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Choosing between funding Makerere and cultural celebrations

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Choosing between funding Makerere and cultural celebrations

 Two headlines in the Daily Monitor caught my eye last week. The first informed us on Friday April 26: “Lango chiefdom seeks Sh. 2.8 billion for coronation of new Paramount Chief.” The next day, we read: “Makerere to reduce funding research and innovations.” 


On the surface, Makerere University and the Lango Chiefdom are two unrelated worlds. One is engaged in the discovery, exploration, and dissemination of truth, through scholarship and research. The other concerns itself with protection and promotion of culture, and a harmonious environment in which to grow their community. 


However, the two institutions are united through their shared benefactor base, namely, the central government acting on behalf of the citizens of Uganda, and the private sector acting on behalf of the shareholders. The Makerere and Lango leaders are justified in asking for funding. It is up to the funders to decide what is important or urgent enough to warrant a cash infusion. 


Whereas I join the people of Lango in their joyful anticipation of the coronation of their new Won Nyaci on November 2, I find their plan to spend Sh. 2.8 billion (about USD 730,000) on this cultural event to be out of step with the realities of Uganda, let alone Lango, a region that is struggling with rising poverty. The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) reported in 2021 that the prevalence of poverty in Lango had risen from 16 percent in 2017 to 23 percent in 2020. The same report carried equally depressing news about increased poverty levels in Ankole (from 7 to 12 percent), Tooro (from 11 to 13 percent), North Buganda (from 11 to 14 percent), Kigyezi (from 12 to 28 percent), Acholi (from 33 to 68 percent), and Karamoja (from 60 to 66 percent).


The coronation budget includes Sh. 425 million (USD 110,000) to be spent on “welfare and refreshments,” a modern phrase for what the traditional English speaker calls partying. The Lango call it karama. Interestingly, the budget for “research, documentation and publication” is a modest Sh. 53 million (USD14,000). The priorities are clear. 


Although I have not been to Lango lately, I suspect that the parents and teachers in Lango would probably be greatly pleased if the entire coronation budget was shifted to investment in, for example, information and communication technology (ICT) and e-learning facilities for our young folks in the region.  The new Won Nyaci would spend his coronation week doing the rounds launching at least twelve state-of-the-art ICT/e-learning centres in his realm, each with fifty networked stations. It would be a memorable, meaningful, non-perishable, and productive way of starting his reign. 


Alternatively, if that money was invested in providing modern maternal-child care facilities in Lango’s Health Centre IVs, the women, and babies under the Won-Nyaci would enjoy better opportunities for safe pregnancy and birth. Whereas these are not glamorous, exciting engagements, they would have a positive long-term impact on Lango that feasting, dancing, and toasting to the new chief will never have. 


The organisers of the big party in Lira, led by some members of the Lango parliamentary caucus, have already indicated that they will mobilise the vice president of Uganda, the speaker of parliament, the prime minister, and other MPs to support the funding for the coronation festivities. Presumably they expect some of those officials to dig into the central government’s coffers to finance the celebrations. 


Before these government leaders consent to the request from the Lira party organizers, they should listen to what Professor Barnabas Nawangwe, the vice chancellor of Makerere University, told the Monitor newspaper last week. The Uganda Parliament’s decision to reduce Makerere’s budget from Sh.367.8 billion to Sh. 353.9 billion will force that great university “to cut the research and innovation funds to meet the operational costs.”  Obviously, Makerere’s financial shortfall will not be resolved by shifting money from the Won-Nyaci’s coronation extravaganza. However, every shilling counts, even in the world of the very rich. 


The central and local governments in our country indulge in mindboggling extravagance, with a special addiction to partying at the least of excuses. However, it is not only the governments that are afflicted. We, the people of Uganda, seem to be keener to invest more in weddings than in family economic development. We invest more in funerals “befitting” the dead person’s status while she lived, than in our collective health care services that might have postponed her rendezvous with death. 


We place greater importance on the type of car we drive than on the maintenance and improvement of the roads on which we engage in a regular dance with the potholes. We empty our pockets to sow seeds in the vineyards of our miracle-performing prophets and apostles, but we are stingy when called upon to donate to our local hospitals, schools, and other community social welfare organizations.  Vanity is king. Priorities are skewed. 


To allow Makerere University, our finest centre of higher learning, to even contemplate reducing its investment in research and innovation is a national scandal that should embarrass you and me into action. Research and innovation are to a university what a beating heart and a creative mind are to wholesome living. They are the engine of economic development that separates the first from the third worlds. Public and private funding for them is a necessity, not a favour by the people who are the ultimate beneficiaries of the intellectual labours on that celebrated hill.


I know that funding Makerere does not win political support for the rulers. Funding a cultural celebration is a politician’s dream. Saying to the people of Lango “obede wunu kede karama” (let’s party) is very easy. It does not involve sacrifice and offers immediate gratification. However, we need a mindset change. We need to spend personal and public money with wisdom, with purposeful frugality, for long-term gain, not transient pleasure. We simply cannot afford this addiction to haemorrhaging the public purse and the citizens’ savings. This mindset change is an agenda where we, as Ugandans, can join hands without the usual divisive partisanship that often sabotages our collective interest.


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