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.