Tough times in Uganda: but Mr. President, please don’t cut the defence budget!

Published: 11 Dec 2012
By: Dismas Nkunda

On one of the 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 wouldn’t understand this given the amount of money meant for poor parts of the country that has found its way into private vaults? No wonder those planning to build houses nowadays have to make provision for vaults to store money for safe custody.

So when I hear the president is ordering ministers to reduce their foreign travels, I marvel at what is not going to happen. 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 and will surely need to travel! How else will they look different from the ordinary people?

You see, Mr President, cutting off foreign travel sounds much like those years from 1986 when you had just captured power, when we abhorred anything that was in excess. Ministers were driven in Nissan Laurels. There were only a few of them and we knew each of them by name. Not like these days where we only look at the number plate to know that a big person is passing by!

Those were the days when your motorcade was just a few vehicles not a fleet – the days when you would feed diplomats juice in plastic cups, when the IMF and World Bank were not allowed to dictate what we do.

I hadn’t realised just how heavily Uganda depends on foreign aid until I started hearing rumours that things are bad and we have to start tightening our belts. And what a bad Christmas this is going to be! You see, Mr. President, most of the village folk are waiting for the Ministers and Members of Parliament to return to their villages for the festive season. That is the only time they will have alms from the good politicians so that they too can taste something different from what they are used to!

One of these days the president might also ask the ministers to stop using their four-wheel-drive fuel guzzling vehicles. Indeed, he might even ask them to use public transport to go upcountry. Can you imagine, a Ugandan Minister going upcountry seated in a bus with these ordinary people?

Might the president also stop using his private jet and instead travel in commercial airlines while going abroad? Can you imagine what it would take to have the whole presidential contingent, complete with all his presidential advisors, on one flight?

Yes, I like the idea of cutting back now that we have been exposed, but I am not sure how it is going to work in practice.

Instead, we might as well use our normal bravado and tell the donors what we think of them. Tell them to take away their money, like the president did a while back when donors questioned all the defence expenditure and Uganda told them that we cannot compromise on our security. And that was it. The donors backed off.

The problem is that when the defence budget is cut, we might as well wait for the army to get angry since they will not be paid. That is why when the president was defending the defence budget he said he did not want to see angry soldiers on the street.

It reminds one of those days whenever there was a coup. I am sure those born in the Museveni era will have no idea what it means to witness a coup or an army taking over. But those of us Ugandans who do remember got used to these things. It usually began with some pop-like sounds from the army barracks that surround Kampala. And then Radio Uganda would go silent before starting to play army songs without a break.

With more shooting coming from all directions, it was then that you had to decide to seek safety under your bed (for what it was worth). More shooting, and the Ugandans knew what to do: raid the shops and begin looting. Men who were usually too lazy to lift a brick could be seen carrying two fifty kilogram sacks of sugar, or a fridge.

And when the soldiers began pouring onto the streets, if you had anything, anything, they would simply tell you to hand it over to them. No questions asked. We all knew the answer.

So as we prepare for the tough times ahead, the one institution that must get their monthly salary is the army. They are the ones who ushered in the peace. Otherwise they might just start shooting at us once again.

Regions: Great Lakes Region, Uganda
Type: IRRI Blog