By Mubatsi Asinja Habati
In the 2010/11 National Budget, Minister of Finance Syda Bbumba announced government plans to start paying Local Council I and II chairpersons. She provided Shs 10.7 billon for their salaries next financial year.
This was not a surprise. The Independent had reported it in its July 10- 17, 2009 issue (see Government to spend billions on LC I and II salaries).
The country is moving towards an election year and the government usually makes generous promises.
However, the promise to pay LCs raises fundamental legal and constitutional issues. It also widens public expenditure at the expense of social services.
On April 2, 2007 the Constitutional Court on a 4-1 majority ruling nullified the election of village and parish Local Councils and declared that new ones be elected under the multiparty political order. The Executive needs to initiate an amendment in Parliament of the concerned provisions of these laws to reflect the embraced multiparty system, reads part of the judgement of Justices Galdino Magellan Okello, Alice Mpagi-Bahigeine, Stephen George Engwau and Constance Kategaya Byamugisha. Justice Steven Kavuma differed.
The petitioner, the then head of FDCs Electoral Commission Rubaramira Ruranga, contended that the LCs I and II which were elected under the Movement had become unconstitutional when the country adopted a multiparty political system.
The court ruled that the new LCs could not be elected unless the respective electoral laws had been amended to reflect the multiparty setting. Subsequently, parliament passed the Local Government (Amendment) Bill 2007 which provides for election of village, ward and parish councils under the multiparty system.
However, no fresh LC elections have been held to date. Some analysts say that the court did not nullify the election of the existing LCs but stopped the election of new LCs until the electoral laws had been amended. They say the current LCs continue in office legally until new ones are elected.
The contra view is that even if the court did not pronounce itself on whether the incumbent LCs were nullified or not, this cannot amount to an extension of their five-year office term which expired in 2007. They were elected in 2002.
Godber Tumushabe, a lawyer and Executive Director of ACODE, a local think tank on public policy analysis, says that without a legal instrument providing for their continuous existence, any payment to the current LCs is illegal and unconstitutional. He says they ceased to be LCs when court ruled in 2007.
Attorney General Dr Khiddu Makubuya refused to state his position on the issue. He told The Independent that the Ministry of Local Government would contact him if it faced a legal obstacle in implementing the payment.
LCI and II chairpersons will now be paid Shs120,000 per year as honorarium. Uganda has 52,000 village (LCI) and 7200 parish (LCII) councils.
With the creation of more districts and constituencies, the number of counties, sub-counties and parishes will increase and the local councils will also automatically go up.
This means the government will have to increase the budget for LCs every financial year. It is feared, this increase in public expenditure will infringe on the governments ability to provide social services such as health, education, roads, and safe water. Already public hospitals have no drugs, some pupils study under trees for lack of classrooms, potholes make roads impassable, and primary school teachers and policemen earn a paltry US$100 a month.
The move to pay the LCs was hatched at a retreat of district chairpersons and chief administrative officers at the National Leadership Institute Kyankwanzi in May last year. The retreat was called to brainstorm on the way forward for Uganda in terms of economic transformation. Instead it changed into transforming the village political leadership from voluntary service to paid employment.
When the district leaders demanded more allowances and gratuity upon leaving office, President Yoweri Museveni initially told them they were being selfish since LC1 and IIs were doing mobilisation on voluntary basis. Instead of dropping their demand, they got him to accept to pay the LCI and IIs.
Museveni went further. He also gave district councilors, who were only getting sitting allowances when council sits, an annual honorarium.
The President justified his radical proposal on the requirement for district councilors and executives to resign their previous jobs. He said their sacrifice needed to be rewarded.
Since 2002, the government has been paying monthly salaries to LC-V chairpersons, their vice chairpersons, district speakers and three district executives (secretaries). The LC-V chairpersons get Shs2 million per month, the speaker Shs600, 000, while the vice chairpersons and the three secretaries earn Shs500, 000 each.
The new demands meant that the LC-V chairperson, the vice, the speaker, three executives, and the LC-III chairperson would be entitled to gratuity after leaving office. Members of Parliament are entitled to a gratuity of 30% of their gross annual salary but paid at the end of their five-year term. LCs would get the same terms.
The timing of these payouts has raised questions especially given that the country is going into national elections in the next eight months.
Opposition politicians view it as an attempt to bribe the LCs with state resources to mobilise votes for the NRM at the village level.
This is not the only payment that has caused suspicion of a political motive.
Unemployed youth, graduates, and needy university students have been promised soft loans.
In September 2009, Museveni told Parliament that the government would buy bicycles for the LCI chairpersons and motorcycles for LCIII. He said the LC3 and Gombolola chiefs had already got the motorcycles.
The government recently announced a countrywide registration of former soldiers for processing of their gratuity and pension arrears. Oddly, former soldiers of the UPDF alone have never been paid all their retirement or terminal benefits on grounds that the government is short of funds. Where has all this money suddenly come from?