Over the past few days, democracy watchdogs have joined members of the public to demand that Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and the over 400 Members of Parliament she leads return the money they allocated to themselves in a COVID-19 supplementary budget.
Whereas it is clear that each MP will pocket Shs20m, the purpose for which the money was approved has remained vague. Initially Speaker Rebecca Kadaga said the allocation would foot fuel bills for Parliament’s ambulances used by the Ministry of Health (MoH). It would also be used by MPs in relaying COVID-9 preventive messages on local radio stations in languages widely understood in constituencies, and for oversight of the pandemic activities.
But different MPs seem to want to use the money for different things. First, there is a category of few legislators who have sworn to return the money, branding the allocation an act of corruption they say they are not willing to partake. These include Mityana Municipality’s Francis Zaake Butebi and Kyadondo East’s Robert Kyagulanyi. But these, both members of the People Power pressure group, have been criticized for being populists. For example, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) Spokesperson and Kira Municipality MP Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda observes that on many occasions “some MPs make a lot of noise and say they will return the money and it only ends on social media; they are not honest.”
Ssemujju and other MPs who have vowed not to return the money argue that as MPs, they have several demands from constituents.
Kampala Central MP Muhammad Nsereko says he got thousands of requests for help from the vulnerable poor on the day it emerged that each legislator would get Shs20m to help fight Covid19.
He has since decided to give half of the cash to medical workers in his constituency and send at least Shs10,000 via mobile money to 1,000 vulnerable families in Kampala Central since President Yoweri Museveni banned politicians from distributing food rations.
Like Ssemujju, Nsereko, says the money is just a drop in the ocean. Billions would be needed if he were to feed all the hungry people begging for salvation from starvation.
“On a daily basis, I continue to give donations of nearly 5 million shillings. This [Covid19 allocation] will not stop me from continuing to offer help. I also know many MPs have also done the same or even more. I salute them all. Let everyone judge their own legislator not all of us in a batch,” says Nsereko.
From the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) camp, MPs have fronted different ideas on how to spend the Shs20m. State Minister for ICT and National Guidance Peter Ogwang says the money will help health centres in Usuk County, and the rest will go to the Katakwi District Covid19 taskforce.
“I will withdraw it all and first of all purchase Infrared thermometers for all the Health Centre IIIs in Usuk County, that is Akoboi, Aliakamer, Usuk, Aketa, Ngariam, Ongongoja and Palam. The infrared thermometers will be an addition to the two infrared thermometers that I donated to Katakwi main hospital and Katakwi main market last month,” wrote Minister Ogwang after news that the legislators would receive the money started spreading.
“The rest of the money will be planned for by the District COVID-19 Taskforce who will guide me on what they deem is urgently needed to help in combating the spread of COVID-19. So the balance of the money will be pushed to cater for the activities as guided by the district Taskforce.”
These variations on how different legislators planned to spend the money clearly showed that Parliament had not briefed MPs on the purpose of the allocation. Consequently, Kadaga told MPs “the issue of the Shs10bn is an issue of the Parliamentary Commission.”
“Members should not continue talking about it because you don’t know about it. Allow the commissioner and the speaker to speak on your behalf. It is not your business; just go on with your lives,” she guided the House.
CRITICIZE OTHER LOOTERS TOO
But the Commission and Speaker face an uphill task in defending the controversial allocation. For instance, a circular by Local Government Ministry Permanent Secretary (PS) Benjamin Kumumanya has punched holes into Kadaga’s claim that the cash would be spent on fuel for ambulances. According to Kumumanya’s April 14 letter to all Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs), at least 40 per cent of the Shs165m sent to each district should be spent on fuel.
Such realizations are emboldening Ugandans to voice their disregard of the ‘selfishness’ exhibited by MPs.
One of these is vocal cleric Fr Gaetano Batanyenda. A Parish Priest at Kitanga in Kabale Diocese, Fr Batanyenda criticised the legislature for seeking to enrich themselves when Ugandans were starving. He also wondered if Parliament’s problem was Speaker Kadaga.
Kadaga’s response to Batanyenda seems to suggest that there are ‘bigger fish’ in the corruption league, and critics like the ‘outspoken man of God’ should not only concentrate on MPs but also other entities that had benefited from the Covid19 supplementary budget.
“Please take an interest in the following supplementary expenditures: Ministry of Health -Shs104 bn, Ministry of Defense – Shs77bn, Ministry of Local Government – Shs36bn, Ministry of Disaster Preparedness and Refugees – Shs59bn, KCCA – Shs2bn, Ministry of ICT – Shs6bn; you are quiet on [those] looting state resources,” Kadaga responded to Batanyenda on Twitter.
PETITION TO MUSEVENI
Meanwhile, from writing protest letters to Kadaga to statements condemning MPs, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have insisted legislators must return the money.
In its protest note to Kadaga, the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU) argues that “MPs awarding themselves sh20m per head portrays greed and insensitivity of the legislators towards the poor people they purport to represent, struggling to find a meal a day in the face of a lockdown that is being implemented by ruthless security agencies.”
CCEDU’s counterpart Civil Society Budget Advocacy Group (CSBAG) has gone as far as sending an open letter to President Yoweri Museveni, urging him to block the Shs10bn package for MPs, use the money to do more tests, and boost other vital interventions in preventing further spread of the respiratory disease.
According to CSBAG Executive Director Julius Mukunda, if the money has been disbursed to MPs’ accounts, it should be recalled.
“Parliament should discuss with the Ministry of Finance, if they need facilitation for COVID-19 response; this facilitation should be justifiable and discussed in Parliament as required and resolved,” advised Mukunda.
However, a frosty relationship between the Presidency and Parliament could see CSBAG’s proposal gather dust on the shelves of rejected letters. Recalling the money could further complicate relations between Kadaga and Museveni, and might also expose more institutions “looting state resources” as the Speaker seems to suggest in her response to Batanyenda’s disparagement of Parliament.
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