What will post-war Acholi give for its vote?
By Alex Otto
The 2016 general elections come a decade since guns fell silent in Acholi sub-region.
Over the years, millions of people who were hoarded in internally displaced people’s camps have returned to their villages. There is a semblance of life as survivors continue to pick up the pieces and massage their scars.
While many voters in other parts of the country would ‘sell’ their vote in exchange for salt, sugar and soap, for the Acholi people, the deep scars inflicted by the war, are a constant reminder that more than sugar, salt and soap, they need to rebuild their homeland to live with dignity again.
In the two decades that the war raged on, pitting the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels against the government of President Yoweri Museveni, all infrastructures in the region were destroyed and social structures shattered.
While the children are back in school and the cacophony of children playing in school compounds thrills the ears of passersby, their teachers and parents hear a different sound. They cry of children learning without text books, in overcrowded classrooms and inadequate number of teachers.
At health centres, a line of patients seeking treatment, paints a picture of availability of healthcare services, but a conversation with the patients reveals that they have been in the line for hours, waiting to see the only medical assistant on duty, with no hope of getting medication but a chit to a pharmacy for drugs.
As candidates make their case to the people in the region, the voters want to know where their president or members of parliament stand on the question of quality of education, health care services, resolution of land conflicts and road infrastructure that has been rundown in their area, and, above all continued rebuilding of the sub region.
The population also wants politicians to address delayed compensation for war victims.
Joan Aloyo, a mother of three, says she treks 10 miles from her village in Mede, in Palaro Sub County, to Okidi Health Centre II to access treatment.
“The health facilities are too far away, so those aspiring for leadership positions should look into bringing health services closer to the people,” Aloyo says.
Aloyo says bad community roads make it difficult for non-governmental organisations providing much needed medical services to access their villages. “The roads are narrow, lack bridges; where there are swamps, you find broken bridges.”
Sitting in the outpatient department of Gulu Regional Referral Hospital, Janet Akech, a resident of Gulu municipality, says she has been waiting to see a doctor for over seven hours. “I am not sure that I will see a doctor or get drugs but I will wait anyway,” she says.
Akech is one of the 18,000 outpatients who visit the hospital annually. Gulu Regional Referral Hospital has 10 doctors employed full-time instead of the 40 needed to run the facility. The hospital also has 105 nurses and midwives instead of the recommended 200 midwives as per the capacity of the facility.
Things are not helped that Anaka Hospital, in neighbouring Nwoya district, which was built to ease the pressure on Gulu Regional Referral Hospital, is grappling with staffing challenges as well. Anaka Hospital has only four doctors and 15 midwives instead of the recommended minimum of 10 doctors and 30 nurses and midwives.
Geoffrey Oneka, a farmer in Anaka town council, says since the war ended in 2005, he has witnessed the rehabilitation of several health facilities in Nwoya district; however, they suffer chronic shortage of drugs and health workers.
“As a result, those working are tough and want to rush their work. They are overwhelmed and fatigued and as such bitter with patients,” Oneka says.
The region is currently battling malaria epidemic, which has claimed more than 165 lives in just eight months and 76,000 cases were reported in July since the epidemic broke out in late April. In Gulu alone, to date since the epidemic broke out, 72 lives have been lost. Worse still, the mysterious nodding disease syndrome continues to claim lives of children between the ages of five and 15.
Luis Labongo, 37, a boda boda rider and resident of Awach Sub County in Gulu district, feels leadership aspirants should focus their manifestos on fixing the poor state of roads in the sub region.
In Gulu district alone, 11 out of 34 roads are in poor state and become impassible during rainy season. According to the district roadmap, the 11 roads should have been worked on between 2014 and early 2015, but by the look of things, they might be in the same state even as the country go to polls in six months.
Awach-Paibona road, 19.6 kilometers, cross two swamps that require bridges but to-date, no construction has been done. Paicho-Corner mega road of 8.4 kilometres is also inaccessible following broken culverts and gullies in the roads.
Cwero-Omel and Minja road of 41 kilometres, which were also meant to be built this financial year, is in poor state. The work reportedly stalled due to lack of resources.
Although each sub county in Gulu district has 10 community access roads funded by the government, many of them are in a sorry state as the local governments fail to maintain them.
Unyama Sub County in Gulu receives Shillings5.1 million annually under community access roads. However, leaders and residents say the money is not enough to open new community access roads or rehabilitate the existing ones.
An attempt to open up the 10-kilometre Lapete community road to ease access to Lapete Health Centre II recently failed because of limited funds.
In Unyama, the 20 available community access roads have broken culverts, potholes and many of them floods, making it impassable.
Lawaca village in Nwoya district is a creepy place. When you enter the village, which borders Murchison Falls National Park to the north, the silence is as deathly as death itself. Homesteads abandoned by residents are surrounded by overgrown bush. Residents have moved to Purongo trading centre, 20 kilometres from their village due to constant elephant raids that destroy crops and huts.
“When elephants came and destroyed my hut, we left,” says Okello Okot, who used to live in Lawaca. Okot’s family of six is among some 150 households from Lawaca and the adjacent village that have been displaced by the frequent elephant attacks. They left their homes to rent houses in Purongo trading centre.
“Since 2009, the number of elephants coming into the village has been increasing from once a month to about 20 a day. This means high risk to our life,” says Vicent Okot.
Residents of Lawaca village are now renting houses and land in Purongo trading centre where most survive by doing odd jobs and working in people’s farms.
“Life is tough. Living in the trading centre with no land to cultivate and no obvious way to make money is no dream life,” says Christopher Ocira.
“We’re harvesting millet, simsim and rice in people’s gardens for Shs3,000 per day,” says Lucy Akello. “Yet we have to buy food, pay rent and also pay school fees for our children.”
The population says they have lost so much and not supported over the years by government. They now want their next leaders to come up with measures to end the human-animal fight for space.
The Uganda Wildlife Authority law forbids killing of the elephants. Oneka Geoffrey says “thousands of famers have been affected by the animal human conflict around the park (Murchison) and members of parliament need to come up with a complete measure to help the situation.”
War victim compensation
Moses Olum, 75, a resident of Atiak Subcounty in Amuru district, is one of the more than 20,000 elderly people seeking compensation for loses suffered during the two-decade war.
Since 2005, he has been trekking the road to Gulu town to find out if his name has been approved for compensation.
“I have spent more than Shillings300,000 to re-register with Acholi War Debt Claimants Association to get paid by the government but this has not worked,” he says.
“I am growing weaker; my files are getting eaten by termites. Every time I travel to Gulu town over this matter, I spend a lot of money and end up with no compensation.”
Olum is claiming compensation for 26 heads of cattle and a few goats. He prays his next member of parliament to advocate for their payment. He also wants the next government to prosecute leaders of the association for alleged embezzlement of victim’s money.