Besides the death toll, a total of 5.7 million power units, worth sh3b, would be lost to the vice in Elgon sub-region alone
Nothing had warned Hellen Nandudu 28, and her seven-year old son Andrew Mafabi, about fate that lurked over them on the morning of May 26, 2018, in Bugirinyanya, in Bulambuli district.
It had rained heavily the previous night, rendering the ground considerably wet. Both mother and son, each with a hoe, were heading to the family garden.
As they carefully trudged, with bare feet through a slippery footpath that winded through a dozen homesteads, something happened.
Residents say in the twinkling of an eye, little Mafabi who had been in the lead, let out a brief loud scream, and in a matter of seconds he had tripped on the ground.
A startled Nandudu who was a few yards behind frantically threw away the hoe in her hand and dashed forward, to investigate what had happened to her son, only to be electrocuted the moment her hands touched his lifeless body.
"At the time of her death Nandudu was seven months pregnant," the regional police surgeon, Dr. Barnabus Rubanza, had indicated in the postmortem report.
Nandudu and children are some of the most recent and innocent casualties of electrocution, arising from the illegal power connections off the national grid in the Elgon sub region. Perpetrators illegally tap power using poorly insulated and live wires from the nearby powerlines which they pass underground through shallow trenches across village foot paths and the gardens.
A stakeholder meeting organised by Umeme last month, at the Mbale Resort Hotel, made strong recommendations against perpetrators of illegal power connections. Notable among the resolutions was urgent operationalisation of the Standard Utilities and Wildlife Court.
Participants in the meeting included, Regional Police Commanders (RPC), Regional Police Officers in Charge of Crime, District Police Commanders (DPC), Resident State Attorneys, Chief Magistrates, District Internal Security Organisations and police detectives drawn from the Elgon, Bukedi, Sebei and East Kyoga sub-regions.
Paul Ssempira the Umeme Mbale District Manager, regreted that the May 26 tragedy stemmed from a deeply entrenched mischief of illegal power connections in Elgon sub region.
"While Umeme has attempted to tackle this problem, its magnitude is quite big. It's the duty of this forum to come up with possible stringent mechanisms that can decisively deal with the perpetrators, if we must save innocent lives in the community like in the case of Nandudu and children, from getting electrocuted," Ssempira told the forum.
He noted that before Umeme launched a crackdown on illegal power connections in 2017, the situation was deplorable. Elgon sub-region constitutes Mbale Sironko, Bududa, Namisindwa, Bulambuli and Manafwa districts.
Ssempira said a total of 68 transformers failed due to illegal activity. He said previously, they were losing 5.5 million units per month, but reduced to 3.5 million. Losses have also reduced by 14% in 2018 from 57% in 2016.
"We connected 8,340 in 2017 as opposed to an average of 3,000 annually previously.
Selestino Babungi, the Umeme managing director, reiterated the company's commitment to safety in the workplace, among the staff and the public.
"Safety across the network remains our number one priority," Babungi reiterated. He regretted that one person died in 2017 due to network failure. He noted that fatal accidents related to network interference and power theft reduced by 11% to 16 in 2017 compared to 18 in 2016.
Besides the death toll, a total of 5.7 million power units, worth sh3b, would be lost to the vice in Elgon sub-region alone. Ssempira disclosed that the crackdown is yielding results. He said in 2017, Umeme was able to register 57% improvement in both the rate of fatalities and monetary losses.
He said the utility recovered more than sh1.2b of the sh3b that would be lost to the vice annually, as a sizeable proportion of the community have since formalised their power usage.
"Although the number of fatalities has reduced, the death toll still remains alarming. Our earnest appeal to stakeholders in this forum is to deliberate extensively, on what stringent mechanisms Umeme ought to apply to stamp out this vice from the community," Ssempira challenged the participants.
Umeme security manager, Godson Nsekanabo, noted that in 2017, a total of 118 operations were undertaken in separate parts of Elgon region. Up to 368 suspects were apprehended. He, however, lamented that these efforts went to nothing.
"Ninety percent of suspects apprehended in separate instances during the crackdown operations were released without charges as soon as they appeared before court," Nsekanabo observed with a note of sadness in his voice.
The Mbale chief magistrate, Ereemye Mawanda, noted that the conventional legal system would not appropriately address the problem due to innumerable loopholes. He said because of the growing number of cases related to illegal connections and the public safety, the judiciary decided to set up the Standards Utilities and Wildlife Court to specifically handle cases involving illegal power connections, power thefts and vandalism.
"The Judiciary is seeking consumer justice and consumer protection. We have to provide for specialisation in these cases. We believed with conviction that there was need for these courts because these are serious matters. Specialisation is now key. We think that by the end of the day, we shall have these courts in all the regions of this country so that you will have specialised judicial officers handling electricity cases. We believe this will cause the necessary impact," Mawanda said.
Commenting on the rampant power thefts in Elgon sub-region, Ereemye explained that ordinarily, everybody should pay exactly for what they have consumed.
"But because there is no consumer justice for the people of Uganda and in quest for consumer justice, the Judiciary comes up and says no, let us contribute positively. We think when we finally have a court that will handle these cases, we shall have achieved that consumer justice and equally consumer protection so that people do not die from electrocution.
"We should put to book those who contribute to such unfortunate incidents. We want to have something orderly because of the gravity of the problem. We want to be uniform so that someone does not think committing this offense in Bulambuli is more serious than when he commits it in Nakaloke. The whole thing is the same. We must send a proper signal. We must be consistent and cost-effective," he said.
Mawanda expressed shock at how the residents widely and freely use power illegally.
"When I visited Bulambuli and Buginyanya areas in the mountains, I could not stop to wonder how the hell people can be allowed to tap electricity in such a precarious manner at the expense of public safety. Public safety is what we are talking about here even if there is revenue loss, but public safety matters. People are not safe. You have heard of deaths. Public safety, I must say, is something that cannot be compromised with, not for politics, not for cheap popularity.
"You order arrest of the utility employees when they are saving your people? Yes, these things have happened. I am glad this concern is not now coming from me, it is also coming from the leadership and the public, because they would say His Worship was saying politicians are bad.
Who is asking the right questions?" Politicians have chosen to relegate their responsibilities for the sake of votes. That is the reality, they cannot even assist the sector players in ensuring compliance because of fears for the next elections. These things are real, but who will vote you if they are all dead due to this mysterious snake bites of the Elgon region.
He observed that once the chain of stakeholders have agreed on the benchmarks, perpetrators would face the wrath of the law.
"Once a number of perpetrators have been found guilty and committed by the same court to jail sentence, this would act as a deterrent measure and the beginning for the community where the vice is rampant to know the dangers of engaging in such activities," Ereemye said.
The participants urged the judiciary and DPP to help the community by denying power theft suspects bail especially those who cause death, so that others can pick a lesson.