Not so many years ago, President Museveni and Hajj Abdul Nadduli (who needs no introduction) used to encourage mothers to beat the proverbial champion, the rabbit, at breeding.
For Nadduli, it seemed that more children meant bigger stronger tribes. For Mr Museveni, more children meant more economic actors in tomorrow’s Uganda: more producers and more consumers. It all sounded very simple, but possibly mistaken.
Anyway, on his campaign tours, the President would cheer up his peasants with calls that they make more children and take them to him to educate under his UPE programme. That was before USE came along.
I do not know why UPE (Universal Primary Education) is equated with the idea of education as a freebie. Because, I believe, you can have a policy and a law compelling all parents to send all their children to primary school and have them pay for the service, with penalties for breaking the law; that would be universal education.
You can also have a situation like Uganda’s, where most of the children get enrolled, but can spend their school days playing and looking for mangoes before they drop out to do something more meaningful to them than going to school, without anybody getting punished.
In Pader District, for instance, the P7 completion rate is 26 per cent for enrolled boys and 17 per cent for girls. (See Daily Monitor, March 31). When you consider the quality of education received by even those who complete in depressed parts of the country, this is universal primary education only in name.
The NRM has a problem. Okay, there is the widely sung discipline of its soldiers (compared to the excesses of Obote’s and Amin’s armies), which does not mean that the UPDF is spectacular, but is now rated more like an average African army.
But the NRM has such a patchy record as a ruling and governing entity that it has almost only the shoddy UPE and USE to show off as goods for the people.
The propaganda has been so persistent that UPE has grown into something of a sacred cow. Even among its harshest critics, few are bold enough to demand the right thing, its abolition.
First, for serious (not necessarily rich) parents, UPE is not free. They put into the education of their children much more money than the government pays as “school fees”.
Secondly, for lazy, backward parents, UPE is free and that is it. Education is the government’s responsibility; they are not going to spend on anything related to school. Without much luck, their children are likely to form the bulk of the unenviable “UPE products”.
The same parents also remember that they do not have graduated tax to pay. What a free ride!
Now, what if we cast primary education in a different responsibility and reward system? All youngsters must go to school. Instead of pouring billions of taxpayers’ money into this huge corrupt enterprise, parents pay. Disobedience means Gen Kayihura brings out, (or turns a blind eye to) the Kiboko Squad. Organised parent resistance means tear-gas. Okay, okay… the courts.
Peasants et al would work harder and produce more to meet the challenge. Better for the economy than today’s parasites. Also, with a direct stake in the system, they would put more pressure on school administrations to deliver quality education.
They might also think harder about the old Nadduli-Museveni fertility gospel of going one better than the rabbit.
Secondary school: The cases that have passed the P7 hurdle have achieved something. Reward: a subsidy, especially since secondary school is generally more expensive than primary.
At both levels, special disadvantaged parent and student cases can get full government bursaries.
The money saved on abolishing UPE and USE would not be for furnishing President Museveni and Premier Mbabazi’s political needs, but for funding higher education, which is tough for many parents. Degrees, vocational training and so on.
Since most of the useless brats have been weeded out, more of the cash at this stage could be “free”; the politician’s word for taxpayers’ money.
Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator