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Mysterious deaths and government panic

By Denis Musinguzi

Nebanda’s death saga underlines need for fundamental government reforms

The government’s incoherent and fairly uncouth reaction about the sudden and mysterious death of the Butaleja’s youthful and government-critical Woman Member of Parliament, Cerinah Arioru Nebanda, has exposed the worryingly deepening internal weaknesses within the ruling NRM government. It also signifies the urgent need for fundamental government reforms, particularly the public relations function. Rather than prove its innocence, the government’s panicky and avoidably amateurish reaction reasonably vindicated suspicion about its culpability.

When someone dies suddenly moreover of unnatural cause, it is normal and therefore expected for people to suspect various presenting causes. Hence, any reaction to such an incident, by dictates of simple common sense, must be calm, reassuring, and intelligently calculated lest it joins the list of suspicions. Unfortunately, the government’s sudden defensive and speculative reaction, its primeval issuance of threats, rude arrests of dissenting MPs, and the unnecessary attack on the sanctity of the institution of Parliament does not reflect sober response but further fuels suspicion.

Suspicion was initially triggered by the Police’s instant speculation of alcohol and drugs within few hours of her demise. The speculation was later confirmed by government’s sanctioned postmortem report and the seemingly rehearsed confessions of the apprehended suspects, including her seedy former boyfriend. Even if careless consumption of a cocktail of drugs and alcohol was responsible for her death, which anyone would have no reason to doubt, its public acceptance was compromised by the unnecessary government’s frustration of the legitimate independent private inquiry and its suspicious reaction.

Again, imputing death by alcohol and drug abuse at such a moment when people, in particular the immediate family members, friends and colleagues were saddened with grief of a shocking death, was insensitive of our expectedly professional police and uncalled for since it attacked the moral character of the deceased. This understandably incensed the mourners and, together with other forms of government repression, was largely responsible for the painful drama that characterised the funeral proceedings of the fallen MP, both in Parliament and during her burial.

The suspicion was unfortunately worsened by the Presidency, which took it upon itself to defend ‘government’s’ innocence. First was the President himself, then his wife, who, perhaps rightly, publicly denied any reasonable possibility of government culpability. To the drama was added the blind defense of government and the barrage of scathing attacks against those with dissenting views by the youthful and very intelligent but clearly publicly insensitive and seemingly un-oriented Minister for the Presidency and the Presidency’s Press Secretary.

One wonders why the Ministry of Information and National Guidance, the mandated government’s mouthpiece, has remained silent.

The NRM government must be aware that it initially won public good will and support due to its restoration of democratic governance and commendable defense of fundamental human rights and freedoms. But it must also equally be sadly aware that its legitimacy and public support continues to decline unabated, chiefly due to ever-increasing levels of corruption and the resultant collapse of public service delivery function. As most Ugandans continue to wallow in pain and misery caused by poverty and various forms of deprivation while a few in government swim in ill-gotten wealth, the government’s detachment from their existential needs becomes all the more manifest.

Meanwhile, the NRM continues to pride itself of ending extra-judicial killings by state agencies. However, we have in NRM history a list of mysterious deaths whose reports have never been made public. The state may never at all have been involved in any, but its failure to protect them from death in the first place let alone make public who or what caused their death, is itself a vote of no confidence in the government and a fertile ground for suspecting its complicity.

For instance, state agencies may not be overtly involved in extra-judicial killings, but government must take responsibility of the lives of 26 mothers who die every day in child birth, and the 80,000 children who die every year of prevented diseases simply because the money that was responsible for putting in place supportive healthcare was swindled by a government official.

Government must understand that it is in this environment of government abandon and suspicion that the mysterious death such as the one of late Nebanda is greeted. Hence, the government is expected to respond to various voices, including those rendering it suspect, with remarkable caution and professionalism that would reassure rather than infuriate the public.

Unfortunately, the government panicked, blundered, contradicted itself and clearly mismanaged, as always, the handling of the case. Eventually, all acts of repression and blatant denial of freedoms of opinion and expression are seen with both suspicion and contempt; and eventually work not to improve but rather worsen its faltering legitimacy.

If for any reason, it should be NRM which must appreciate and vehemently support the inherent value of dissent since it was through dissenting views of its founders that a liberation struggle was crafted with deserved public support. The impolite arrest and incarceration of the MPs and repeated warnings and use of indecent language by the President against the institution of Parliament and its trusted Speaker simply for holding dissenting views is clearly at odds with the deeply cherished liberation ideology that the people have associated NRM with.

To salvage its faltering legitimacy and again win people’s trust and confidence, NRM must rethink and reconstruct its work ethos. It must reeducate itself on how to streamline government response to issues of public concern; deliver public goods and services in an effective, balanced and transparent manner; and recommit itself to the principles of good governance and respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms that defined its niche.

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