it is claimed that the first action to combat it was taken only a week ago. So far Shs100 million has been released of the promised Shs7 billion. Not so much a deluge, more a trickle.

So, what is the long-term weather forecast?
Let us hope that the reporting of these turbulent events signifies a very public cleansing of the Augean stables. Rottenness has been revealed as the floodwater swirls through the channels, obstacles to fair and equitable government are being washed away and the ground is being swept clear, we hope, for the planting season.

The trouble is that the weather in Uganda is so unpredictable these days that no one can tell you about the pattern of seasons any more. I guess a few weeks of sunshine will brighten up the murkiest areas. Periodically, as now, wild storms will tear across the countryside, demolishing disintegrating buildings and making passage for the deluge.  Who knows when it will be time for the seeds to be planted, the crops gathered in and the harvest made ready for the granaries?

Granary on stilts in northern Uganda

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