How popular sentiments have undermined our journalism and blinded our intellectuals from reality
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | It has become increasingly trendy and fashionable within certain sections of social media in Uganda to denounce President Yoweri Museveni. It does not matter what arguments one makes or evidence they adduce to back up their case or the values they stand for. It is just cool to accuse Museveni of looting and destroying Uganda. Many Ugandan journalists, intellectuals and pundits seeking popular validation of their ideas, afraid to be “misunderstood”, desperate for approval, or plainly emotional and ignorant, pander to popular sentiments in complete disregard of the facts.
For instance, Godbar Tumushabe recently sent me a clip of my 2007 TED talk decrying the rising cost of Public Administration on the budget. He asked what had happened to me now that I no longer denounce Museveni’s excessive expenditure on political patronage. I replied telling him that nothing had happened to me; something fundamental had happened to the budget (or Museveni): the cost of Public Administration on the budget had been shrinking in relative terms even though it had grown in absolute terms. I added that Godbar and me should share part of the praise for this change in our nation’s budget because we played a part.
On May 22, 2002, then Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, also Secretary to the Treasury, Chris Kasami, gave a profound talk at a public expenditure workshop in Kampala. He argued that there was need for “stronger control over the expenditures of Public Administration.” Public administration at the time included State House, Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Public Service, Uganda Revenue Authority, Parliament, Electoral Commission, and the Ministry of Finance.
Kasami made two critical points: first that the budget for Public Administration had grown too rapidly. Second that the sector had consistently failed to fit within its budget, thereby claiming a large share of supplementary budget approvals, which negatively affected budget releases of other sectors. He said that Public Administration was “currently the second largest sector in the government budget, taking 20% of the total government spending. He revealed that it had been growing at an annual average rate of 16%, claiming an increasing share of GDP i.e. rising from 2.9% of GDP in the 1997/98 budget to 3.6% of GDP in the 2001/02 budget.
Kasami argued that if the cost of public administration had grown in tandem with the growth in population, the country would have saved over Shs80 billion for other sectors that were critical. He argued that the reasons for the ballooning cost of Public Administration was the growth of semi autonomous government agencies, missions abroad and the cost of “the political system” i.e. patronage. Here he mentioned 62 ministers, 35 presidential advisors, 56 RDCs, 56 districts, 305 MPs and the growing size of the EC.
Godbar and I launched an advocacy program at ACODE where we campaigned against this development. We raised money from the Netherlands government and in 2006 and 2007 held a series of high profile seminars. I presented papers on how, since 2002, things had gone from bad to worse. I demonstrated that there had been negligible investment in roads and electricity, sectors that are fundamental to future growth prospects. I even presented tables comparing Uganda’s spending on energy and transport infrastructure with other Sub Sahara African countries – and we were below average.
Public officials; especially from the Ministry of Finance, and donors attended. In the 2008/09 FY government made a U-turn and created the Energy and Road Funds, and poured money into them. It also established UNRA to lead the road construction program. In the first year, the Ministry of Works was unable to absorb the money because they did not even have road designs. However, we at ACODE had scored big: we contributed to the transformation of the budget from political patronage to long-term investments in Transport and Energy.
It is possible government (and Museveni) were already on this path. But there is no denying that my work with Godbar and ACODE generally played a vital role in this process and we should be proud of it. So I replied raising these developments to Godbar, arguing that criticising Museveni is not a fashion for me. The president and government changed to our side and we should applaud them for it. Changing government behavior and policies does not always (although sometimes it may) require confrontations. Media and civil society work with government to achieve shared goals.
Let us now look at the facts of the 2019/20 Budget, which is Shs32 trillion: the largest portion of it goes to the ministry of works to do roads i.e. Shs6.4 trillion (20%), followed by Defense at Shs3.6 trillion, Education Shs3.2 trillion, Energy Shs2.9 trillion, etc. Public Administration has fallen from being number two largest budget item in 2002/03 to number 12 at Shs908 billion (2.9% of the budget) in 2019/20. Even if we add Public Sector Management, it comes to Shs1.5 trillion (4.5% of the budget and 10th largest budgetary item).
Even in the face of these facts, Godbar was not willing to change his mind. He said nothing has changed. The size of presidential advisors has remained the same or increased, which may be true. He argued that all government has done is separate Public Sector Management from Public Administration. He did not even care to look at the facts i.e. that even when the two sectors are combined the improvement is big. I must add that not everything under Public Sector Management was part of Public Administration.
I find it difficult to refuse to change my mind in the face of new developments or new facts. I find it dishonest to keep harping on a problem that has been solved. Museveni may not have reduced the number of his advisors, districts or size of his cabinet. These have increased. However, they are increasingly taking a much smaller share of our budget. On the contrary, over the last decade, government has become more developmental, pouring ever increasing resources into long term investments like roads, dams, electricity transmission lines, water systems, etc.
Museveni critics have been raising a complaint that he has taken too many loans at the cost of increasing debt, which will be borne by our grand children. This argument is misinformed because it would make sense only if the loans were taken to finance today’s consumption. However, almost all the loans Uganda has taken lately have gone into long-term investments to benefit our grandchildren.