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Govt to pay all ex-soldiers? Dont pop the Champaign yet

By Isaac Mufumba

Last month President Museveni issued two directives.

First was the order to re-document former soldiers to enable government pay pension to them or their families in case of the deceased.The second was the directive to the Ministry of Public Service to lower the retirement age from 60 to 50 years. This move will free about 30,000 jobs.

But the government will need to get about Shs400 billion to pay the terminal benefits of the ex-servicemen, which figure looks astronomical for the state to pay. When this is added onto the annual amount the government has been paying in pension, the total sum will come to a staggering figure.  Yet the budget framework paper shows there will be no additional funding to the Ministry of Public Service to pay pensions this year.

Its not clear what informed the presidents mind to call for lowering of the retirement age to 50. But the National Youth Council Chairman Joseph Okwakol had appealed to the president during the National Youth Day last year to have the retirement age lowered. Now that the country is going to the polls next year, these lackadaisical pronouncements are not surprising at this moment.

In the run up to the elections in 1996 when poverty became an election issue, the president announced Entandikwa scheme, a poverty eradication programme. After the elections the programme commenced. But it disappeared with ease and speed as it had started. Since then there have been various programmes purportedly aiming at curing the socio-economic programmes afflicting the country. The president announced such other programmes like National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS), Plan for Modernisation of Agriculture (PMA), Poverty Eradication Action Programme (PEAP) and Savings and Credit Cooperatives. But by 2005 none of these had born any meaningful impact on poverty reduction, leave alone eradication. Another election was coming the following year. Another promise was made. This time the pronouncement changed tone and scope. It was not just to reduce poverty, but to make every living citizen to be rich. So it had to be Bonna Bagaggawale (Let every body be rich). Some money was released to kick-start the grand programme to cure the country of pathetic poverty. Four years later and on the eve of another election year, nobody can state, without fear of being untruthful, that Bonna Bagaggawale has lifted him/her out of poverty.

Poverty eradication has now become a tired slogan. The attention seems to be shifting to issues like employment which make intellectual appeal to the  elite. Thus the retirement age must be lowered from 60 to 50. Therefore the cabinet drafting the current Retirement Benefits Regulatory Bill to regulate the pension sector is not surprising. The Bill seeks to compel workers to contribute 5 percent of their monthly earnings to the Pension Fund. This would break the National Social Security Funds (NSSF) monopoly as the only pension fund where workers contribute to their retirement savings.

Then there is the directive to compile particulars of all ex-service men in Uganda and submit their names to the government for payment of their pension and other terminal benefits. The registration is already ongoing countrywide despite the gross discrepancies that have dogged the exercise.

Former bush war fighter Maj. John Kazoora did not participate in the ongoing exercise.

This is a gimmick. Museveni is doing lots of things to hoodwink people into voting for him. He has been abusing most of these people, saying that they belonged to backward armies. What is it that has happened to cause the sudden transformation? Kazoora asks.

The presidents directives come at a time when the national resource envelope is diminishing. The Uganda Revenue Authority has been declaring shortfalls in revenue collections and donor support for both projects and the national budget has also been cut by about Shs440 billion from Shs1.25 trillion last year to a projected Shs814.5 billion next financial year.

According to a March 10, 2010 report of a value-for-money audit by the Auditor General on the pension payment process, government has never paid its pension arrears.

The report shows that while Shs78 billion was paid out to pensioners in 2006/2007, a total of Shs42 billion remained outstanding. In 2007/2008 government availed Shs78 billion, leaving  an outstanding balance of Shs186 billion. In 2008/2009, another Shs78 billion was released but still a deficit of Shs101 billion remained.

A source in the Ministry of Public Service told The Independent that pension arrears stood at Shs280 billion in 2007/2008 and that it has been steadily rising. Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Ministry of Finance,  Keith Muhakanizi was not available for comment, but an official in the ministry who declined to be named said there is no provision for payment of ex-servicemen in the 2010/2011 budget. But Army Spokesman Lt. Col. Felix Kulayigye insists the Ministry of Defence already has Shs34 billion available to pay gratuity, discharge allowances and pension.

The veterans struggle to get benefits has been running for long. In March 2004, 45,000 ex-servicemen, grouped under the Uganda Army Service Men Development Association, sued government for about US$470 million in salary arrears, allowances, gratuity, pensions and damages, spanning a period of over 23 years. They won the suit in the High Court, but the Court of Appeal reversed the decision.

Former National Resistance Army soldiers who were retired in 1992 are still clamouring for their terminal benefits despite US$45 million donor agencies and countries released for the exercise.

While upon retirement, they were given a severance package of US$1,000, which included iron sheets to build homes, medical care, cash payments and transport home for the soldier and family, gratuity and pensions for the 42,000 soldiers who were discharged in 1992 and 1994 have been hard to come by.

If the government has in the past failed to pay the NRA veterans alone, how will it pay all the former ex-servicemen and where will the money come from this time round?

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