Ugandans baffled by sleeping ministers
Kampala, Uganda – At the most recent state-of-the-nation address, Uganda’s second deputy prime minister wore sunglasses too dark to enable anyone to see whether his eyes were open or closed.
Moses Ali, 74, is one of the cabinet ministers who seem to have improvised a way to escape the scrutiny of nosy media cameras that have on several occasions caught senior government officials and MPs dozing when the president is delivering his address and when the national budget is read.
It all started four years ago when a local tabloid splashed the pictures of sleeping ministers and MPs on its front page as President Yoweri Museveni delivered his address to the country.
The paper’s headline on the day was “Sleeping Nation”.
The public has since come to covet these events as much as the politicians seem to dread them. TV cameras are always out for who is napping, and photographs of ministers and MPs sleeping though these important speeches – delivered annually in June – end up on social media, with many lampooning the politicians.
“When I served in Museveni’s government things were exciting and one would have no reason to sleep,” said Professor Edward Kakonge, who served as the first minister of local government when Museveni became president in 1986.
“What is happening now is a clear pointer that there is nothing exciting in there any more.”
Whether MPs and ministers simply sleep through these events has become a key focus for the media. Some commentators have said that if government officials can doze while attending important events they know are being covered live, they can do anything in the privacy of their offices.
“Sleeping is not a bad thing. Sleeping on the job is,” Bernard Tabaire, a columnist for the Sunday Monitor, wrote.
“No one has yet done the count that I am aware of, but the number of our big men and women who snored away as the president delivered his annual state-of-the-nation speech … was possibly the largest in five years.”
The media’s prying eyes into the matter is creating problems for journalists.
Last month, NTV, a local broadcaster, beamed images that appeared to show the president himself dozing while listening to the budget speech, prompting a government spokesman to say he was “meditating”.
The station’s reporters who had been accredited to cover the president’s press conference days later were turned away, sparking speculation as to whether the station was banned from covering events presided over by Museveni.
The NTV crew on June 30 was again unable to cover the president as he presided over an event at parliament.
Hellen Kaweesa, the parliament’s spokeswoman, however, says that the reporters from the station missed the event because they arrived late.
“The reporters came to my office and I gave them footage. We have not banned anybody from covering [presidential events at parliament],” Kaweesa told Al Jazeera.
Officials at NTV station declined to comment on the incidents for this article.
Kaweesa came under fire from Museveni’s spokesperson, who accused her of failing to “regulate” the media during parliamentary events.
Tamale Mirundi, the president’s spokesperson, said that the TV station was not banned from covering presidential events but that, “it should stand warned”.
“The president is the fountain of honour and he must be respected; under no circumstances can the president of the republic be depicted in such a manner,” Mirundi said.
Government critics such as Betty Nambooze, an opposition legislator, say old age is taking its toll on the politicians.
“They are too old and their attention spans have been reduced,” Nambooze, 45, told Al Jazeera.
Deputy prime minister Ali is one of the most senior members of cabinet, second only to Henry Kajura, 80, another deputy prime minister and minister of public service. Museveni, in power since 1986, will hit 70 this September.
However, the president has infused some youth into his cabinet. Presidency Minister Frank Tumwebaze, one of the most influential members of the cabinet, is 38.
In a further dig at the government, Nambooze said: “The president never has anything new to say and his colleagues know in advance that this is the case [so they doze off].”
She claims that what the politicians exhibit in public is not different from what they do in the comfort of their offices, negatively affecting the productivity of ministries.
“If the honourable ministers cannot attentively listen to their boss speaking in parliament, do you expect them to pay attention to briefs from technocrats in their ministries?” asked Nambooze.
Rose Namayanja, the government spokesperson, however, claims that Nambooze’s statements are made “out of ignorance of how [the] government works”.
“Those senior members of cabinet she is trying to disparage make tremendous contributions to the workings of government,” said Namayanja.
She added that it is “natural that people will close their eyes to process” what is being said.
“Managing [the] government is a mental process and it must necessarily involve thinking,” she adds.
‘Regime of sleep’
Mathias Mpuuga, who shortly after Museveni’s re-election in 2011 led protests against the government over the rising cost of living, is having a good laugh about the situation.
“President Museveni has never been delusional about it; he warned Ugandans early enough that his will be a regime of sleep and he has not disappointed,” Mpuuga says.
In the earlier years when Museveni first competed for the presidency, after his government restored elections following the bush war, he bragged about pacifying the country and allowing Ugandans to sleep without worrying about violence.
When he took over power in 1986, the country had had six different administrations in a space of just six years since the overthrow of Idi Amin in 1979. He therefore turned the narrative about “restoring sleep” into a key campaign catchphrase.
Of the state-of-the-nation address and budget speech, Mpuuga said, “Museveni is supplying the sleep he promised Ugandans.”