The proposal by the Ministry of Finance to consumptive public bodies not to increase the ceiling of their travel budget in the next financial year 2022/23 is brewing up an unnecessary storm among members of parliament (MPs) who perhaps believe that their work is being undermined.
Either out of misunderstanding or otherwise, MPs are insisting that they must be given more money because their work is so important which no one actually disagrees with. One hopes that the storm doesn’t cascade to the other branches of government like the judiciary.
Uganda like the rest of the world especially poorer countries is emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic that hit their narrow revenue streams really and need decision-makers at the top who understand and appreciate the critical need for resource rationalization so as to jump-start their economies.
Currently, Uganda isn’t generating and collecting sufficient revenue leading to widening budgetary deficits and there are many real competing demands, and MPs cannot pretend that they don’t know these facts.
Presently mobile communication technology has proved that one doesn’t need many of the physical travels, and face-to-face meetings to conduct business as these past two years of Covid-19 demonstrated that the world could operate efficiently and was cost-effective on teleconferences and Zoom.
And with the increasing penetration of e-government, most internal travels ought to be scaled down.
While many appreciate the need for MPs to travel particularly to meet obligations at the continental and international bodies where Uganda is member as well check accountability at our embassies, and the so-called benchmarking on best practices, the last parliament had many of these as errands as sources for soft cash.
Many of the benchmarking could have been done from literature that is abundantly available on online. Other foreign travels were for those carrying favours with the then boisterous leadership, a style that shouldn’t be permitted to creep back.
It is important for MPs to know and appreciate that most Ugandans want MPs to be adequately facilitated so that they can perform their responsibilities well and effectively. However, the facilitation to MPs and other public servants should be balanced against other national needs, and applying the principles of equity. No reasonable mind wants beggar MPs living squalid lives, although even with better remunerations there is no empirical evidence to show that all MPs have outgrown beggar mentality.
It isn’t too much asking MPs to accept the belt-tightening like the rest of Ugandans during this hard economic times so that the money available is spent on the most necessary areas like improving security, road infrastructure, health, education, making the much-needed investments in tourism, oil and gas sector, youth and women-owned medium enterprises, and productivity among rural farming communities.
We need more and better classrooms and health facilities than travels by public officials. Surely Uganda deserves better than MPs who seem out-of-touch and seeking out-of-control perks. By refusing to accept austerity measures they make on other Ugandans, MPs are looking to escape responsibility and not shoulder the test of leadership.
The leadership in parliament has over the years structured the work method of MPs in such a way that they must physically travel places in order to be seen as working and being effective even when such travels haven’t proven useful but rather wasteful extravaganza.
For the past two years due to the Covid-19 worldwide lockdown MPs and government officials haven’t been on both foreign and domestic travel errands and yet their authority and work neither diminished nor became irrelevant.
Unfortunately, because our politics has been made so financially lucrative without the necessary leadership mentorship where elected leaders have overnight become billionaires through official earnings in salary and allowances as well as underhand payments to the extent some fail to know the real needs of the country.
When the framers of the Uganda constitution wrote provisions on the independence of parliament as an institution and granted privileges and immunity of MPs including the right to determine their emoluments, it was in good faith to facilitate their work, and not for abuse.
The self-aggrandizing trend which began with the 7th Parliament (2001-6), when MPs through blackmail increased their salaries and created multiple allowances which they put beyond the taxman’s reach, has been on the upward.
In that parliament, MPs abandoned the more rational policy of obtaining government-guaranteed loans to purchase personal cars in preference for full government grant of sixty million shillings.
In the 9th Parliament, that amount was increased to Shs103m, which has now been revised upwards to Shs200m for which the public should not begrudge them.
MPs should know that their high sense of entitlement to public goodies is creating antagonistic and sometimes irreconcilable contradictions with the population, which partly explains the often unreasonable financial demands the electorate place on them.
It’s, in the MP's interest to exercise modesty and share the pain of public policy, rather than trying to flip responsibility. Past experience shows that good behavior keeps leaders while bad behavior quite often casts them out.
The writer is the director of Uganda media center. This article originally appeared on mediacentre.go.ug.