Uganda is bereaving. Tragedy struck last week on the mighty Lake Victoria, an incredible resource and invaluable treasure turned into a source of sorrow. A boat capsized and claimed a yet to be definitely determined number of Ugandans. Sad. Very sad.
When death that is unnatural strikes, we naturally pose to ponder why and how it may have happened. In this instance there are more questions and fewer answers. There will likely be more finger-pointing and condemnations than deep reflections and concrete solutions for the future.
Such tragedies that cause painful losses have become too numerous as to shock many Ugandans: on roads, on the streets by armed personnel, in health facilities that are supposed to save lives, on the waters, in schools; practically everywhere.
Ugandans are highly religious people. That is all fine. But it is misleading and unacceptable to always evoke the name of God – it was God’s plan, we are told. I seldom agree with General Museveni on anything, but on this I have never agreed enough with him: God does not selectively kill Africans early when elsewhere people live very long and happy lives.
In times of sorrow we have to respect the dead and be sensitive to those who have lost their loved ones. That’s why it is utterly reprehensive that some Ugandans, with no sense of moral judgement and no regard for decorum, post images of the dead on social media platforms like Facebook.
The freedom to post anything and the rush to serve one’s ‘followers’ is eroding any form of social responsibility and etiquette. In the wake of the boat tragedy, I had an interminable exchange with a journalist, one of those who increasingly see themselves as the source of breaking news, about posting pictures of the departed: what do you hope to achieve? What is the rationale? Why?
In this case, bodies are crudely lined-up after retrieval from the waters, someone photographs them and once they reach the ‘breaking news’ journalist there are no qualms and no shame splashing them on Facebook! No sense of decency and total disregard of the emotions of those mourning their loved ones.
When people die in ways they shouldn’t, we step back to ask how this could have been avoided and what needs to be done going forward. We also have to ask who should have made sure everything was right such that in the event it’s an unavoidable accident it is what it is – no one to blame.
Someone has to be held responsible and punished in one way or the other. Unfortunately, the norm and culture of demanding and getting accountability is nearly absent in our public discourse and political culture.
The raison d’tre of a government and the state it presides over is to provide security of person and property, to produce and supply critical public goods and services. Providing security and assuring safety are the core mandate of any government.
The vast bureaucracy and huge public sector enterprise that forms the basis of government machinery are there to set and enforce standards, to determine and implement policies and laws for the wellbeing of the public. That is why civilian government officials and personnel of the armed forces live off the taxpayer – because they serve the public.
When standards are weak or not well-enforced, and when deaths happen because certain measures have not been adhered to, the blame and responsibility has to lie squarely with the government.
This is by no means to suggest that private individuals and members of the public are not to blame or that society as a whole bears no responsibility; in some ways when things go so awry and when there is calamity it may well be down to the misdeeds of specific individuals or because of collective social decay. This is granted.
But the reason there has to be a government to define and enforce standards, and to lay down the rules for everyone is precisely because left to their devices, individuals can engage in actions and activities that may not just hurt them but also harm society at large. And the reason why modern states have to operate with certain legal provisions and requirements is precisely because social decay can consume and endanger the survivability of society as a whole.
So, this is not just taking a cheap jab at the government (which I don’t support anyway); that’s not the issue. Having safety standards for road use, in aviation travel and on waters, in recreational facilities and public spaces is a basic international practice.
If, as has been variously alluded to, the fateful boat did not meet safety standards then government failed on its regulatory role and someone has to take responsibility. This is unlikely to happen though.
We can hope that at a minimum this tragedy compels government agencies to embark on a rigorous process to regulate private business activities and enforce basic standards.
And this has to happen in all sorts of places, not just with water transport. It’s in schools, in bars and restaurants, on the streets and highways, in markets and shops. If, for example, there was a stampede in Nakasero market…
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.