Saturday April 5 2014

If Uganda didn’t need foreign aid, why have we been getting it then?

By Bernard Tabaire

The chorus is still on. It is a din. We can do without foreign aid. They can keep their aid. Uganda does not need aid. Uganda is a sovereign country. It is a mantra, recited from up there where President Museveni reigns down to the intolerant bishops and pastors and on to the lowliest of bigots.

We will have our anti-homosexuality law; they can keep their dollars, pound sterling, and euros. The great custodians of Ugandan (read African) sexuality and culture proclaim.

We heard it all one more time last Monday at Kololo where some Ugandans gathered to denounce fellow Ugandans who happen to be homosexual. It was as if passing the stupid law against homosexuality was not evil enough.
Anyhow, if we did not need aid, why have we been receiving it all along? Has it just occurred to us suddenly that we no longer need foreign aid? Why do we declare we do not need aid only because those who give us the aid are complaining about our behaviour? The petulance is so inane it is embarrassing.

Of course we need aid. That is why we have been taking it for decades. That is why we are taking it today. If we truly do not need aid anymore, let us say no to all aid – not just aid from the Western countries that are “imposing there (im)morality” on us. Let us say no to Chinese aid, to Russian aid, to South Korean aid.

If President Museveni had solemnly announced that we did not need aid anymore in calm times like, say, five years ago, I would have believed him.

Truth is we do not need foreign aid. About a decade ago some top people in Finance were saying Uganda at that point could reduce foreign aid as a portion of the budget to about 17 per cent from a percentage that was in the 30s. That would essentially mean saying bye-bye to donors.
That could only happen if the URA collected all the money it had to in taxes and the money was not only not stolen, but used efficiently as well. Now, while our GDP is expanding, tax revenue as a percentage of GDP has been stagnant for a decade-plus. Right there the problems begin for the posturing haters in Kololo and elsewhere.

Theft of public money is a universal thing. Elsewhere they jail the thieves, on top of recovering the loot. In China, well, they shoot the dogs. In Uganda, for purposes of political patronage and continued stay in power, we mollycoddle our crooks and criminals.

The auditor general, according to media reports, is saying in his latest report that officials in Uganda recently stole Shs300 billion of our money. In fact, the amount may be double that.

As in places like Nigeria or Kenya, government officials initiate perfectly sensible big money projects such as establishment of a national ICT backbone, but with eating embedded therein.

Even an auditor general as intrepid as John Muwanga will miss that theft. Auditing here is a post-mortem exercise. We need to catch the thieves at the creation moment.

Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka once said to a group of journalists that Uganda has trouble designing, costing and implementing million-dollar projects. This could be a function of weak capacity. But that is not the entire story. I suspect Madam Minister knows that.

Poorly designed projects, lost time, cost overruns, incompetent contractors (the Northern Bypass is the epitome) are almost entirely avoidable in Uganda only that some people, starting with our dear permanent secretaries, wish these things to happen. That is how they eat. Their good life comes from stealing from projects that should benefit all or most Ugandans.

That is where our tax money and donor money is ending up. But who cares. If we had been doing the right thing all along, we would drive our gays underground in peace. We would be a truly sovereign people.

And we would not have to posture about aid. A salutary thing is that we will (Museveni will) now really work hard to fully pay our way.
Before we get there, however, there are questions demanding answers.

What are the consequences of donors withholding aid? Where are we going to get the money to plug the hole left by disappeared aid money? Shall we increase taxes or introduce new ones or both? Shall we cut back on different government projects? What is the impact on healthcare, education, tourism, agriculture, etc.? How many people will be affected and how? Who is going to be held responsible for any and all consequences? Anyone who has no answers to these questions should shut up, not start cuddling gays, but just shut up. Okay, not really. But you get my point.
Mr Tabaire is a media consultant with the African Centre for Media Excellence