Panic over jump from Shs400bn to Shs870bn
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | How serious is the government claim that it does not have money to fund the 2021 general elections? That is the question raised by the latest appearances before parliament on the issue of Minister of Finance Matia Kasaija, Minister of State for Finance David Bahati, and Electoral Commission Chairman Simon Byabakama.
Ministers Kasaija and Bahati appeared caught by surprise that the Electoral Commission (EC) has doubled its budget for conducting the 2021 presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections. While the EC had a budget of Shs 419.9 billion for organizing the 2016 general elections, it now wants Shs 868.14 billion; a 106% jump in spending on the election. Many commentators now say that much as the government’s apparent lack of preparedness for funding the elections is shocking; the jump in the EC budget is perplexing.
The election period in Uganda is well-known as a time of big public spending and fights over lucrative and often inflated procurement of services and goods tenders are common, but the 2021 election seems set to break all records.
Donors who funded Uganda’s elections in the past pulled out years back allegedly because they are a waste of funds as “the main result is always a foregone conclusion.”
And in a report after the last general election in 2016, the Citizens Election Observers Network – Uganda; a consortium of eighteen civil society organisations that worked together to observe the elections noted similar squabbles over funds. The CEON-U recommended that funding of the Electoral Commission come directly from the government’s Consolidated Fund rather than having its funds channeled through the Ministry of Finance.
“It is believed that independent funding will expedite funding of the Electoral Commission’s work and tame the recurrent problem of receiving funds late resulting in delayed implementation of activities. It is also believed that independent funding will give the Electoral Commission the leverage it needs to solicit proportionate funding for its programmes. Inadequate funding has forced the Electoral Commission to delegate some of its core roles,” the CEON-U members said in the report. It appears the suggestion was not implemented. Meanwhile, the cost and confusion around elections appears to be increasing.
According to a source familiar with the numbers at the EC, the average cost of conducting elections globally is US$ 5 per voter.
But, the source told The Independent, the cost per voter on average in Uganda has steadily been going up with the per capita cost being US$ 8.7 in 2016 compared to U.S $ 7.1 in the 2010/11 general elections. The cost for the 2021 election will be US$12 per voter.
According to the expenditure report on the Shs419.9 billion that was used in the 2016 general elections, the biggest chunk was spent on printing and stationary, allowances, fuel and lubricants, machinery and equipment, transfer to political parties, transport equipment, maintenance of vehicles, and ICT.
Allowances for presiding officials and police constables deployed at polling stations also increase the cost of conducting elections.
This time, the EC is saying, the payment structure for field election officials, which has not been revised during the last four general elections, must change.
According to the old schedule, election presiding officers earned Shs 40,000 per day, polling assistants Shs20, 000 and polling constables Shs 20,000. These are very small and inadequate figures and the EC argues explain why the commission has not been able to attract high caliber personnel to work as polling day officials.
But the increment the commission is proposing is equally inconsequential. The commission is revising the rates of payment to polling day officials upward to Shs50, 000 for presiding officers, polling assistants Shs 30,000, and polling constables Shs 30,000. Part of the reason for the slight change could be that the huge numbers of officials needed mean the total budget for this item along is huge.
The EC Chairman, Simon Byabakama, who is running his first major test at the helm, can barely push the figures higher since he is under pressure over his budget.
Byabakama lit a fuse when he told a committee of parliament in January that the government was not releasing money yet time was running out.
“As it stands, what we have is only enough to take us up to the presidential nominations. Remember we need to print ballot papers; we need to procure election materials, specialized equipment, systems, procurement of biometric voter verification systems and others. All these need money which we have not got up to now,” Byabakama said.
Days later, the Minister of State for Finance; David Bahati, poured oil on the fire when he told parliament that the government was still working out ways to borrow money to fund the elections.
“There is no way we cannot have elections,” Bahati told the MPs, “We have to ensure that by April, the resources which they need are provided.”
Since MPs from the ruling NRM party could not publicly speak out, Bahati was criticized mainly by opposition politicians in and out of parliament.
It’s a trick
Alice Alaso, the national coordinator in charge of finance and administration at the Alliance for National Transformation, Uganda’s newest political party, told The Independent that she finds the squabble between the Finance ministry and the Electoral Commission suspicious.
She says it is another sign that when it comes to managing finances in this country; there is a general level of indiscipline in the Finance Ministry.
She said she is surprised that the Ministry of Finance was claiming not to have money yet its officials routinely walk into Parliament and push through “supplementary budgets for all manner of reasons.” She said sometimes the Ministry of Finance re-allocates resources without any Parliamentary approval.
Alaso says the Ministry’s failure to budget for the required money for the 2021 elections is designed to give the EC an excuse for anything that could go wrong in its work.
“It could be that these two government entities are just playing games,” she said, “It’s a gimmick that is being set-up so that when the machines are not working on Election Day, the EC will give an excuse of we did not have money to buy the necessary infrastructure.”
Alaso says ultimately, it is Ugandans who will lose in this game.
“It’s a ploy to disenfranchise Ugandans,” she says.