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Sorry Dr. Atwine, but sadly your job is too painful to appreciate

By Richard Kintu

The situation at the Ministry of Health headquarters in Kampala should be tense following a recent increase in the noise calling for reforms there. The noise which first gained momentum last Thursday was crowned earlier this week when unidentified “goons” dropped coffins draped with placards calling for the resignation of Dr. Diana Atwine, the ministry’s Permanent Secretary for “turning the Covid-19 pandemic into a profit-making venture”.

The message was consistent with that issued by the Union of Human Rights Defenders Uganda (UHRDU) activists who had, in a press conference at the People’s Government headquarters at Katonga road; accused Atwine of failure to account for Covid-19 funds as well as items donated to the ministry during the first lockdown.

Lead activist, Annet Namata aka Nalongo Mwafrika, further accused Atwine and the ministry of endangering the country’s medical workers by failing to provide them with enough personal protective equipment (PPEs).

Hours after the ‘coffin riots’, the ministry of health spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyona issued a response in which they berated the aggressors for continued attacks on Dr. Atwine and other ministry of health officials despite there being official accountability information that exonerates them from any wrongdoing. But earlier, the same Ainebyona had rubbished the Katonga activists saying they simply lacked what to do and were seeking cheap popularity by peddling lies.

And later while addressing the press, Minister Ruth Aceng also joined Ainebyona in rebuking the heartless protestors who seem not to see that the team at the health ministry is actually doing a good job of saving Ugandans from dying of Covid in huge numbers.

“Please if you want accountability ask for it instead of throwing coffins at us,” Aceng pleaded.

Her plea and cry sounded similar to an earlier one by Dr. Atwine who at the beginning of the second wave of Covid expressed frustration at the ungratefulness of Ugandans. Atwine said it hurts so much that despite their sacrifice and diligent service Ugandans still choose to call them thieves.

What if the dissatisfaction is justified?

Well, before Dr. Atwine, Dr. Aceng and team cry about the ungratefulness of Ugandans, they should also do some soul-searching. My opinion is that if they do it well, they will probably know that Ugandans are not entirely witch-hunting or hating on the powerful ladies at ministry of health.  This is because some key strange happenings at the ministry since the onset of the covid pandemic and its lockdowns starting March 2020 raise more questions than answers on the side of the bosses at the ministry. They thus place the public between a rock and hard place when it comes to choosing whether to be ungrateful or praise Dr. Atwine and Aceng for a job well done.

1. The Covid-19 money bonanza

It is now official that ever since the Coronavirus broke out leading to a lockdown in March last year, very many billions of shillings have been pumped into efforts to either eradicate or mitigate it. However, reports about this money have largely been those of either its misappropriation or theft all together. For instance, an audit report authored by the auditor general showed that Shs6.68bn out of the Shs284bn that came directly from the Consolidated Fund towards Covid-19 related activities was not utilised at the close of the financial year and returned to the Consolidated Fund.

“This affected the implementation of the planned activities. Contrary to the Secretary to Treasury’s guidance to bank the funds intact, shs850 million out of shs17.24 billion total cash donations were utilised at source in 56 entities. The balance was banked on designated accounts of the entities,” the report stated in part. The AG added that a total of 25 entities undertook Covid-19 related procurements worth shs143.84bn without fully adhering to the procurement rules and regulations. Some of the observed anomalies include irregular use of direct procurements, procurements without signed contracts, late delivery of goods, payment before receiving goods and failure to involve the contracts committee.

What hurts Ugandans is that a further breakdown showed that when it comes to individual entities, the Ministry of Health misappropriated most of the funds, followed by the Uganda police force. Sadly, this news came way after the infamous Co vid money bonanza by the parliament.

2. Misinformation believed more

The most unfortunate bit in all this is that while the Atwines and other accounting officers labour to give the correct version of accountabilities, the public is not just interested to listen to such. The reason is simple: such information must pass through the right mainstream media but over the years Ugandans’ belief in such media has waned. This can partly be blamed on government suppression of all critical media that takes it upon itself to report anti-government content. The trouble now is that Ugandans spent much of their time consuming news from social media which unfortunately carries too much uncensored news but which is not encumbered by the dictates of professional standards. Aren’t you for instance not surprised that for all the covid-19 milestones Uganda has registered, one of the most talked about topics was the rumor of the plush apartments that were reported to belong to Dr. Atwine? Quickly, the narrative was changed, with those rotting from home due to the lockdown cursing how “that woman and her cronies lock us down so as generate money to build their apartments”. Possibly, that explains why one of the messages on the protesting coffin was to the effect that COVID-19 IS NOT A BUSINESS VENTURE”.

3. The Open Vote of No-confidence

The other challenge Dr. Atwine and Minister Aceng must accept to live with in this covid-19 fight is that they have at times been discredited by some of the country’s eminent people as regards their work at the ministry. Precisely, I will zero on President Museveni, Dr. Kizza Besigye and late Prof. Anthony K. Mbonye.

In his book, Uganda’s Health Sector Through Turbulent Politics (1958-2018), the departed professor attributes many of the current problems we are seeing in the ministry to both the minister and her PS, whom he said lack the experience to steer the entity.

Under Chapter 8: Politics and a crisis of leadership in the health sector, Page 120, Mbonye writes thus: “Since 2010, the health sector has been managed by inexperienced junior officers appointed to the influential positions of minister, permanent secretary and Director General of Health Services….

Going into specifics, he writes: “A case in point is Dr. Diana Atwine, who possessed little knowledge of the health sector and no experience in management and accounting procedures. Similarly, the appointment of Dr. Christine Ondoa as a minister when she had failed in her management of Jinja and Mbarara hospitals, proved problematic. In another case, Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng from Lira Hospital, after failing in her application for the post of Medical Superintendent was accelerated to the post of Director General of Health Services and later minister of health. She engaged in infighting with staff and fellow ministers. These conflicts affect the performance of the health sector, and this will likely be felt for several years to come.”

Recently, FDC strongman Dr. Kizza Besigye came and stirred trouble for Atwine when he claimed she had just been systematically placed in medical school and later made PS through patronage. While many people, especially in government, would quickly dismiss this as merely usual lies of the opposition, reality is some people use such information to form perceptions about public servants and leaders.

Dr. Atwine and Dr Aceng were recently also further dragged into the mud when president Museveni branded them “bajeemu” (disobedient or insubordinate) when they refused to procure the right number of ICU beds. And considering that shortage of these beds is what was said to have increased the number of Covid-19 deaths, the only Ugandan still gets ill-feeling towards the powerful ladies at the ministry of health.

Way forward

It is evident that the pandemic is coming in phases, with no clear sight of how many waves there will be or when the pandemic will cease. However, one gets the feeling that both eminent ladies at the ministry express anger and frustration at those that don’t want to recognize their efforts. It is not surprising that just hours after the coffin demo, online articles went viral detailing how the current Mulago Hospital ED was scheming for Dr. Atwine’s job only to fail. One therefore could sense a desperate effort to paint the man as one in the league of those plotting to fail the two ladies. However, sometimes they say least said, soonest mended. Dr. Atwine must know that each time you over supply yourself, you’re bound to attract unnecessary attention and scrutiny; especially in a country full of nosy people like these. My simple advice is that if you feel easily hurt by the ungrateful please talk less and instead do much like all your fellow Permanent Secretaries. Let Dr. Aceng (and now minister for ICT) do the covid-19 publicity work. Otherwise, for as long as the lockdowns persist, you’ll be seen as the people’s enemy because experiences must show you that while the lockdown helps you achieve targets of Covid mitigation, to the common Ugandan it opens fresh wounds and nightmares in terms of inadequate social welfare support, extortion by rogue security personnel and impoverishment. Given the circumstances, expecting praise from a suffering Ugandan is akin to expecting blessings from a witch whom you know wants you dead! For now you can only develop a thick skin or if not, flee from the kitchen if the pain of the smoke is too much to bear!

The writer is a journalist and teacher


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