Investigations are supposedly being conducted after several high-profile fires. Where are the findings?
by Savio Kyambadde
“Tough times never last, but tough people do”, according to the Robert Schuller saying. Even the toughest Ugandans must be wondering, though, if they will ever see the day when the government finally releases several pending reports on a string of notorious fires responsible for dozens of deaths.
A series of high-profile blazes over the last seven years in schools, markets and cultural sites like Kasubi Tombs, have generated a lot of outrage as people search for answers. But officials caution that generating reports on the causes of the fires take significant time because important evidence is often destroyed, distorted or taken.
It has been more than three years since 20 pupils from Buddo Junior School died in a fire that burnt down their dormitory in April 2008. Fifty-eight girls are thought to have been in the dorm at the time, which had been locked from the outside. Some did manage to escape by wriggling through narrow windows.
Ten people were arrested over the Buddo school fire because of possible negligence on their part and some of them were taken to court. Among those arrested were the matron of the dormitory that caught fire, the guards at the school and the head teacher.
The police offered a reward of US $3,000 for more information on the blaze, but to date no one has offered a clue as to the cause of this fire. Even the report from the commission of inquiry has never been made public.
According to information from Uganda police, the cause of the Buddo Junior School fire has not been established because the crime scene was tampered with before police took over. In addition, the process of controlling the fire resulted in possible interference with the investigation.
“Imagine if you are pouring water on fire on the property… the water used to stop the fire has the capacity of mixing up the substances on its way, which could have been useful in investigations,” explained Kampala Metropolitan Police Spokesperson Ibn Ssenkumbi.
“Like other bigger fires, the cause could not be sorted out, but the investigations are ongoing and we hope that someday some important clue could confirm the cause”, Ssenkumbi added. “But we are still entertaining views from the public as to what caused the fire”.
According to police, failure by the investigating committee to establish the cause of the fire does not mean the investigation has ended.
“I do not have exact statistics of those arrested during the investigation, but what I know is that the people that were arrested in the process were not charged with arson”, Ssenkumbi said. “They were charged on other charges like negligence as the people who were in charge and those in-cluded the matron, the headmaster, and some askaris who were supposed to be on duty at the time the fire broke out”.
Ssenkumbi emphasized that the matron should have been in the same dormitory and helped save the children from the fire. The asakaris were supposed to be on guard. And the headmaster should not have allowed the children to sleep in a cramped environment, which enhanced the number of pupils who died.
“If they were not that squeezed probably there would have been fewer deaths”, Ssenkumbi added.
The weekend following the Buddo incident, a fire gutted a girls’ dormitory at Soroti Core Primary Teachers’ College. There was no loss of life, though some teacher candidates lost property worth millions of shillings.
These are just two examples. According to available statistics, there have been more than 50 fires in the last seven years alone in Uganda.
The majority of those fires, 33, have been at schools. On March 30, 2006, 13 pupils at Kabarole Islamic Primary School in Fort Portal died when fire destroyed their dormitory. In July 2006, six students were burned to death and several others suffered serious burns at Jinja Army Primary Boarding School when their dormitory caught fire. Two hundred seventy students residing in the destroyed dormitory lost all their belongings.
Apart from schools, markets have also been particularly vulnerable to blazes. In February 2009 the Park Yard section of Owino Market caught fire. The inferno, whose cause has yet to be established, broke out at about 4:30 a.m. A little more than one year later, Owino Market burned down again.
Police said the 2009 fire started in a section next to the stadium and then spread to the other parts of the market. The market had 3,000 stalls with 25,000 registered traders. Most of the stalls were made out of canvas, polythene and wood.
When a fire brigade team from a nearby headquarters arrived at the scene, they were unable to extinguish the blaze and almost all property was lost.
President Museveni, several government ministers, Buganda’s Kabaka Ronald Muwenda Mutebi II and other Buganda officials visited the scene and made contributions towards the rebuilding of the market.
During the same month of the first Owino fire, a blaze gutted Jinja’s popular Heritage Club, be-fore spreading to Jinja Market and destroying property worth millions of shillings. Since then this market has also suffered two fires, but no reports on the cause have been released to the public.
One year after the first Owino fire, Kalerwe Market also burnt down before the police fire brigade came in to save the situation.
Though official reports on the fires haven’t been forthcoming, fire officers have warned that market vendors might continue to lose their property if they do not adhere to strict safety guidelines.
Chief Fire Officer Simon Peter Musoke said vendors have persistently ignored safety tips. He said the markets should have clear routes, internal security and fire fighting systems installed.
“These are markets that are worth billions of shillings but the management hires one elderly night watchman who is ignorant of what to do in even of any fire outbreak”, Musoke said. “People must appreciate the fortune in the markets”.
He called on market managers to make fire safety a priority to avoid further losses by putting access routes in the markets.
“Most of the markets are heavily congested”, Musoke said. “They must also improve electrical connections. If they do not do that there will be more problems”.
Though official reports are still absent, the preliminary report on the first Owino fire by the Police Inspector General did rule out a power short circuit as being the cause of that fire. Other causes remain under investigation.
Ibn Ssenkumbi explained that investigating a big fire of that magnitude is very complicated and that coming up with a concrete cause is not easy, often because market fires can quickly become chaotic.
“In this market fire”, he said, “while the trucks are putting out the fire, stall owners have a tendency to rush in to rescue their merchandise”.
“Wherever fire stops they rush in, which makes chances hard to protect the evidence as people might pick stuff from there. Imagine if the fire started from a flat iron or charcoal stove because people iron from there. If someone forgot one with fire in the stall, someone would rush very fast to remove it”. But it is hard to chase away market vendors trying to save their property and their livelihoods.
Beyond the school and market fires, one of the most infamous was the March 2010 burning of Kasubi Tombs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The official effort to put out the fire was disrupted by a mob.
A commission of inquiry was established, but the findings have also not been made public, even as work to rebuild Kasubi Tombs continues. Which is often par for the course after a devastating fire in Uganda: move on, rebuild, and don’t hold your breath waiting for the report.