Chris Obore, the Director for Communication and Public Affairs of Parliament, took issue with last week's letter in which I commented on the greed of Uganda's parliamentarians. My comments were prompted by the allocation of Shs200 million (US$56,000) to each of the country's 529 members of Parliament for the purpose of acquiring personal cars.
Obore's comments, published in the Daily Monitor of Wednesday July 28, are worth reading and consideration. He is not alone in holding the view that MPs and other high ranking government officials are entitled to publicly funded cars. The idea being that these officials are more needy and yet more essential than everyone else.
Obore summarized this sentiment in one striking paragraph: "All arms of government must work. The individuals who run them must be facilitated to work. The money for cars is from the allocation Parliament received, not a special fund. The government allocated money to Parliament because the existence of the legislature is primarily to facilitate the Executive in the performance of its duties to the country. And for MPs to work, they must be present mainly in the House and their constituencies. This can only be facilitated by the means of transport."
Therein lies the problem. The culture of dependency and entitlement runs very deep. It blinds us to the basic reality that every Ugandan citizen has a right to fair and equitable access to the country's limited resource envelope. The idea that individuals who run all arms of government "must be facilitated to work" places a higher premium on these workers and ignores the importance of the majority who are not considered worthy of facilitation.
That is why an MP that is stricken with a critical illness need not worry about the high cost of Uganda's private health care. The public will pay for it. A medical doctor stricken with the same illness cannot afford the very care she provides a sick MP. Even a dead MP enjoys more financial benefits than a live medical doctor that attempted to save his life.
Obore's comments bring into sharp focus the urgent need for a mindset-change from the apartheid policy that governs public funds allocation. First, disproportionate allocation to the political ruling class denies even more essential professionals the remuneration that is needed to recruit and retain the best in their respective fields.
Second, provision of cash handouts and other "benefits" to select public servants is an unaffordable luxury in a country whose citizens continue to labour under suboptimal social and economic circumstances. Put simply, Uganda cannot afford this royal treatment of a few at the expense of better funding for health care, education, agricultural support services, research and development, public transport and so on.
I agree with Obore that an MP needs to get to work. So does a teacher, a plumber, a nurse, a medical doctor, or a police officer. Yet there is a difference. The MP already earns an obscenely high salary plus other allowances relative to the pitiful remuneration that most of these critically important professionals are paid. Yes, a Ugandan MP's annual emolument package of at least Shs360 million (about $100,000) is obscene.
What is the solution? First, pay all workers a fair wage. An MP's salary should be no different from that of a medical doctor, a senior nursing officer, a senior teacher, a university lecturer, a state attorney, a public accountant and so on. Abandon the false belief that an MP's service is more valuable than that of these professionals. It is not. Just different.
Second, scrap the business of free cash grants for public servants. The government has no business buying vehicles for its workers. Well paid public servants should borrow money from banks to finance their car and other large item purchases just like other Ugandans do. Interest-free loans for some while others pay their debts through the nose must not be an option.
Third, restrict and audit the use of government-owned motor vehicles to ensure that they serve the public interest, not the government officers' private needs. The sight of government ministry vehicles at weddings, funerals and Christmas gatherings are some of the experiences that dampen my spirits whenever I visit my homeland.
Fourth, consider the paradox of the ministry of health owning hundreds of motor vehicles for its officers and very few properly equipped ambulances for the country's citizens. Consider the folly of handing Shs200 million ($56,000) to an MP to purchase a car to facilitate representing a constituency whose pregnant citizens must travel on boda bodas in search of safe childbirth facilities.
Fifth, revisit the size of Uganda's government. How do we justify over 520 MPs for our cash-strapped country, at a time when we supposedly have better telecommunications and road transportation? Ditto the large cabinet, duplicate district leaders, presidential advisors and whole retinues of courtiers that add little value to the national enterprise.
For a country like ours, an MP to constituent ratio of 1:200,000 is perfectly reasonable, feasible and effective. With a current population of 48 million, Uganda would do just fine with 240 MPs.
A smaller parliament should busy itself with improving public transportation to all areas, to serve all citizens, including MPs. There is no reason why an MP cannot travel by bus to her constituency, just like Uganda's businessmen and many others do.
A smaller and more efficient government is a necessity, not an option. Such a government, run as a business enterprise, should be the goal of those who seek to take charge after President Yoweri Museveni's rule comes to an end. Living within our means is our only hope for equitable socio-economic progress, with a peace dividend that comes with the public's recognition that their rulers are not parasites.
Here is some food for thought: Canada, the second geographically largest country in the world, has a federal parliament of 338 MPs representing 38 million people. This very rich country pays its MPs US$145,000 per year, a salary that is not outrageously higher than that of, say, a high school principal (average US$87,000), a senior nurse (US$72,000) or Canadian Government lawyer (US$100,000). These professionals also enjoy excellent benefits and pensions. Canadian MPs enjoy the same excellent health care as an unemployed citizen. Their children go to the same excellent, publicly funded schools.
All of which reminds me of Proverbs 13:7 "One pretends to be rich, yet has nothing; another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth."
Mulera is a medical doctor