By Ofwono Opondo
You don’t have to be envious over official burials lately being accorded to departing state officials, but one thing emerging is that they’re turning into pomp, vanity, and extravagance at the taxpayers’ expense.
With hospitals and private funeral homes installing modern refrigeration systems so that corpses can be kept fresh, while funeral details including an ‘official mourner’ are agreed upon, the expenses are going through the roof because family members, supporters and the political government seek to extract as much all-round benefits as they possibly can.
The Secretary to the Treasury, Ramadhan Ggoobi with his previous sword of truth on ‘building the economy that works’ must be shaking his head, if not about his inability to fend off insistent demands, perhaps in amazement how politics can make economic decision-making really stupid. His lofty promise to cut waste and focus on economic growth priorities could turn into a mirage, and may soon find himself unable to defend his economic battle flag, and then choose to play along.
From former Speaker Jacob Oulanyah, Papa Augustine Osuban-the Emorimor of Teso, Central Bank Governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, Gen. Elly Tumwine, DP Supremo Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, PS Keith Muhakanizi, and now state minister Col. [rtd] Charles Okello Engola Mac’Odwogo, it’s inconceivable that all this is done by Uganda under a serious economic squeeze, and government has officially called for frugality in public spending.
You probably don’t even have to know the full details of budget but the outward display of opulence is so unmistaken that colossal sums of public money is being wasted. On conservative estimates government now spends at least five hundred million per official burial, but the real figures are treated as national secrets with multiple agencies spending on the same funeral yet don’t collate.
Usually, the funeral period will stretch for over a week while government caters for the management of the dead body, feeding mourners in at least two venues, transportation to multiple places so that the deceased can be accorded the appropriate accolades and then buried in a marble tiled grave.
Often separate religious and parliament sittings are convened for the single purpose of paying tribute yet these could be done at one place, either before or after burial. Sometimes, private home upgrades are done at public expense where the deceased began a vanity project but death cut them short before they could complete in their rural place of origin or settlement, where perhaps nobody will ever bother to return to.
And the greater the pageant, the more there is to expose the emptiness of its meaning, if not glorious silliness of the self-deceiving, and the preposterously vacuous part of our constitution, and laws that define ostentatious officialdom. Now consider the expensive robes and wigs of Speaker, deputy, and judges of judicature recently introduced, yet they have been abandoned in the countries of origin.
By it we invite the world to witness our lavish splendour, parading the most expansive ceremony that should otherwise be private for the grieving family. Afterwards we go around the world with begging-bowls in hand because we’re unable from domestic resources to raise sufficient revenue to fund our most basic and critical needs in health, water, education and road infrastructure.
We unashamedly bitterly complain that Americans and European dictate to us in humiliation very unfavourable terms when we ask for support. Thus this empty parody has brought us into the realms of an idealized world, and also entrenching the gaps between the supposedly well-to-do and the others.
To the best of my recollections no other country in the East African Community does these fantastical charades when sending off their dead. They seem wiser and humbler, yet some have better economies than us.
But not so ours that’s modernising, and under-going ‘socio-economic transformation’ in full hurry, prosperity for all and steady progress.
All the paraphernalia shows the ring between the dead and their god that leaves the small men in their usually oversized caskets precariously looking a bit embarrassed if they were to speak back to the living. And surely some perhaps don’t even merit recognition although in death they become the emerging symbols of growing inequality. Maybe…just maybe, the Ministry of Public Service, Presidency and Parliament should jointly harmonise a standardised format of what constitutes the elements of an official burial otherwise abuse, extravagance and waste could become the accepted norm.
Consider those politicians who make the decisions, usually while paying lip service to social mobility with straight faces as they partake in this charade of opulence and opportunism.
Well we could blame it on the compromised political system that the NRM, supposedly a revolutionary vanguard is supposed to be fixing but now finds itself in or rather has built itself as a square peg in a round hole. With this populist soothing, the NRM could very soon become more a psychological obstacle to radical political reforms. We can mourn and send off the dead with decorum while keeping within our means, otherwise let’s publicize these important funerals so that maximum numbers of mourners turn up.
The writer is the Director –Uganda Media Centre
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