The strange priorities of Ugandan leaders

The Ugandan president's office has announced that it is requesting 92 billion Ugandan shillings [$39m] in additional funding to run its activities. This comes just five months after State House already asked for a supplementary budget of 66.6bn [$28.3m]. This is, to put it mildly, outrageous.

The request comes just weeks after the government announced that it is refusing to increase spending (except for the security sector). The government had offered to increase teachers' salaries by only 15 percent, an offer rejected by the teachers, who were demanding a 100 per cent raise.

Here's more from The Daily Monitor piece:

If approved, the State House budget will balloon to more than Shs158.6 billion [$67.3m] -- more than twice the 2011/12 Budget for Mulago National Referral Hospital. This money would meet the Shs75 billion [$31.8m] required to answer teachers' demands for a 100 per cent salary increment.

(The photo above shows Mulago National Referral Hospital, Uganda's largest.)

Meanwhile, the northern part of the country is being ravaged by a strange disease referred to as "nodding disease." Of the 7 billion shillings [$2.9m] requested by the Ministry of Health to address the outbreak, the government only released a miserly 100m [$42,436]. The ministry's supplementary budget for tackling the outbreak is being delayed amid reports of bureaucratic infighting.

This bizarre disease is named after the strange seizures that it causes. The seizures can be triggered by the smell of food. According to the U.S-based Centers for Disease Control, little is known about what causes the disease or how it spreads.

The Daily Monitor article quotes Dr. Scott Dowell, CDC lead investigator, in an interview with the Center for Global Health policy, United States:

The children definitely die with it -- it's not rapidly progressive, but it seems to take hold of them. The nodding is in fact a type of seizure which causes damage on the brain.

Ugandan photojournalist Edward Echwalu wrote a poignant article on the disease, profiling Nancy Lamwaka, a twelve-year-old girl. Her father has to tie her to a tree during the day so she does not wander around and harm herself. At one point she fell into a fire:

Her father's heart bleeds daily as he goes through the traumatizing routine of tying his own daughter to a tree like an animal. He says only his two pigs receive such treatment.

"It hurts me so much to tie my own daughter on a tree because in our tradition, it's a taboo and unheard-of. But because I want to save her life, I am forced to. I don't want her to go loose and die in a fire, or walk and get lost in the bushes, or even drown in the nearby swamps," he says.

Under the tree, she struggles to move towards the direction of the shade as the sun begins to shine hard. She stumbles but moments later, recovers her waning energy and follows the shadow. All along Lamwaka is quiet, looking drowsily at her siblings seated a few meters away. She has not said a word or made a sound since she woke up. You could sense she wants to say something; perhaps invite her two siblings to play with her, but she just looks on, her eyes heavy and mouth effortlessly open, only occasionally shutting to close out preying flies.

Echwalu's article and photos give the disease a face, showing how it affects the family and community.

Legislators from northern Ugandan are understandably upset by what they see as the blatant squandering of state resources in the face of an epidemic. The Daily Monitor quotes the chairman of the Acholi Parliamentary Group chairman, Reagan Okumu:

If it is true that Shs92 billion is going to State House when our people are suffering with nodding disease without any serious response, may God have mercy on us....

To my colleagues in Parliament, if you approve this money the people of northern Uganda will never forgive you. It does not matter whether State House has already spent the money or not, this money shouldn't be approved before getting money for the children who are suffering with the nodding disease....

While the different ministries bicker over resources, the state of the afflicted only gets worse.


Democracy Lab

How do you campaign against a cancer victim?

In a dramatic speech today from his home state of Barinas, Hugo Chávez seemed to confirm that his cancer has returned. Offering no details, and with his visibly-shaken daughter and ministers standing by, he told the nation that doctors in Cuba had found "a lesion" in his pelvis, in the same area where was operated on a few months ago. He announced he needed to undergo surgery again for further evaluation.

This development is sure to shake up an already interesting presidential race.

A year ago, those of us who obsess over Venezuelan politics thought we knew the story line of the October 2012 presidential election. It was supposed to be about the twelve years of the Hugo Chávez era and whether the opposition was mature enough to take the reins.

Then, late in June, the plot changed. In an awkward speech from Havana, Chávez (shown above in a meeting with U.S. actor Sean Penn on Feb. 16) confirmed that doctors had removed a tumor from his pelvis.

Since early July, Chávez has undergone four rounds of chemotherapy. But neither the president nor his medical team has explained the type of cancer he has, where exactly it is located, or the specifics of his treatment, much less his prognosis.

Instead, he has repeated time and again that he is cured. Until today, that is.

Up until now, Chávez had responded to questions on his health by going on the offensive. He repeatedly framed calls for transparency on his health "obscene," and slammed those who take "morbid pleasure" in his health issues.

Today, he talked about how the Revolution will go on without him.

A swirl of rumors took Twitter by storm over the weekend. Experienced journalists said that he was in Cuba undergoing tests, and that his condition had worsened. Two high-profile government ministers denied the allegations today. Hours later, in typically disorganized chavista fashion, Chávez himself confirmed them.

The opposition's presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles, who is currently riding a wave of momentum from his impressive Primary win, mostly shies away from the subject. He has publicly wished Chávez well, while sheepishly calling for more transparency before abruptly changing the topic, fearful of a backlash.

Behind closed doors, his advisors are concerned. The uncertainty prevents consensus on strategy. They fear that if they make cancer an issue, Chávez will use his storied communication skills to play the sympathy card and eke out a win -- either for himself or a designated successor. They are also wary of the disease forcing Capriles off his well-rehearsed message of reconciliation and progress in a post-Chávez Venezuela.

Of special concern is the scenario of a disabled Chávez. While the Venezuelan constitution is clear on what happens if the President dies suddenly, it is less so on what happens if he becomes incapacitated. An extended agony by the President could yield a power vacuum that could spur extremists in the military to make a grab for power.

The opposition has no choice but to stay on message and plow through. An election against an entrenched incumbent who controls all public institutions, the media, and has billions of petro-dollars in his wallet was always going to be a David-versus-Goliath affair. The uncertainty surrounding his health, and the tricky messaging situation it generates, threatens to change the playing field altogether.

Chávez's announcement is an unwelcome complication -- both for the president and his opponents. The opposition's message was starting to gain its footing, but now Chávez's cancer is sure to dominate the conversation. This was the last thing the opposition needed.