23 December 2012

Uganda: Pius Katunzi - Dr Aceng Is a Heroine of Civil Servants


I did not know many senior civil servants who combined holding very controversial offices and standing by their decisions, like the former clerk to Parliament Aeneas Tandekwire.

Tandekwire gave his advice (opinion) to MPs, the president and others, without fear or favour, so long as he did this within the confines of the law and the rules governing his office, and his conscience was clear.

Many civil servants rehearse and reserve the refrain: "orders from above" on the tip of their tongues, to explain their failures to stand by their decisions or their propensity to do dodgy things. Others legitimize this by asking questions like: "if you were in my shoes, what would you have done?"

It is almost an ingrained cultural practice in the civil service to obey superior orders without question. So, when Tandekwire retired, after serving about 26 years in Parliament under all manner of leaders, I bowed and accepted that we shall never see civil servants of such calibre again in this corruption-laden service. I was wrong.

Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, the director general of medical services, nicely fits in Tandekwire's shoes. Dr Aceng, who has not held that office for long, is not known to court controversy but last week stood all manner of intimidation and decided to stick by her decision. She defended her colleague, Dr Sylvester Onzivua, who had been accused by the police of smuggling out samples from Cerinah Nebanda's body (Woman MP, Butaleja).

The police had issued a statement declaring that Dr Onzivua did not have permission from his superiors to travel to South Africa to have the samples examined by another laboratory. It is not yet clear whether police made that statement in ignorance of Aceng 's permission or they expected a fellow traveller in Aceng who would not contradict their statement. Perhaps with her Christian teaching, more especially being a born-again, Aceng could not stand to tell a lie.

So, she called a press conference, explained the circumstances under which Dr Onzivua had been granted permission and showed the press the documents pertinent to Onzivua's possession of the samples. Before the press conference was held, Aceng, I am reliably informed, had received an avalanche of phone calls from superiors' offices advising her against releasing her letter of permission to the press. But she decided against such manipulation and stood by her decision, embarrassing as it turned out.

Not to be outdone, the police again behaved like a drowning man, who clutches at anything, including pieces of straw, in order to keep afloat. They turned around the story, and claimed that because the samples were of a high-profile nature, Onzivua had to get clearance to travel from the prime minister's office. They could not cite the exact law which called for this kind of arrangement.

That too was abandoned and decided to accuse him of abuse of office. He was later released on Police bond after being held under unclear circumstances for 48 hours. It appears police was not also well-prepared for this kind of dirty job. They knowingly decided to wallow in dirty water but under the mistaken belief that they would emerge out of it clean! How absurd. There is no amount of spin-doctoring that could clean this dirty job.

In Uganda, the Constitution is supreme and all the people, including those who occupy high offices, are bound to obey it. But most importantly, we don't have a Crown; so, the civil servants are not employed at the pleasure of the Crown. As such, the saying (which is veiled in orders from above) that whatever pleases the emperor has force of law, forms no part of law in Uganda.

In this most controversial of cases, Dr Aceng truly represented what a civil servant of integrity should be. Yes, it has been such a turbulent year; and Nebanda's has been such a turbulent death that has, again shown us a hideous side to the Ugandan state and civil service. But it has also reminded us that there is still a lot of integrity in the service - people like Aceng and Onzivua.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and happy new year.

The author is the Business Development Director, The Observer Media Ltd.

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