9 December 2012

Uganda: Dismas Nkunda - What These Spending Cuts May Portend


On one of the many social networks I subscribe to, there was this posting: "Many States in the World have corrupt Officials. In Uganda, the corrupt have a state."

Who would not understand this, given that money meant for the poor of this country has found its ways into private vaults? I am told these days, those building houses have to have provisions for vaults where they will pile their cash for safe keeping.

So when I hear the president ordering ministers to reduce on their foreign travels, I marvel at what is going to transpire. Mr President, I thought foreign travel is part of the job description for our ministers?

Moreover you give the order at this time of the year when they need to do Christmas shopping! They surely will need to travel. How else will they look different from the ordinary people? Aha! You see, Mr President, cutting foreign travel for your officials sounds very much like the you of the days when you had just taken power.

Then we abhorred anything that was in excess! Ministers were driven around in Nissan Laurels. The ministers were few then. At least we knew each of them by name and appearance. The days when your motorcade was composed of just a few vehicles, not a fleet! The days when you served drinks to diplomats in plastic cups; when IMF and World Bank couldn't successfully dictate what we should do!

I had never realized that Uganda actually so depended on foreign aid until I started hearing quivers in the grapevine to the effect that things were really bad and we would begin tightening our belts. What a bad Xmas this is going to be!

You see, most of the village folk will be waiting on the ministers and MPs to return for the festive season in order to feel the trickledown. That is the only time they too can taste something different from the run of the mill (or is it meal?)

I am inclined to believe that one of these days, the president may also ask the ministers to stop using the fuel-guzzling, 4X4 vehicles. Who knows, he may even ask them to use public means, such as taxis or buses, to go upcountry. Would you imagine a high-flying Ugandan minister travelling upcountry seated in a bus with all these ordinary people?

The president may also now stop using his private jet and, instead, travel aboard commercial airlines while going abroad. What a nightmare booking the whole presidential contingent on one flight!

Yes, I like the idea of cutting back, now that we have been exposed, but I am not entirely sure how it is going to work. We might just as well jump on the bold bravado that we have always had and tell off our donors: "Take away your money."

Just like what the president did awhile back when donors started questioning all the defence expenditure and Uganda told them that we could not compromise on our security because of donor support. That was it! The donors simply backed off.

The problem, then, was that when the defence budget was cut, we might as well have braced ourselves for the army's wrath since it wouldn't get paid. This could easily usher in the prospects of a coup. I am sure those born in the Museveni era have no idea what it meant to witness an army takeover.

Pre-Museveni Ugandans had got used to these things. It usually began with some popping-like sounds from the many barracks that surround Kampala. Then Radio Uganda would go silent; that usually told us that something was amiss. It would then resurrect playing army music without break.

With shots now coming from every direction, it was then that you had to decide on whether to seek safety under your bed (if that was safe indeed)!

More confusion and some Ugandans would make for the shops, looting them bare!

Men who were known to be too lazy to even lift a brick would be seen carrying two fifty-kilogramme bags of sugar. Another would be lugging a fridge!

And when the soldiers began pouring on to the streets, if you had anything, anything at all, they would simply order you to hand it over. No questions asked. So, as we prepare for the tough times ahead, the one institution we should ensure gets its pay is the army; after all, they didn't usher in the peace so that they could shoot at us again!

The author is a human rights expert and specialist on refugee issues.

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