If a person who owns a square mile planted with wheat is accused of stealing one chapati from a starving family; or a sugar plantation owner of stealing a small sweet from a little girl, you would probably ascribe the act to some mental disorder for the petty crime to be committed by such a wealthy person.
But, mental disorder aside, ignorance can also (mis)lead a wealthy person to commit petty theft. It is ignorance that has this year vulgarised our March, a month usually set aside in Uganda to celebrate the virtues and achievements of women. A woman leader in the ruling NRM party summed up the dangerous ignorance that has driven some of her colleagues into alleged petty theft with this advice: “When we chant our slogan that whatever men can do we can do, it doesn’t include theft!”
The alleged theft that vulgarised this year’s Women’s Day and generally the month of March was of a cheap commodity called mabati – iron sheets for roofing. The mabati were procured by the government for distribution to households in Karamoja to encourage them to build permanent houses as one of the interventions to promote settled lifestyles away from nomadism and cattle rustling. Karamoja people are the poorest and worst-off community in Uganda, going by any socioeconomic wellness indicator you pick.
You can imagine the public shock, even in our country that has no shortage of scandals, when it emerged that the mabati, which cost about $10 per piece, had not been received by the intended poor beneficiaries but had instead been “diverted” (euphemism for stolen) by senior public officials who earn at least $10,000 each a month besides having most of their expenses like fuelled luxury vehicles with drivers – vehicles in plural for each official — financed by the taxpayer.
Most of the officials made off with 300 pieces, which they could easily afford in the open market.
It was indeed hard for an ordinary Ugandan to fathom the alleged crass debasement of the officials who are perceived to be above random theft. Worse still, the alleged key perpetrators were women. So the people did what they do when faced by such revelations – turn to social media and make jokes of it.
Walk to prison
An opposition politician said the officials should have walked themselves to prison and waited for the detention paperwork to find them there. The government spokesman said the officials were telling lies when they claimed to have picked the mabati in the belief that they were meant for their constituencies, yet the entire “diverted” consignment was explicitly destined for Karamoja.
The scandal became public when security men arrested family members of a key official in the scandal selling the mabati in a town far from Karamoja.
But before or after laughing at the embarrassed poor officials, it is important to look at the mabati “diversion” in the broader context of continental ignorance — which is apparent. For the case of Uganda, the country has millions of tonnes of rich iron ore, so the last thing a Cabinet minister should be accused of “diverting” are a few iron sheets.
But, being unaware of the dizzying millions of tonnes of iron in the soil, also unaware that half of the country’s electricity-generating capacity that would smelt the ore goes unconsumed though it has to be paid for, an underinformed minister perceives mabati as a valuable thing, worth risking one’s reputation for.
Elsewhere on the continent, we have countries that have been selling crude oil for decades but even import bitumen for making roads, yet it is about the cheapest by-product of the crude they export. They are ignorant that a refinery can be built in their country, financed by the proceeds from a small fraction of the crude they export in a few years.
Before independence, African thinkers used to decry the loss suffered from exporting raw minerals, which if processed in the country would enhance industrialisation. But after independence such preaching ceased. So, an African woman sells a dozen eggs to buy a kilo of maize flour while her children get malnourished, because of ignorance.
So, before you condemn an official for “diverting” some iron sheets, first assess their level of awareness about the wealth their country possesses. A person with a square mile of wheat may steal a chapati if they don’t know that they own enough grain to make a billion chapatis. So, let us help our officials to understand the enormous wealth that the countries they run have.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]