Ugandans love extravagant men, spending money that is not from their taxes

Wednesday June 7 2017

Ivan was neither a big official nor a small

Ivan was neither a big official nor a small villager killed by iron-bar hitmen. But his has been the most mourned death in recent times. Because people liked seeing a man splashing hard-earned cash that was not from their taxes. ILUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Joachim Buwembo

Two seemingly unrelated events involving Ugandans happened last week, one in Uganda the other in South Africa.

In Uganda, the Monitor reported that a government minister landed near the private home of his wife’s parents upcountry in a government helicopter and spent about an hour there. He then emerged from his in-laws’ house beaming, posed for photos against the chopper and resumed his journey.

According to the newspaper, the minister explained that the chopper had run short of fuel as he was coming back to Kampala from official duties.

The newspaper could not manage to establish how a qualified pilot flew without checking the fuel in a non-emergency situation nor why he expected to find aviation fuel next to his passenger’s relatives’ rural home, and how he lifted off the ground again after failing to get the fuel – a process that consumes more fuel than you need to keep an aircraft airborne for the minutes he needed to land the minister in a government facility, for security and accountability. That is the kind of stuff that gets a president in South Africa indicted and refunding taxpayers’ money.

In South Africa the same week, a private Ugandan citizen died at Steve Biko Hospital after a relatively short illness. Ivan Semwanga, who passed on at a youthful 39, did not need national media to announce his death.

Since he was taken ill two weeks earlier, social media was awash with news and updates of his condition until he breathed his last. What big position did Ivan hold in Uganda? None. Was he a sports star? No. Musician? No. Businessman? Not in Uganda.

Why did the people like Ivan? Apparently, he had educational investments in South Africa and had been coming to Uganda every few months strictly to spend money.

Ivan left Uganda over a decade ago as a poor boy, went and did whatever he did in South Africa and re-emerged with fistfuls of cash. Whichever way he made the money, one thing Ugandans knew was that it was not taxpayers’ money. So they joined him to party.

Whenever Ivan came to town, photos of parties and sheer throwing of cash at crowds appeared on social media. To crown his achievement of escaping poverty, he got himself one of most beautiful women in the land and sired three children with her. By the Ugandan yardstick, Zari’s beauty is legendary and, even after parting with Ivan and moving to Tanzania, she only settled for a top music star and she is now a fashion trendsetter in Dar.

The Ugandan psyche is not hard to understand. They read the bizarre story of the minister’s in-laws and a government chopper, frowned and moved on, because the leadership ethics bar is that low.

Rather, they moved back to monitoring Ivan’s health and finally mourned with Zari the death of her co-parent. Uganda has had several dignitaries dying since the year started and they have all been appropriately mourned and grandiosely buried by the state and honoured by parliament. Also, many people have died in the senseless murders now going on with thugs chopping up people after sending warning leaflets around.

Ivan was neither a big official nor a small villager killed by iron-bar hitmen. But his has been the most mourned death in recent times. Because people liked seeing a man splashing hard-earned cash that was not from their taxes.

Joachim Buwembo is a social and political commentator based in Kampala. E-mail: [email protected]