By Independent Team
Shs 500bn spent on army per year but soldiers live in huts, lack toilets, dead bodies kept in patients wards
President and commander-in-chief of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), Gen. Yoweri Museveni, has publicly said he cherishes the army and is a strong believer in the military institution as the pillar of the state.
Indeed from 1986 to-date, the Ministry of Defence has been one of the ministries receiving the biggest portion of the national budget. This is despite the mid 1990s donors castigating of the government for excessive expenditure on the army, a non-productive sector, at the expense of crucial sectors like health and education.
The security budget is growing year-on-year and is projected to hit Shs 600 billion in two years time from the current Shs 480 billion approved budget for 2009. This includes the costs of the Internal Security Organisation (ISO), External Security Organisation (ESO), UPDF, and some expenditure by the Office of the President and Ministry of Defence.
This money includes the cost of beans and posho the soldiers eat, the cost of army uniforms, fuel, stationery, machinery, and training. However, there is no mention of housing for soldiers. Up to 70% of the security budget is spent on wages, feeding, and uniforms. This is also where there is most corruption.
Together they represent 9.2 % of the total national budget and places it as third highest cost area for the government. In comparison, the Ministry of Health has an approved budget Shs 628 billion; the Ministry of Education has an approved budge of Shs 899 billion, Tourism and Trade Shs 31 billion, and Information, Communication, and Technology Shs 6.5 billion.
The justification has always been that Uganda needs to build a robust military institution that can defend the country against internal and external enemies.
However, despite this huge funding and the commander-in-chief’s fondness for the army, soldiers’ welfare and general life in and outside the barracks across the country tells a different story.
Today, soldiers still live in grass-thatched huts commonly known as mama ingia pole (literally meaning ‘wife/girlfriend, be careful when getting in’ because this huts can collapse anytime’) that characterised most barracks across the country after the NRA/M (now UPDF) had just captured power in 1986.
Where it was expected that things would get better, especially as the economy has improved, things have only got worse as corruption eats deeper into the heart of the military and the government. Things that used to be key features of soldiers’ welfare disappeared steadily to the extent that one can hardly find them in what remains of the barracks. The army shop closed, the officers’ messes either ceased or are in total decay, and basic items that used to be given to soldiers like mattresses have ceased.
Museveni has often ridiculed his predecessors Milton Obote and Idi Amin for mismanaging the national army. Yet a comparative look at the national army before and during Museveni’s reign reveals a disturbing difference.
Originally, there were 23 military garrisons in the country, namely: Bondo barracks (near Arua), Masindi General Transport barracks (now occupied by police), Masindi Artillery and Signal Regiment, Rubongi Air & Seaborne barracks, Majanji and Nalwire barracks in Busia, Nakasongola Airbase, Gulu Air Force Base, Moyo barracks, Gaddafi barracks which was School of Infantry in Jinja, Magamaga barracks also near Jinja, Mbale (Bumageni ‘ military police) barracks, Bugema barracks in Mbale, Malire Mechanised Regiment (Bombo), and Mubende barracks.
Others were; Mbuya General Headquarters, Lubiri barracks (which was kabaka’s palace) in Kampala, Masaka Mechanised Regiment, Moroto barracks, Simba Battalion in Mbarara, Makindye military police barracks and Kireka barracks in Kampala, and Kabamba Military Training School in Mubende.
Some of these barracks were built during the colonial times, while others were built during Obote I and Amin regimes. Many, like Majanji and Nalwire, were razed after the 1979 war. But for those that remained, the buildings are in a decrepit state, with soldiers preferring to build grass-thatched huts in the barracks grounds than stay in the rotten brick or block structures. Hardly any new barracks has been built since 1986.
In fact many barracks have been sold to private investors or have been converted for other uses. For instance the land belonging to the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence has been sold to local investor Sudhir Ruparelia. Mbuya barracks has been parceled out to various investors for private developments. Mbarara barracks, the UPDF 2nd Division headquarters, too will soon be disposed of. The government wants to convert it into an industrial park and the process is in the final stages of completion.
Uganda Investment Authority, the body in charge of investment projects in the country, confirmed the takeover of the Mbarara barracks land in Mbarara municipality.
‘We are taking the army barracks in Mbarara for an industrial park. The army does not need to be in town, they will relocate, we are taking that land,’ Dr Maggie Kigozi, the executive director of UIA, told The Independent.
Mbarara barracks, also formerly known as Simba Battalion, was one of the fiercest and most fortified during the Amin regime in the 1970s. It was instrumental in repulsing the first combined force of the Ugandan rebels with their Tanzanian allies when they tried to overthrow Idi Amin’s government in 1972.
According to the recently released 2008 Auditor General’s report, an inspection of several barracks around the country confirmed the dire state of the garrisons: rotten structures and poor facilities, and encroachment on the army’s land due to negligence.
For instance, there has been extensive encroachment on land belonging to Lira Golf battalion. The army school has lost more than half of its land to churches, top civil servants and even area politicians. The AG established that Lira District Land Board allocated plots where the school playground was to the district police commander, the chief magistrate and a minister. It was further observed that some other encroachers have put up permanent structures.
Inspection of Army General Depot Magamaga, 1st Division Headquarters Kakiri, 409 Brigade Arua, 3rd Division Gulu and Mechanised Brigade Masaka revealed that all land for these barracks is not surveyed and some of the land has been encroached on. Furthermore, most of the buildings are dilapidated and infested with bats and rats. At Moroto barracks, the buildings that still use the asbestos sheets, which were banned by WHO, are collapsing and the toilet facilities are inadequate. The barracks lacks cesspool emptiers and soldiers have resorted to using shallow make shift pit latrines.
At the 309 Battalion Koboko, the store building is dilapidated, full of cracks and leaking. The armoury which is on the same building had similar problems and without adequate burglar proofing, meaning anyone can sneak in and steal the arms! There was also no stationery at the station. The stores lack pallets and food is put on trunks that were improvised while the other items are placed directly on the floor hence standing risk of damage.
At Junior Staff College Jinja, the AG found the medical centre is in a terrible state, lacking most of the equipment needed for the operation of a medical centre such as sterilizers, gloves, needles and syringes, infusion stands, trays and trolleys, clinical coats, etc. It was also noted that the old mortuary is in a state of disuse and as a result, dead bodies are sometimes kept in the wards with other patients. The maternity ward is also in a poor condition and inadequately staffed with one midwife, one nursing assistant and no running water. The centre has no incinerator. The placenta pit has not been functioning for seven years. Instead, an old pit latrine is being used for the purpose.
A similar situation was noted at Makindye Barracks health centre in Kampala with the 18-bed ward having only two serviceable beds. The hospital is under-staffed with only two registered nurses. It has no ambulance and basic requirements like protective wears. The hospital receives only Shs 100,000 monthly for maintenance which is too little compared to the centre’s requirements.
At Gulu Barracks hospital, there is no maternity ward as the old one had been converted into an office. The theatre is also in a state of decomposition as termites have destroyed part of the roof, some door shutters and frames. The theatre also lacks basic surgical equipment like forceps and sterilizers. Drug supplies to the hospital are too inadequate to cater for all soldiers, their families and the army schools. The hospital receives a paltry Shs 500,000 per month for maintenance and stationery!
A similar situation pertains in Rubongi Barracks, Nakasongola Motorised Division, Mubende Rehabilitation Centre and Kabamba Training School, with health units lacking basic facilities to cater for soldiers, their families and the surrounding communities.
The situation at Butiaba School of Field Artillery and Air Defence is not befitting of a school. According to the Auditor General, the school receives only Shs 4.1 million monthly as imprest, routine funds, and instructor allowance. There are four classrooms but with no furniture and students sit on the floor. The dormitories also lack beds and as such the students have to sleep on the floor. The school has no library, no electricity!
Various senior army officers (who declined to be named for fear of reprimand and prosecution) who served in the forces before and during the NRM regime narrated to The Independent how the situation has since changed.
Apparently in the 1960s, during training soldiers would eat meat three times a week. They would have breakfast of tea and bread. Lunch comprised rice and any other gravy while for dinner, the trainees would have posho and meat or any other gravy. This was the general situation in all the army training schools.
For cadet officers, after training one would be commissioned 2nd Lieutenant and transferred from the recruitment school to the cadet school. Here, they would no longer eat from the Central Cook House but the Cadets’ Mess. Here they prepared their own meals which included eggs, sausages, meat, rice, etc, but one would pay for the meals at end of the month. The meals were highly subsidised so paying for them was not a big problem after all the salaries were good as the purchasing power was high.
After six months of probation, one would be confirmed full Lieutenant and moved to the Officers’ Mess for accommodation and feeding if he was a bachelor. Meals were still paid for but accommodation was free. Upon getting officially married, an officer would be entitled to a fully furnished three-bedroom house. If there was no house in the barracks, the army would hire for him outside. The house would have a double bed, four single beds with mattresses and other beddings, a set of chairs, etc. This was a standard in all army units. You would go to the Army Ordinance Depot and get these provisions and the army would give you a vehicle for transport up to your unit.
Upon being confirmed officer, you were also entitled to a loan to buy a personal car. The loan was recoverable from your monthly salary.
Promotion was systematic. It was rare to have a soldier staying on one rank for more than seven years, especially in the junior ranks from captain and below. However this started changing during Amin’s time due to nepotism.
There was an army shop fully stocked where soldiers would go and buy various items. Contrary to common belief that the army shop was for drinks only, soldiers could get nearly every household goods they needed including clothes. And all goods in the army shop were duty free.
Non-commissioned officers (NCOs)
Welfare was not only for officers but also lower rank soldiers. From Corporal and below, soldiers would have their own canteen (mess) where they would have meals. Senior Non-commissioned Officers ‘ from Sergeant to Warrant Officer I ‘ too had their own Sergeants’ Mess.
Soldiers’ children education
Every barracks had a primary school and the soldiers’ children would study free of charge until Primary Seven when they joined a government secondary school where they would start paying tuition fees. But it was easy to pay the tuition fees from one’s salary.
There were no personalised vehicles like today. All vehicles were in the central pool and stationed in the barracks parking yard under the MTO (Motor vehicle Transport Officer) who would allocate vehicles to officers and soldiers for authorised duties.
Soldiers had various pairs of uniforms and ceremonial dress for parade, shoes, boots, etc. During Amin’s regime, every garrison had its unique colour of ribbon (lanyat in military-speak) and belt. For instance, Masindi General Transport wore blue and yellow while Masindi Artillery Regiment wore blue and red, Magamaga barracks (red and black), Mbale (Bumageni ‘ military police) wore white and red, Malire Mechanised regiment (Bombo) green and red, Mubende barracks (yellow), Mbuya General Headquarters (yellow and red ‘ similar to those used by Kony), Masaka Mechanised Regiment (black), Moroto barracks (red), Kireka (yellow and white) Makindye military police (white and red), and the Signal Training Wing in all barracks wore white and blue.
In this way, you could tell a soldier’s unit just by their dress code and this was enforced religiously. Today however, the UPDF has diverse uniforms and in many cases, soldiers wear different shades of uniforms. Some even wear bathroom slippers and sandals instead of boots. It is therefore nearly impossible to tell which unit a particular UPDF soldier comes from by looking at the military fatigues. In fact during the war in the north, it was often difficult to tell rebels from the army given that they all wore what looked like uniform but was not uniform!
Healthcare & accommodation
There were well built barracks with permanent houses and soldiers were assured of accommodation wherever they would be transferred. Building and maintenance of barracks was purely the responsibility of the government.
Every barracks had a health unit with medicine, doctors and other relevant staff. Only complicated cases would go to referral government hospitals where medicine and medical attention were readily available.
In the event of death, the army would take over the funeral process and all the burial expenses and requirements. The deceased’s benefits would be processed quickly from the Pay and Pensions department at the army headquarters. The next of kin did not have to wait for years, like it is today, to get their benefits.
What has happened that the government now, with a far superior budget, cannot afford facilities which the former regimes could provide with a slim budget purse?
By 1986, Uganda could raise only Shs 84 billion from local revenue. The economy was shambolic but the government still maintained barracks accross the country with basic provisions, save for the indiscipline among soldiers for delayed or poor payments which forced them to resort to extortion. The NRM reversed the downturn of Uganda’s economy; put the country on a steady path of economic growth and development, with revenue collections leaping from a mere Shs 84 billion to more than Shs 4 trillion today.
However, despite all these strides in economic growth and revenue collections, UPDF, the pillar and cornerstone of the state and country’s security, continues to be probably the poorest facilitated in the army’s history in Uganda?
Under its 2009/10 planned outputs, under soldier welfare, the army has basic plans like paying salaries on time, and ambitious plans like implementing an annual medical work plan which includes provision of Medicare, and a medical insurance scheme for soldiers, creation of SACCOs and an army shop.
UPDF claims up to 50% of planned construction work is complete. It is however, not clear what this construction is.
Construction of barracks and other army infrastructure should ideally be handled under the domestic development vote of the Security vote of Defence budget. Looking at the Defence budget for the last 10 years, it is clear construction of barracks has not been a priority with very little funds allocated to the domestic development vote.
For instance in 2000/01 budget, domestic development was allocated only Shs 10.6 billion compared to the non-wage recurrent vote of Shs 67 billion and the wage vote of Shs 114 billion. But even then, only Shs 5.2 billion, which is less than half, was eventually spent on domestic development, implying the rest was diverted to other uses.
In 2001/02 budget, Shs 7.5 billion was allocated to domestic development but again, only Shs 5.4 billion was spent. The same trend continued in 2002/03 where Shs 10.9 billion was allocated but only Shs 7.8 billion spent, in 2003/04 it was Shs 11.5 billion but only Shs 8.2 billion was spent, and in 2004/05 it was Shs 16 billion but Shs 11.8 billion was eventually spent.
The Independent was unable to obtain the outturn (actual expenditure) for 2005/06, 2006/07, 2007/08 and 2008/09 domestic development vote. However according to the Ministry of Defence budget estimates, Shs 10.4 billion, Shs 11.6 billion, Shs 12bn and Shs 8.8bn was allocated respectively for those years. If past expenditure trends are anything to go by, it is likely below 60% of allocated money was actually spent on developing infrastructure such as housing for soldiers.
There have been several reasons for the dismal development of barracks. But among the foremost is corruption which has seen billions of money stolen either through inflating the payroll (ghost soldiers) or through fraudulent procurement of equipment, which sometimes are also defective and therefore of little military value. It is therefore likely that even though little money has been officially spent on the domestic development vote, much of it could have been stolen.
As a result, soldiers started building their own mud and grass-thatched huts in the barracks. The government abandoned its responsibility of constructing barracks although the Ministry of Defence maintains a construction and rehabilitation department receiving funding every financial year. Many facilities in the barracks have run into disuse. It’s a common sight today to see a soldier roaming the bushes in search of grass to thatch his hut. Yet on transfer he has to leave his house behind.
The Independent was unable to get comments from any of the Defence or army officials. Minister Crispus Kiyonga’s phone was unavailable and so was Defence Permanent Secretary Rosette Byengoma. Army Commander Gen. Aronda Nyakairima too was not available; his aide said he was out of the country. Army spokesperson Maj. Felix Kulayigye promised to get back to our reporter but he had not done so by the time we went to press.
Last year when salary disparities between professional civil servants and resident district commissioners, who are political appointees, were published in the press showing the latter as far better paid, President Museveni attacked the media for making unpatriotic publications about the country. He said his NRA/M did not shed blood during the bush war to make Uganda a laughing stock. He even vowed to ‘sort out’ anyone who dared ridicule Uganda.
But after 23 years of rapid economic growth, when soldiers live in grass-thatched huts, dilapidated barracks without toilets and healthcare facilities, with decayed buildings, who is making Uganda a laughing stock?