There are many things for which Uganda has come to be known over the past quarter of a century. It was, for starters, the first country in post-colonial Africa where a sitting government collapsed due to pressure from a homegrown insurgency.
It was also here that a group of young and cunning politicians invented a “no-party” political system and used it successfully to build a de facto one-party state with the connivance of the donor community — who elsewhere in Africa were pushing for multiparty politics.
It was here that, in a practice baptised “inclusive politics,” politicians perfected the art of co-opting and corrupting opponents and rivals instead of openly killing them or letting them rot in prison, the standard operating procedure for many incumbents elsewhere in Africa.
It was here that the government quickly owned up to struggling with a huge a HIV/Aids problem while elsewhere its counterparts were living in denial, apparently in order not to frighten off tourists.
Longstanding Uganda watchers will recall the days when President Yoweri Museveni was the darling of the global anti-HIV/Aids fraternity because of what many called his “brave decision” to come clean about the “slim” pandemic, which by then was killing large numbers of Ugandans, among them thousands of the guerrillas who had helped him seize power.
President Museveni was also an early champion of women's rights and is credited by many with bringing them “out of the kitchen” and catapulting them into positions of power and influence.
Long before Paul Kagame's Rwanda surged ahead with the largest percentage of women parliamentarians in the world, Uganda had put many of its women on the proverbial map and won plaudits in the process.
However, in recent times, the Museveni story with women has taken on a rather curious dimension. While two decades ago, women were united in praising him for giving them visibility in politics and other spheres of life, today some wonder whether the whole things was not a carefully calculated political strategy to win their support.
Of course, women academics have long been asking these and other questions. All that ordinary women have done is join them. The issue rubbing them the wrong way is that of maternal mortality. With 435 out of 100,000 expectant mothers dying in childbirth every year, Uganda's maternal mortality figures are among the highest in the world. There are many angry women out there.
Research has established that these figures, which only the government and its distracted leaders seem not to be ashamed of, reflect inadequate funding for the health sector, understaffing of health facilities, lack of information to enable pregnant women to make the right decisions at the right time, poor management or lack of a whole range of inputs, crumbling infrastructure, some of the worst roads in the world, thinly distributed health facilities across huge expanses of territory, and mundane things such as poor supervision, inspection, and dysfunctional accountability mechanisms.
And now rather than sit back and stew in their anger, some women have risen up to be counted: They and a few gender-sensitive men, including a Makerere law don, have decided to take the government to court over the matter.
They want the Constitutional Court to compel the government to invest more in women's health. They also want it to compensate the families of women who have died in childbirth because of failures within the healthcare system.
Interestingly, the government is reported to have owned up to not doing enough to address the problem and promised to do so through an overly ambitious and, in the circumstances probably unrealistic, “accelerated framework” that it hopes will also help it to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal and child mortality.
Meanwhile, in what may amount to a demonstration of how far it is willing to go to live up to its obligations, the government has absolved itself of responsibility for checking misconduct among health workers.
It has instead passed the buck to the Nurses and Midwives' Council and to similar bodies bringing together other medical and dental practitioners. From where I sit, it seems as if law don Ben Twinomugisha and his co-activists have quite a fight on their hands.
But then they may want to think about co-opting the “yellow girls,” the ruling party's elite women who spare no effort in campaigning for Museveni's re-election each time his mandate is up for renewal. Someone ought to get them to fight for poor women for a change.