Ugandans are up in arms after Parliament budgeted Shs67.7m on burial expenses for each MP who dies.
It seems what made this particularly difficult to swallow is that a few a days earlier the same Parliament had passed a budget of more than Shs 64 billion for the purchase of vehicles for MPs of the 10th Parliament.
At the rate Parliament is going, it might not be surprising if next year they introduced a wedding allowance for the single MPs who get hitched – or veterans who divorce and remarry.
Outrageous as these things are, however, they are fairly common even in private companies.
What is telling is how Parliament has decided to deal with. It is a smart thing to prepare for death. In Africa, perhaps the people who do it best are the South Africans.
There are about 19 million South African adults who are insured (50 per cent of the population), but the majority are only insured for funerals.
Our Parliament should have borrowed a leaf from there – make reforms that grow the insurance market and buy funeral insurance for MPs. It is cheaper, and some of the money could actually go to their families.
And that is the interesting point here, why don’t the MPs do that? The answer leads us to something bigger than Parliament.
In the early days of The Monitor, a bunch of us six idealistic guys owned it. It seemed the right thing to do to have a car allowance for the directors, who were also owners. It was our money, after all.
In 2000 Nation Media Group bought into Monitor. The “historical” directors’ car scheme remained, but it changed into an interest-free loan. It was not just because we no longer owned everything the issue went to fundamental differences about the way “old” Kenyan capitalism and Uganda’s post-1986 variety viewed wealth.
Old Kenyan money thinks the best thing is to make a company profitable, pay the owners a handsome dividend from the profit at the end of the year, and they can buy a car of their choosing. Also pay workers good bonuses, and from it they could retire their loans, including the cheap car loans.
At base, what they fundamentally changed were the incentives.
Now, theoretically, they focused those who were minded to work toward profitability and growth, because it was the only way they could get the dividends and bonuses.
We shall not judge today how that turned out, but these differences are not small. Today, I am doing a media startup again, and I would not even dream of going for the model we used in our early inexperienced years at The Monitor.
At the political level what is happening in Parliament is not much different. To appreciate it, let’s go back to the making of the 1994-95 Constitution.
Though it was leftist in its thinking about “giving power to the people” in the Resistance Councils, when it moved to the centre and embraced free market economic policies from 1988, the NRM maintained the logic of the people being at the centre of things, and owning the factors of production.
The 1995 Constitution thus declared, for example, in a rarity for Africa, that the land in Uganda belongs to the people!
It was a specific concept of citizenship – that Uganda, its economy, and so forth, was what its people, not the government or the rulers, made it. Truly revolutionary stuff.
In recent years, we have seen a big reversal. A re-growth of the state, an attempt to roll back even the people’s rights over land.
Compare for example that by the end of the 1990s, there was a consensus of sorts that our ethnic make-up and the geographical areas where we lived needed to be united as markets.
That has changed now, and instead we have a record 116 districts, tribal hamlets. The majority are new, and some are undermining the idea of a national market for goods and services (Kiga labour is chased from Bunyoro because they are bafuruki). We were supposed to be sovereign entrepreneurs in that business market. Today the main market that exists is the political market. Most young Ugandans don’t know a rich man or woman who didn’t start by stealing from the government or a State parastatal (or NGO), or made money doing anything else other than selling stuff – or air - at inflated prices to the State.