Henry Okello Oryem: Uganda minister says people dying of hunger are ‘idiots’

A Ugandan government minister is facing criticism after calling those who have died of hunger in his country “idiots”.

Many have deemed Henry Okello Oryem’s comments tone-deaf.

In 2022, more than 2,200 people died of starvation and related illnesses in north-east Uganda, a report by an official human rights body said.

But Mr Oryem argued that given the favourable climate and fertile land people should be able to grow food for themselves.

“It’s only an idiot, a real idiot, that can die of hunger in Uganda,” the state minister for foreign affairs told the NTV Uganda television channel.

“If you work hard, there is land in Uganda. The climate is right in spite [of] climate change. If you make a double effort to make sure that you go out in the morning, you till your land, you plant the seeds, you maintain your plantation, surely, how do you fail then to get food?”

As well as killing many people, the food shortage in the north-east left nearly half-a-million people in “acute hunger”, the report by the Uganda Human Rights Commission, which was established by the constitution, said.

The minister’s comments have sparked outrage.

Moses Aleper, a legislator for Chekwii county, which is part of the affected Karamoja region, told the BBC that Mr Oryem’s views are “not right” and “unfortunate coming from a minister who knows what goes on in this country”.

“I’m from one of the most productive parts of Karamoja where there is adequate rain and we produce food. But in situations where weather fails us, the weather vagaries set in, we definitely fail to get food. And normally people definitely get famine and eventually hunger strikes.”

Mr Aleper also said that famine in the region is often caused by “other issues beyond even human control”, such as the way that the climate is changing.

Prominent Ugandan author and journalist Charles Onyango-Obbo also hit out at Mr Oryem, saying that the minister failed to grasp “that hunger in a country like Uganda is a distribution/market problem”.

Official data on the current food situation in Karamoja is unavailable, but it often experiences hunger during dry seasons due to the region’s semi-arid climatic conditions.

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