Talking Accountability in North Uganda
Community debates organised around a radio programme produced by IWPR in northern Uganda have prompted discussion about the quality of local services, particularly for people uprooted by 20 years of conflict who are resettling in their home areas.
Listeners have praised IWPR’s Facing Justice programme for allowing members of the public to raise issues directly with public officials whose doors are often closed to them.
Sarah Adongo, who presents Facing Justice on Mega FM in the northern town of Gulu, said it was “a platform for the people to express themselves freely, boldly and openly to the officials concerned, whom they would otherwise not be able to talk to freely in their offices”.
Facing Justice is a 25-minute programme that comes out twice a month and covers issues like social services delivery, gender-based violence, access to justice, and building rule of law in northern Uganda in the wake of the LRA conflict.
The show is produced in partnership with a local media development organisation in Gulu, the Northern Uganda Media Club, NUMEC. Produced in English and three local languages, it airs on nine partner radio stations in the towns of Gulu, Arua, Lira, Soroti, Kitgum and Pader.
Two recent Facing Justice episodes investigated access to public services in several newly-created districts in northern Uganda. Following the programmes, IWPR and Mega FM organised a community debate in Nwoya, one of the districts most affected by the insurgent war waged over two decades by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA. (See New Districts Lag Behind on Services.)
Approximately 1.5 million people were uprooted by the conflict and forced into 250 displacement camps across the northern region. The Ugandan government signed an armistice with the LRA in 2006, but a final peace accord has yet to be signed.
District leaders joined local residents at the meeting in Nwoya to discuss the poor standard of water, health, and education provision. The lack of health workers, poor access to medical treatment, and high pupil-teacher ratios were among the problems raised again and again.
Adongo said the debate was also an opportunity for local leaders to talk about efforts to improve local services.
“The debate gave leaders a chance to give clarification on issues that were misconceived by the public, thereby providing straightforward answers and clearing up any doubts,” she said.
Local government officials have backed the IWPR debates as a way of connecting with their constituency.
“This is a very important programme for us, as a new district and as a district just recovering from war,” Richard Irwenyo Obong, district education officer for Nwoya, said. “To heal from the wounds of war is a process that takes exceptionally long, and we need time to talk and reach out to our people. We can best do it by getting to people and giving them a free forum for discussion. It is then that we get to interact freely with them and also learn from them.”
He added, “We realise the importance of these debates, and we would have conducted them ourselves if we had the resources. As the education office, we are always happy to participate in the debates.”
Highlights from the debate Nwoya were subsequently aired on Mega FM, the most listened-to station in northern Uganda. Numerous listeners called in to the station to express their views on air before local leaders responded to their concerns.
“The debate is a means by which the local community is being empowered to demand services meant for them and to hold their leaders accountable,” Ocii Robert, a Mega FM listener in Agoro, Kitgum district, said. “It should be extended to all the districts regardless of whether they are newly created or not since the problem is everywhere.”
The chairman of Nwoya district, Patrick Okello Oryema, said the local events and broadcasts gave people a sense of empowerment and allowed district leaders to gauge the needs of their communities.
“I was able to listen to the programme on radio and I was really impressed. People do not know that they as a community can also have a role to play in improving health and education services. They think it is only up to teachers, health workers and district officials,” he said. “Such community debates help us to understand community perspectives in the districts. They help us to plan well, and where there are gaps because we didn’t consult the communities, we can now plan better.”
Facing Justice fills an information gap, enabling community radio stations to interact with listeners and to broadcast investigative programmes which they would otherwise not have either the resources and in-house expertise to produce. It is also aimed at civil society organisations working on justice, human rights and post-conflict recovery across northern Uganda.
“People in northern Uganda need information, and they need to talk about their problems, as many still have deep problems related to the suffering caused by the war,” said Jane Angom, station manager of Speak FM in Gulu. “Going out to the community and encouraging listeners to call into the programme helps the station to connect to listeners, and the fact that listeners share their views and emotions [means that] policy actions on service delivery can be made,” she added.
Since October 2011, IWPR has organised three community debates. In partnership with Speak FM, run by the Forum for Women in Democracy, IWPR held a discussion on ways of reducing the traumatisation of women and girls who were abducted by the LRA and are now resettling back into the community.
In late 2011, IWPR and Radio Rhino held a debate in Lira district focusing on shortages of anti-retroviral drugs for people living with HIV/AIDS. When excerpts of this debate were broadcast by Radio Rhino, more than 20 listeners called in to discuss the topic with district leaders live in the studio.
“By taking the debate to the rural community, people were able to speak for themselves on issues affecting them, rather than [issues] being reported by a third party,” Radio Rhino presenter James Tweny said.
Peter Akena, manager of Radio Palwak in Pader whose listeners predominantly live in rural villages, said audiences connect with the content of Facing Justice because the content is clear and “has an impact on their lives.”