About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, May 3, 2020

In defense of Shs 10 billion for MPs

Why Kadaga is right and Museveni is wrong about the role of MPs in the Coronavirus fight

THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | Uganda’s elites are very angry that their legislators allocated themselves Shs10 billion to aid the fight against the coronavirus. Many see the act as a form of corruption, arguing that the MPs are taking this money for themselves. President Yoweri Museveni, in characteristic opportunistic style, has joined Uganda’s chattering elites in condemning parliament, and so have the courts of law. In the ensuing cacophony of shrill alarms reason has been thrown to the wind. One has to be dangerously ignorant, or a fool or a demagogue to condemn MPs for what they did.

MPs passed a supplementary budget of Shs 900 billion, from which they allocated themselves only 1% of the funds. One needs to be far removed from political reality of Uganda, and any poor country for that matter, to make the arguments many pundits are making. Our country is in a crisis. Many people, especially in urban areas who depend on money income for their survival are in dire straits. For many Ugandans, their most reliable source of social insurance is members of their immediate family, relatives, friends, well-off neighbors and other benefactors.

Thus when in difficulty, these are the people Ugandans turn to – when they need fees for their children, money to meet funeral expenses, funds to pay for medical expenses, food to feed their families etc. As electoral politics has consolidated, and political contestation has heated, the MP has become the most important benefactor in every community, rural or urban. All elected officials in Uganda are under pressure from voters to provide assistance of one form or another. But the Ugandan MP is the most inundated with these requests.profit news

In the case of the coronavirus crisis, Ugandan legislators (like legislators in every poor country) must be under intense pressure to do something directly. They must be seen to be generous, kind and understanding. They must have cash to give assistance to those of their constituents who approach them. To fail to do so not only delegitimises them as individual leaders but it would actually erode faith in parliament – as our people understand and see it.

The Ugandan elite lives in a bifurcated sphere. Intellectually his/her view of parliament is drawn from a theory in a textbook itself based on the experience of Europe: the role of the MP is to legislate i.e. make laws, pass budgets, and hold the executive to account. This is the argument they carry to radio, television and newspapers. Yet intuitively the educated Ugandan sees the role of the MP as primarily one of taking “development” to their community: MPs will be held accountable for the absence of roads, clinics and schools in the community.

For the mass of ordinary Ugandans who do not have a theory of European parliamentary rules and roles, this bifurcation is not there. The MP is both intellectually and intuitively a vehicle for development and charity. When voting, it is not how many pieces of legislation the MP initiated or how many times they talked in parliament that matters but how many development projects they took to their constituency. So deeply entrenched is this role of the MP in the Ugandan mind that people actually look less at the local governments and more to their MPs.

One can pontificate that Ugandans MPs as leaders should lead by example and hold onto the role of parliament as stipulated in our constitution. But the same constitution says the people are sovereign; MPs are elected to serve them. Leaders have to lead but to be successful their strategies of leadership must be understood and appreciated by the people. The more contested political office is the more leaders will be inclined to follow the feelings of their electorate.

I can understand a leader going against the popular will; especially where matters of national survival are concerned. But in most mundane matters, leaders must be sensitive to the way their followers think. And this is the essence of democratic politics: like entrepreneurs in the market, politicians must be responsive to the whims of voters on whom they rely for their political survival. In the case of the coronavirus, MPs need to have money at their disposal to distribute food and other essential necessities to those among their constituents who are in need.

This brings me to Museveni. He is the best example of this practice. As political contestation has increased, so has the budget for State House, the residence of the president, which also houses his private office. This financial year, that budget stands at Shs300 billion and a significant share of it goes to “gifts” and presidential donations. It was, therefore, hypocritical of him to condemn MPs’ Shs10 billion when he has already allocated himself 30 times more money than that: one man against 463 legislators.

When I was young and theoretical I used to condemn Museveni for the State House budget. I have since grown older and much more realistic. Even if I do not agree with such huge sums of public money allocated to the residence of the president, I now understand the circumstances that make it politically necessary. Even if Kizza Besigye or Bobi Wine were elected president, this practice would remain albeit under different guises. That is how politics works.

And for critics who argue that pandering to these popular sentiments undermines “development” of institutions, I say that argument is theoretically persuasive but empirically wrong. All the rich countries of today, when they were at the same level of development as we are (rural, agrarian, illiterate and poor), had the same kind of politics and it did not stop them from developing. Indeed, their current institutional setup is a result, not a cause, of their development.

For the intellectually curious, I advise them to read a small book by the American journalist, William Riordon, titled Plunkitt of Tammany Hall; A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics. Written at the beginning of the 20th Century, it is a series of reflections by George Washington Plunkitt, a then-leading figure in the Democratic Party machine of New York State on how politics is organised and how elections are won in that state.

At that time (1913), USA per capita income at PPP was $10,500 in 2020 prices; the equivalent for Uganda today is $2,700. But the nature of politics between the USA and Uganda, where elected officials met the personal needs of their constituents through certain forms of charity are similar. It did not stop the U.S. from institutionalisation and will not stop Uganda.


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