Walking through the villages of Bulambuli, the power distributor, indicate that in 2012 alone there were 47 deaths in the country as a result of electrocution. This, number, however, according to UMEME Media Manager Stephen Illungole, is conservative because of a deep rooted culture of conspiracy that makes the community quickly bury the dead to avoid attracting the attention of Power officials.
The high level of electrocution in Mbale and its surroundings is a well known fact but one that seems to present a big challenge to electricity officials. The power thieves are not only elusive but also hostile, ready to fight whoever dares them.
There are reports that in 2012 UMEME ‘s Manager for Mbale District Stephen Epilu was beaten by community members because he had started an operation to mop out culprits.
Attesting to the widespread nature of the problem, Sironko Woman Member of Parliament Famiar Wadada told The Sunrise that she has always condemned the vice with a view to save people’s lives but the community is not willing to let go of the practice.
“I have on many occasions urged residents to stop the practice especially during funerals of electrocuted people, including the relatives of my maid at home but these people can’t listen and I am sorry to confess that we have failed,” she said.
Some observers, however, say UMEME presents community hostility as an excuse simply to avoid taking action, especially considering that UMEME does not lose from power losses.
According to the highly contested UMEME contract, the company gets compensation of up to $1m per one megawatt of electricity that is lost either due to power thefts or due to poor distribution network.
Proponents of this argument say that UMEME simply does not have the incentive to fight power thefts like these rampant cases in Mbale where people, according to MP Wadada go to the extent of erecting poles and illegally connecting service to consumers.
Recently Parliament passed a resolution urging the government to cancel UMEME’s contract arguing that it is against the interests of Uganda. The parliamentary resolutions are however likely to stay on the books since the government said it did do not support the idea.
Wadada pleaded: “If UMEME has itself failed, what do they want us to do beyond just talking since we are not police to go and arrest them. They [her constituents] have told me to give them power or keep quiet and leave them alone.”
UMEME officials instead level blame squarely on the shoulders of the MPs and other political leaders hailing from Mbale region, whom they accuse of failing to sensitize the community against engaging in illegal and risky connections.
Henry Rugamba, UMEME’s Communications Manager, criticized the MPs from Mbale region for allegedly folding their hands while alarming power theft is going on in their constituencies leading to rising cases of electrocution.
“It is amazing that even those MPs are some of the legislators making noise in Parliament calling for the cancellation of UMEME’s contract,” He added: “They are not alarmed by the rising number of people often electrocuted in their area. We expect them to do the needful to advise them to desist from the practice but unfortunately they have not!”
Illungole dismissed as excuses by politicians from Mbale region that the people are taking advantage of UMEME’s I-don’t-care attitude not to campaign against the vice.
Illungole said: “They [politicians] are being populist. They fear to lose votes when and if they come out to disapprove of the practice.”
There are reports from residents to suggest that indeed politicians from the region may be encouraging power thefts, either actively or passively.
Jacqueline Wegosasa from Bulambuli district for example told this reporter during a tour of the region that; “UMEME officials can’t even dare to touch them” since high profile politicians in the sector hail from their area. She was referring to the Minister of Energy and Mineral Development Irene Muloni, who hails from Sironko.
“We are lucky. We produced children who matter,” Wegosasa said.
Story by Peter Muwonge