When Marie Antoinette supposedly used the C-word, it signalled the beginning of the end of not only her life but also of the French Bourbon Monarchy.
The words attributed to the wife of King Louis XVI, when apparently on hearing that the peasants were struggling for bread she replied that “let them eat CAKE”, would be the equivalent today of brushing off a Bushenyi peasant farmer’s struggles or a Kalerwe vendor’s fruitless toils with advice to go buy sausages at Uchumi Supermarket.
It is the stuff revolutions are made of; by and by Marie was to be tried, found guilty and executed by guillotine in the final nail in the Monarchy’s fortunes in 1793. OK, she did not use the C-word, since she spoke not English, but said something like “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”, which even French speakers were not sure translated to “cake”.
And, OK, Uganda is not going to undergo revolution. But the very attitude showed how out of touch the French aristocracy was with the peasants’ hurts and pains. And so it is with similar annoyance last week that many woke up to the news that, where some in Parliament had wanted to reduce the bill for the presidential swearing-in from Shs3.3 billion, the day ended when the proposed cost to the tax-payer had gone up (yes, gone up!) to Shs4 billion.
Out of touch? You bet!
Since the beginning of the year, the price of sugar has gone up from Shs2,500 per kg to Shs3,000. To fill the tank of my car just once now costs what I used to pay in diesel bills for an entire month. I probably can adjust a little better, but how about that boda boda rider in Jinja? Of course my pay has not gone up, and neither have the earnings of the Kalerwe vendor nor the returns from the Bushenyi farmer’s labours.
Tough times call for frugality, and a conscious attempt to show it, but are we getting it?
Back in 1990, my uncle Nuwa Kajubi, a quiet college professor and a Godly man of humble comportment who had a lot of influence on my life, took me aside and said: “I do not see why, if you want to get married, you do not get a friend who has a suit, you also pick your suit from the wardrobe, and then he escorts you and you get married.”
At the time I was not interested in marriage, but his point was that as and when I did, all I needed to do was to have a simple wedding – not the exorbitant spend-fests that our marriage ceremonies have become.
Those were particularly dire economic times, and so are these days. But how are we responding? It is particularly callous of our leaders to spend a cool Shs3.3b on a one-day ceremony when the vast majority of the people they lead are suffering! And more so when the National Guidance minister says, without batting an eyelid, that government had nothing to do with runaway inflation. Are you seriouseee?, as my Physics teacher Mr Zzimbe used to challenge.
Tough times call for frugality. The swearing-in, President Museveni’s 5th, need not be extravagant given that it does not have novelty value anymore. It’s just another day for him. Why, like Mr Kajubi counselled, do we have to spend so much in non-productive conspicuous consumption? Can we not have a modest ceremony, and show the people we lead that we, too, can curb official extravagance? We could just invite the neighbourhood presidents, the 5Ks – Kikwete, Kagame, Kabila, Kibaki, Kiir – who would pop in on the day, and then leave before sunset? Why not? After all, it is unlikely that perennial favourite Kadaffi (Qathafi, Gaddafi, whatever) will make it this time around. He is normally an expensive guest to host.
Rationalising the whole ceremony could bring it down from a whopping Shs3.3 billion to a publicly more acceptable Shs30 million, or less. Showing empathy and sympathy is what true servant leaders do, not doing costly things with impunity.
A modest swearing-in ceremony would not make President Museveni any less secure in office. Actually, anecdotally, many expensive weddings tend to suffer not too far down the marriage road, while the modest ones have an ability to withstand the inevitable storms. Shall we see more empathy from the spend-thrifts (and we have not mentioned the $740m up in the skies) with the economically disenfranchised citizenry?
Out of touch? You bet!
Mr Sseppuuya is the Executive Editor, Monitor Publications