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Inside Uganda’s political delusions

 

How the hullabaloo and bruhaha over MPs allocating themselves Shs200bn for cars is much ado over nothing

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | It is July 2021 and as is custom, Uganda’s elites are going through a ritual they indulge every five years – complain about money allocated to Members of Parliament (MPs) to buy cars. Later this year (and again as happens with every new parliament) MPs will increase their salaries and thereby spark off yet another round of public condemnation and anger. This year particularly, our chattering classes on traditional and social media have an added justification for their fury – COVID restrictions.

According to analysts (actually “analysts”) and pundits, MPs are being insensitive to the public needs. Many people are suffering from the lockdown without money to sustain themselves. Government (actually parliament which approves the budget) has allocated only Shs50 billion for food relief to the needy and Shs 200 billion to MPs to buy cars. How can barely 540 MPs allocate themselves money four times larger than that allocated to the millions of poor masses they represent, especially in these hard-economic times? The optics are really bad, these people argue.

Of course, MPs have responded arguing that this money is budgeted for and is an entitlement – like a salary. The fact that there are hard times does not stop them from performing their duties of visiting their constituents and handling their people’s problems. Also, the MPs have argued, the money given to each one of them for cars (Shs200 million) is actually little given the kind of motor vehicle they need to navigate the network of bad roads in their constituencies. Many senior civil servants are given motor vehicles that cost anything between Shs400 and Shs500 million.

Besides, the MPs add, government does not give them money for maintenance of these cars, whereas it maintains all other vehicles of public officials – at public expense.

In fact, the MPs add, government gives them fuel only to move from Kampala to their constituency but not to drive around their constituencies. Yet all other public officials are given fuel to every nook and cranny of the country where they go on official business. From this perspective, the MPs argue, that critics are being unfair.

I think, while the arguments of MPs make a lot of sense, those of their critics (especially on “the optics”) make little sense. The issue is who is best suited to decide “the optics.”

MPs are the elected representatives of the people. Very few people in Uganda have their careers entirely dependent on the whims of our voters than MPs. Therefore, if there is public anger out there, those who suffer it most acutely are these MPs. It follows that from the perspective of enlightened self-interest, these MPs should be the ones to really care about “the optics” than their critics.

So why are the critics, who are not elected representatives of the people, mourning more than the bereaved i.e. purporting to be more concerned about the welfare of the people than the people’s representatives? Is it possible that non-elected individuals would care more about the public good than the elected representatives of the people? Is it possible that MPs can have interests divergent from the interests of the people they represent? And can this divergence happen not in one parliament but in every parliament for 30 years?

I actually think that MPs can have and even pursue interests that are injurious to their constituents. And this is not unique to Uganda. Many (if not all) democracies suffer from this problem. In the oldest democracy in the world, the USA for example, powerful interest-groups such as the arms, pharmaceutical, big tech and oil industries, have powerful lobbies who exercise much more influence on the voting patterns of parliamentarians (in that country called Congressmen and women) than actual voters. All too often, the interests of these special interests trump the common good.

In Uganda’s case, there are hardly any well-organised social interest groups. Besides, the issues under contestation (salaries and allowances) are pecuniary to individual MPs, not depersonalised to special interests. Does the public get angry at these MPs for this selfish behavior? If it does, then the fury would be reflected in the voting patterns. If I were a scholar from America, China or Europe, I would argue that the “public” is actually against MPs indulging themselves with expensive cars and high salaries and my “evidence” would be overwhelming. Just look at the voting pattern.

In every election in Uganda, about two thirds of incumbent MPs are not reelected. In this year’s election, only 107 out of 465 MPs were reelected. Armed with this “evidence”, a scholar without knowledge of the wider and deeper social dynamics of Uganda would conclude that voters in Uganda hold MPs perfectly accountable for their proclivity to self-indulgence on expensive cars and high salaries by kicking them out of office every five years.

Yet the irony is that MPs in Uganda lose reelection bids because, in the judgement of many of our voters, they don’t indulge themselves enough. Uganda is predominantly a rural and peasant society. People look to their MPs as personal patrons to attend to their individual social, cultural and economic needs – pay fees for their children, contribute to their medical bills, help daughters and sons of the soil find jobs, attend events like funerals and weddings and contribute generously to them etc.

If you have lived the life of a typical MP in Uganda, you would know that the demands on your income are daunting. Many of them exhaust their salaries to ingratiate themselves with voters – by spending their personal monies to help their constituents on personal problems. Others have to even borrow to meet these needs and demands. Without an extra source of income – like a slot in cabinet where one can steal public funds or a seat on a powerful parliamentary oversight committee where one can extort bribes from those appearing before them, MPs find themselves trapped.

In short, to be a successful MP requires a huge amount of funds. Most of the people who criticise MPs on traditional and social media are arm-chair theorists speaking from a textbook referring to politics in Europe. Few try to understand the dynamics of politics in Uganda as they are, not as we wish them to be. By superimposing Western perceptions on a different social setting, they get their arguments upside down.

Most Ugandan voters want their MPs to have a lot of money. It doesn’t matter how they get that money – whether officially paid to them or stolen from government or extorted from bureaucrats whose budget approvals depend on parliament.

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7 comments

  1. Katongole William

    That issue is not new here in our country,it usually happen every five year, keeping on debating on it is just waste of time, because it will not cease.

  2. Andrew Mwenda, your opinions are no longer that much sought after by many, unlike some time ago when you were a firebrand journalist at Daily Monitor. I wonder whether the rough an tumble of running your own business has something to do with your shift in thinking.
    It is sad to watch you justify all manner of chicanery just because your palms were greased by “someone from above”.
    Your Opinion articles are a hard read, and even a harder sell to the average Ugandan. You and your group are clearly out of touch not just with the masses, but with everything under the Ugandan sun. It’s such a pity.

    • Well said comrade. I would however add that all this is courtesy of Mr Tibuhaburwa’s model of “democracy”!

      Our post-independence political history is too short i.e just less than 60 years. Look at all the previous govts within the last 60 years, Tibuhaburwa’s scores excellent via commercialization of politics and he’s very proud of himself, of course!

      In the year 2005, as a parliamentary reporter for the Daily Monitor then, Mr Mujuni stated that he witnessed MPs behave like vultures standing near the carcass whilst amending the constitution to pave way for Tibuhaburwa’s “sad” term after he had bribed them with only UGX five million each!
      From then on the premium has only been growing as expected anyway.
      It’s this kind of commercial politics that has sustained Tibuhaburwa in power; forget about this hoax of superior “NRM ideology”

      I hear MPs opine that they deserve that ‘little’ money to buy those expensive cars because the roads in their respective constituents are in a very bad state! In a way that’s a punishment to the electorates for not minding about repair of their village roads yet they expect their MPs to use them!

  3. Saddened Ugandan

    This is almost funny when viewed as an attempt to empower voters by rebuking the victimhood mentality of complainants, who… as “arm-chair theorists”… are supposedly far removed from the symbiotic yet undeniably dysfunctional relationship between MPs and their voters.

    This is disturbingly sad when viewed as passive call to non-action, victim-blaming those who do not get tired of expressing dissatisfaction with a crooked system that seems to be going from bad to worse.

    Who is part of the solution and who is part of the problem?

    The suggestions seem to be that there is no real problem because the system is well established and that’s just the way it is, and that it seems to be working for “most Ugandan voters” who do not share the same dissatisfaction as the arm-chair theorists and complainants, and that the only victims are those financially stressed MPs who don’t know how to beat the system. Which would explain the lack of proposed solutions to the identified non-problems that only exist in the detached minds of online complainants.

    Are Ugandan MPs and Ugandan voters such a lost cause, beyond suggesting any solutions, that even suggesting that we do completely nothing by boycotting elections is a waste of time? Has everything become futile?

    After reading this, are we supposed to reach rock bottom so that we can be inspired to be the change that we seek?

    Is this about the need for effective civic education and non partisan social movements to develop ​solutions that voters and politicians have failed to create?

    Should we spend eternity licking our wounds quietly and just accepting since complaining doesn’t help?

  4. Big shame on the politicians juatifying their greed.

  5. 1.I agree there is total wastage in some sections of government. The difference between the cars Civil servants and MPs receive is that the vehicles allocated to Civil servants are used by other officers once they retire.
    2.Most MPs are from humble backgrounds there is nothing like no thank you.
    3.Since being reelected as MPs is now impossible they naturally feel that they should exhaust all the available avenues of getting allowances.

  6. its so heart breaking to witness politicians we voted for to be of impact not because they gave us money but out of our love for change(i mean the way services are advocated for and administered), transformation and growth of our nation turning into democratic beasts more so at a time when priorities of the people associated to a crippled self and national economy .this is the time i would be seeing my mp fighting on the floor of parliament to ensure that theres a financial bail out to the hundreds of ugandans whose property are being taken by banks not due to their own failure to service the loans in time but due to an international crisis of the the covid pandemic that couldnt let anyone remain standing in the same posture regardless of financial muscle and fortune built over a time , Our ugandan gvt which some greed officials find pride in justifiable by the author’s massage of legislatures greed is always in position to borrow millions of dollars to support a foreign investor to pursue their dream of raising a factory or any business and given a long tax holiday of over ten years in uganda but can never be sympathetic to a ugandan whose business and general economy are on knees but creating a bail out to avoid one losing what they have toiled for over the years.Truth to be told we need more than just mp’s, we need real serious architects who have the sense of technocracy and selfless service in the chambers because its only policies that build societies and they become balanced in terms of economy and also offer hope to the less privileged. mwenda stop massaging greed,a good leader is seen by their approach towards matters during a crisis

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