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Northern MPs’ anger shows national pain

By Gaaki Kigambo & Rosebell Kagumire

The recent recall of Ambassador Julius Onen’s appointment to the East African Community (EAC) has re-energised mostly members of parliament from northern Uganda in their charges that the government is marginalising their region. It has also returned the spotlight on the NRM government, upping accusations that sectarianism, nepotism and tribalism have centrally become the ultimate criteria in most senior appointments.

‘The issue of Ambassador Onen was just a symptom of a big problem. As we talk now, people are talking about secession. Anybody can say the argument for ‘The Nile Republic’ is far fetched but that people are talking about it means people feel they do not belong here,€ said Alice Alaso, the Soroti district Woman MP.

It was Mike Mukula, NRM’s deputy vice chairperson  for Eastern Region, in December 2007 who first emphatically put it to President Museveni’s face in an NRM caucus meeting that public appointments today favoured only one region; the west.

The NRM government back in the late 80s to mid-90s, among other ways, built its political capital through demonising previous regimes by labelling them dictatorial and sectarian. The NRM professed their aversion to these vices and affirmed their commitment to eliminate them. In fact, removing the government way of conducting business based on religious, linguistic, and ethnic factional grounds formed one of its 10, and later 15-point programme. But as the years passed, NRM’s rhetoric has not matched its substance. To be sure, increasingly Museveni and other NRM officials do not talk much, if any, about the vices they once condemned.

Justice Ralph W. Ochan, who says he is familiar with Ambassador Onen’s Foreign Service record, wrote in a commentary in a local daily, that Onen’s situation reveals a simple dynamic of the diplomatic service where someone serves abroad and at home and as such Onen’s career progress refutes suggestions of marginalisation.

Onen’s recall, however, plays outside simple dynamics of diplomatic service. After all, Ochan is not one to say there are not areas of discontent in the Greater North. So, what are these other areas in which Onen’s situation emerges as just a microcosm?

Following Mukula’s charges of sectarianism in appointments in major sectors of government, The Independent over three editions between January and March 2008 sought to prove if there was any marrow in his claims. The Independent looked at the cabinet, permanent secretaries, ambassadors and their deputies, heads of public sector bodies and the top leadership of the military. What emerged then, and has not changed since, is a glaring discrepancy in the regional distribution of these said top government jobs. The Constitution of Uganda under the National Objectives and Directive Principles of State Policy Section II Subsection IV states: ‘The composition of Government shall be broadly representative of the national character and social diversity of the country.€

The composition of the current government however cannot said to be anywhere close to this provision.

Selected northern Uganda statistical indicators

Out of a total of 23 senior army positions ‘ from commander in chief to division commanders ‘, the north holds only two. The east has none while the west and central have 17 and 4 respectively. It is important to note that even out of the west, the largest chunk rests in the Ankole region. Out of the 26 cabinet positions, the north has three, east and central six each while the west has 11. Of all public sector bodies as of February 2007, only six are headed by people from the north. Otherwise, 31 are headed by people from the west, 21 by people from the central while 13 by people from the east. Three bodies are headed by people who do not particularly fall in any of these categories. There have not been changes in heads of these bodies since. A look at accounting officers as of 2007/2008 reveals similar discrepancies in composition. Of 98 offices, the west holds 41, central 28, East 14 and the north 13. The Independent could not determine the remaining two. Cast against the region’s percentage of the total population, the west occupies 44 percent of all top public appointments although it is only 26 percent of the population; the central occupies 30 percent with 17 percent of the population; the east and north share only 26 percent even when their combined population is at 47 percent. As The Independent noted then, a few reasons suffice to explain this trend. For instance, it can be argued that the army’s top leadership is composed mainly of Banyankore because they contributed highly to the bush struggle that ushered the current government into power. Or even that the west votes overwhelmingly for NRM and thus appointing many westerners is the reward for that support. But these reasons however are debunked by the argument that after 23 years in power, the NRM should have made efforts to fairly balance the distribution of top government jobs among ethnicities and regions to reflect the national character as the constitution stipulates.

Other effects of disproportionate sharing of national resources can be seen everywhere in the north.

Poverty

In February this year the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) issued a report: The Spatial Trends of Poverty and Inequality in Uganda: 2002-2005, which showed that across the country poverty had declined from 39% in 2002 to 31% in 2005.

Most of this decline was reported mainly in central and western regions but in northern Uganda 64.8% of the people were living below the poverty line. This was higher than any other part of the country.

It was followed by the eastern region at 38.4%, which was too far from the national average.  The data in the report was derived from the 2005/2006 Uganda National Household Survey, and the 2002 Population and Housing Census which sampled about 7,426 households in 874 rural sub-counties in 58 districts.

Living below the poverty line means anybody who depends on less than a dollar a day.

This was a stinging statistic but it got little attention and there was no explanation for such poverty levels in northern Uganda.

Besides, it is noted that while Uganda is hailed as a success story for reducing HIV prevalence rate to 6.2% countrywide, the effects of the conflict in the north have made the region remain with a high rate at 8.2% only behind the central region.

The State of Ugandan Population report 2008 says the high HIV prevalence resulted partly from difficulty in disease surveillance in the region as many were cut off from public health services for the last two decades.

Other factors include presence of the army ‘ a noted factor in high HIV transmission – for 21 years, high sexual violence, and congestion in the Internally Displaced Peoples camps.

Health

The problem was made worse by the lack of health infrastructure, education and skills training, poverty which exist up until today.

Health problems of the north are not only manifested in the HIV figures. Just like the rest of the country, the north lacks health workers. The situation in the north worsened because not many Ugandan health workers are willing to work in there due to the insurgence. Some demand a special ‘risk allowance€. The government has not put such incentives in place.

A visit to Anaka, a centre supposed to be a regional referral hospital for Amuru and parts of Pakwach gives a glimpse of the neglected health care in the north.

It is one of the 21 hospitals built across the country during the late president Obote’s regime. The buildings are now dilapidated, with what used to be a theatre in ruins.

One of the few nursing officers, Joyce Akumu, told The Independent she walks a long distance or hires a bicycle taxi to get to work.

The hospital serves a population of about 150,000 to 200,000. It has on average 100 in-patients and serves about 300 out-patients daily.

It was supposed to have seven doctors but has only two. When government advertised for 20 nurses and midwives for the hospital last year, only five midwives were willing to work in Anaka and one did not stay for a month.

The Medical Superintendent Dr Anen Olwedo says they have only 34 percent of the required staff.

When asked the last time the hospital was fully functional, the elders in the camp narrate with nostalgia.

‘It was fully functioning till 1979. During the liberation war (1986) it was vandalised and it went on limping until 1992 when almost all staff left,€ one of the camp leaders told The Independent.

‘It was reopened in 1998 but it has never gone up to the standard it was at.€

Poor feeding

People in northern Uganda are acutely malnourished according to UNICEF reports in 2008.  There has been a drop in children being immunised after many people returned home from the IDPs.

A 2004 the Human Development Index showed that half of the children in the north were stunted while 30% were ‘wasted€, a medical term that describes a worse form of malnutrition.

Last year’s population report indicated that while the maternal mortality rates in other parts of the country have reduced to as low as 435 deaths per 100,000 births, it is believed to be very high in the conflict affected areas of northern Uganda.

The area also has poor hygiene and sanitation statistics which has seen more than 10,000 people hospitalised with Hepatitis E virus in the last one year and about 156 people have died.

Education

The north is lagging behind in other development indicators like education.

The literacy rates in the north dropped as the security situation worsened from late 1980s. The investment in education that went into the older generations in north is easily seen. All across northern Uganda, it is not hard to find a village where most of the elderly are literate. But the literacy figures paint a gloomy picture with only 38 percent of women being literate and about 61 percent for men. Since most of the population was moved to camps at the height of the war against LRA, the situation has deteriorated with high school dropout rates.

While nationwide, the dropout rate at primary school is at about 17% for boys and 35% for girls as of 2008, in northern Uganda it is 54% for boys and 69% for girls.

The north has the highest percentages of people with no education in the country with males and females at 17 % and 35 % according to demographic surveys.

It’s well known that the introduction of Universal Primary Education in 1997 increased the enrolment ratio countrywide from about 3.4 million to 7.4 million by 2004 and primary level net enrolment rates increased from 62.3% in 1992 to 92% for girls and 94% for boys by 2006.

But in Kitgum district, about 86% of schools were displaced and temporarily incorporated in other schools, which resulted in immense overcrowding and inadequate infrastructure.

Other factors like lack of lack of food and parental oversight lead to high dropout rates.

The 2008 examination results released early this year both at primary and secondary levels revealed the extent of the education deficit in the north. While the whole country performance in PLE was generally poor, most schools in the north never had a pupil in Division One showing the extent of the regional inequality in education access, quality and hence performance.

There are high rates of teacher absenteeism in the north as many of the schools lack staff houses forcing teachers to commute long distances. It is common to find students and teachers walking to school at 10.00 am and this time most children in other parts of the country are probably into their fourth lesson.

Teachers and students in the north still walk as many as 20 km to get to school and some schools have not registered any student for A’Level exams at some point.

With a huge Diaspora backed by effective national programmes, the north would be able to improve or at least recover from these setbacks.

Instead last year the State of Population report 2008 showed that while the national life expectancy rate rose from 43 years to 50, in the north it was at 45.2 percent for women and 42.2 for men.

The way forward

The government has introduced several projects to revamp the Greater North. Among them, Poverty Action Fund (PAF) established in 1997/98 Financial Year created no substantial effect. According to the Uganda Debt Network report 2001/02 the management and expenditure of the fund was riddled with high corruption. The trend was not different from other projects like Northern Uganda Rehabilitation Programme (NURP) or Northern Uganda Social Action Fund (NUSAF). The implementation of all of these has been flawed.

Leaders from northern Uganda have vowed not to allow any other subsequent projects meant for their region to be mishandled. It is for that reason they have focused on the yet-to-be-seen Peace Recovery and Development Plan for northern Uganda (PRDP). They want to see that its implementation terms are acceptable to them.

PRDP is a comprehensive framework which integrates and harmonises all initiatives committed to the rehabilitation and development of the north and north-eastern Uganda. These results have got to be in 4 established strategic objectives; Consolidation of State Authority, Rebuilding and Empowering Communities, Revitalisation of the Economy and Peace Building and Reconciliation.

The plan is designed to last three years, in which period (it is envisioned that) northern Uganda should have developed to the same footing with the rest of the country. To that, the government is budgeting for Shs 1.6 trillion. Of this money, government is to contribute 30% and donors, local and foreign, will contribute the rest. Believed to be the best recovery and development idea yet, the PRDP is meant to kick off in July this year.

Like the earlier interventions, PRDP budget is an additional apart from the national budget.

The association of MPs from the Greater North is in full agreement with CSOPNU (Civil Society Organisations for Peace in Northern Uganda), a coalition of CSOs established to advocate a just and lasting peace in northern Uganda and the way forward. They say there is need to establish a Northern Uganda Action Fund within the National Budget, which should be additional to ongoing allocations to affected districts. The fund ‘should be ring-fenced to avoid intermittent budget cuts, as was the case with Poverty Action Fund (PAF).€ Such an affirmative action, they say, should last about 10 years, rather than the proposed 3-year PRDP timeframe.

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