The Observer (Kampala)

13 November 2012

Uganda: Umeme Gloating Over Dead Father As Orphans Cringe

opinion

In the late 1960s, during our very first days of acquaintance with Yoweri Museveni, then a student at the University of Dar es salaam, he displayed an imprint of remarkable fervour in the cause of our agitation against the Obote regime.

He would lambast the effrontery and arrogance of UPC rule, using acerbic imagery for his student audiences. He compared the UPC haughtiness to a man who slays another's father, takes over the widowed mother for a wife and then demands that the orphaned children should respect him as their dear father!

The unanimous reaction was of indignation and gritted teeth. The outrage against the obvious monstrous injustice favoured immediate vengeance, its delay being grudgingly tolerated merely to allow time for the young orphans to grow the mature muscles for wringing the neck of the murderer.

Most Ugandans do possess a similar type of anger against Umeme. The ghoulish picture of the amorous murderer resonates in the minds of Ugandans who know the genesis of Umeme.

When the government chose to undertake the divestiture and privatization of public enterprises, Uganda Electricity Board (UEB), hitherto, the father of electricity in the country, was lined up for the surgeon's scalpel, ostensibly to get rid of its concomitant malaise. Eskom, a South African company, took up the gauntlet of the surgery.

They finality dismembered UEB into three parts, namely generation, transmission and distribution. Eskom grabbed the generation for itself and, eventually, the new creation called Umeme was handed the juicy role of distribution.

Ugandans could not avoid sulking. The Christian-minded of them visualized the Bible scene of the torment of Jesus at the cross being taunted by zealous Roman sentries as they shared his raiment between themselves.

Umeme, previously an unknown outfit, hacked into the monopoly of levying electricity tariffs without holding a single responsibility towards the solution of the country's yawning energy hunger. The murderer of UEB brilliantly succeeded to take over the product of its power-line and now had Ugandan consumers under its heel, demanding to be honoured as their service provider.

This spook increased Umeme's appetite for easy money. Consumers got stripped to the barest minimum of any care, weighed down with exorbitant charges when maintenance of the distribution network was being wantonly ignored. There had been some initial hope that Parliament would be roused to tame the wild shrew, but this hope soon petered off into resignation as Ugandans got to realize the mysterious and invincible immunity that Umeme seemed to muster in whatever it set out to do.

So, when Umeme went a notch further by announcing its offer to raise money by selling shares to the public, Ugandans gasped in incomprehension, unsure whether to believe their ears or common sense. Some people thought that the country's economic and financial regulators had obligation to quash this development because Umeme had little track record of profits on its balance sheet.

In Uganda's reality, an avid brief-case operator can amass huge fortunes without any declared accounts. It is all part of the chicanery or calculated impunity to maximize loot by deliberately evading the tax-man. The fact that Umeme's balance sheet does not seemingly declare hefty profits ought not to lead us to the conclusion that it is not making mounds of money for itself.

The crucial acid test for doubting Umeme's viability lies in its asset base and investment portfolio. Umeme's existence hinges only on the concession wrested from the UEB properties. Without the said concession, it would be extinct. The selling of shares to a gullible public by such an economically dubious entity is akin to a daring 'air supply.'

It is precisely this that makes Umeme's IPO such a clever idea. Umeme knows that its low reputation risks the termination or non-renewal of its hold on UEB assets. It is going out to frantically enlist collaboration by reappearing as a public company is to stave off any nosy queries about its nature.

Umeme is also aware that there are vast monies stolen by government officials itching for concealment. Some public bodies like the NSSF also have huge savings of workers funds. The Umeme holy grid is not averse to making a kill of all such birds using the same stone.

Therefore, the Umeme current fray in the enlisting of shares is not a blind gimmick; it's the natural extension of the power of impunity.

The author is a member of NEC (NRM) representing historicals.

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