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Makerere fire and the nakedness of the pot calling the kettle black

Makerere fire and the nakedness of the pot calling the kettle black

Naked. That is the depressing image in my mind as I think of Makerere University Main Hall, desecrated by a force that torched the magnificent 79-year-old building this past weekend, leaving it physically headless and its innards gutted. In a matter of hours, the iconic building was reduced to a sad corpse perched atop the great hill whose name is synonymous with academic excellence. 


Makerereans, scattered  all over the world, watched with disbelief as the most visible symbol of their transition to adulthood and a future of possibilities went up in terrifying orange flames and the darkest, ugliest smoke. The great hall that represented enlightenment stood helpless in the dark of night as the inferno consumed her with ease. 


The spirits of the ancestors watched from the heavens, probably incredulous that a century after the first sod was turned to convert a bush into one of Africa’s finest centres of learning, there was no evident preparedness for response to yet another fire in Uganda’s capital city. 


We await the forensic report on what caused the blaze. However, we have some preliminary observations and questions about the response to an emergency that joins, in infamy, the fiery destructions of numerous iconic buildings elsewhere in the world. 


The single most important response to a fiery disaster is protection and prevention. To what extent had the university’s custodians minimized the risk of a fire breaking out in this and all its buildings? How often did the building’s electrical systems and equipment get a thorough inspection and certification as meeting current international safety standards? 


Were all staff formally educated and certified in fire prevention and other safety measures?  For example, did they consider the fiery danger posed by the numerous piles of paper scattered throughout the building? 


Did the building have a working smoke-detection and water-sprinkler system? If not, why not? Multi-century-old buildings in other lands have been outfitted with state-of-the art firefighting systems. 


Where exactly are the water hydrants at Makerere located? We have them, right? If not, why not? 

Did the Ministry of Education and that of Disaster Preparedness inspect and enforce fire prevention and management measures at Makerere? When was the last time that the fire, building and electrical codes were evaluated by the Kampala Capital City Authority? 


Once the fire began, how did the emergency response team perform their critical role in mitigating the damage? According to Barnabas Nawangwe, the university’s vice chancellor, the first fire ambulances to arrive did not “have enough pressure to push the water into the roof.” He added that the vehicle with a crane arrived after the fire had already crossed to the south wing of the building. It was a chilling report that described the state of unpreparedness by the university and the capital city’s fire services department. 


As though to affirm Nawangwe’s unsettling account, a video taken after daybreak showed men trying to persuade a very old model Mercedes Benz firetruck to start. When the vehicle stubbornly refused to move, the men unsuccessfully tried to push it with their bare hands and bodies. 


Another video showed a man climbing an ordinary builder’s ladder. A large fire raged through two windows above him. Hideous toxin-bearing smoke billowed through other windows nearby. One of two other men with him did not have a heat-resistant protective helmet. None of them seemed to have face and breathing protection gear. One could not watch the video clip without feeling a chill in the spine. 


One sympathises with these fire fighters. The Bakiga say ngu otamukwaise ati mwikarire tugyende (it is easy for a spectator to urge a wrestler to throw his opponent to the ground.) Theirs was a valiant effort by unarmed men fighting a deadly enemy, with the potential to injure or kill them. They were probably more frustrated than we were as we watched images of their futile efforts from the safety of our caves. 


The people to explain the failure are their bosses, all the way to the President of the Republic, not these ill-equipped and, probably, inadequately trained men who did the best they could with what they had. That is why it was particularly jarring to read the response of Janet Museveni, the Minister of Education who is also the President’s wife. 


Instead of bearing responsibility as the minister in charge, Janet testified: “For us who believe in God, we know that everything works out for our good.” She added: “This is a chance for  Makerere to be rebuilt, not just buildings but the culture, the morals of the people and everything that pertains to our prestigious university.”


Coming from Mrs. Museveni, a member of her own husband’s thoroughly corrupt  government, is what the English call the pot calling the kettle black. I cannot think of anything more immoral than the abuse of power, complete with illegitimate use of force on political opponents, that her husband and their courtiers have perfected. What might God say about a ruler who has repeatedly lied to his subjects that each of the last four “elections” would be his very last term in office? 


Whose government has presided over the theft of funds meant to manage HIV/AIDS and malaria, children’s immunizations and the Covid-19 pandemic, just to mention a few examples of the greed and immorality that is at the core of the regime’s ideology and actions? 


What does Janet think of the entrenched culture, on full display during the recent NRM primaries, where a combination of overt cash-for-votes and violence masquerade as “democracy”? What about the obscene luxury, including very expensive cars and super-high salaries and perks enjoyed by the ruling class even as underpaid firefighters make do with geriatric dysfunctional equipment?


Isn’t the real immorality the poor firefighting service in a land where the ruler’s protectors and enablers have state-of-the art water cannon vehicles that emit high pressure jets against political opponents and other innocent subjects?  Had the situation at Makerere been a peaceful demonstration by students, the response would have been exceptionally swift, efficient, thorough and bloody. 


That is the dark and immoral culture with which the land is ruled, one which has poisoned the ruler’s subjects, occasioned deep fear and despair, entrenched corruption in every facet of life  and turned able-bodied people into beggars.  It is that immorality of the rulers, with their skewed priorities, that set the stage for the country’s symbol of academic excellence to be destroyed by a fire that spread without opposition. 


If there is one relevant moral deficit among the people of Uganda that needs divine intervention, it is their continual praise and even support for greedy rulers that rob them, abuse them and deny them the most basic rights and privileges of citizenship. The Stockholm syndrome, where victims develop an attachment to their captors, should be renamed the Uganda Syndrome. 



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