Free iPads: Is it a necessity or mere greed?

Sunday August 18 2013

A man displays an iPad last week.

A man displays an iPad last week. This is similar to the ones MPs want government to buy for them. photo by Geoffrey Sseruyange 

By Yasiin Mugerwa

Food for thought: Leadership is a privilege to better the lives of others. It is not an opportunity to satisfy personal greed - Mwai Kibaki, former Kenyan President.

I have come to realise that greed is a fat demon with a small mouth and whatever you feed it on is never enough.

But when it comes to muddy politics, avarice becomes a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction and without ever thinking about the plight of pregnant mothers who unnecessarily die every day, the suffering of the poor, the jobless youth and the embarrassment of ‘sick’ hospitals.

When I wrote in this column five months ago, that giving free [taxpayer-funded] iPads to well-paid legislators would be another waste of taxpayers’ money meant to improve service delivery, I thought I had proficiently convinced Speaker Rebecca Kadaga and the members of the Parliamentary Commission.

I was surprised to learn that the authorities in Parliament defied public fury and went ahead to sanction the procurement of free iPads for the 386 MPs in 9th Parliament.

I had indicated in the article that the lawmakers they want to give free iPads; some already have these “toys” yet in view of their background, a big number of them actually lack computer skills and most importantly, all of them, including those with colossal debts, can afford to pay for these devices without necessarily bothering the already stressed taxpayers.

This absurdity first came to the limelight in November 2011 when a group of businessmen on the ICT Committee of Parliament tried to smuggle the idea to the Commission, hiding under modernisation of Parliament. Sources at Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the regulator of the communications industry in the country, told me how MPs wanted to divert more than Shs1.2 billion from Rural Communication Development Fund project to buy free iPads.

When the Monitor Team in Parliament leaked the story, UCC executive director Godfrey Mutabazi told this newspaper that it was Parliament that had requested for free iPads, but the spokesperson of Parliament, Ms Helen Kawesa, denied such a request and challenged him to table evidence.

However, it’s not clear how the Parliamentary Commission came to reconsider the same deal even as some members insist that they don’t need “free iPads.” The failure of this gambit was obviously a relief to all Ugandans who feel the burden of sustaining politicians who don’t deserve pampering.

Inside deals
When the Daily Monitor published the story, a kinked staff of Parliament called me, begging that I go slow. When I refused to “play devil’s advocate” in this rip-off, a few days later, a politically connected legislator, a trusted friend from Busoga, told me in confidence that actually, some MPs on the ICT committee were behind the iPad deal. I later learnt that this was not because they wanted the gadgets for cost-cutting purposes but because they were linked to the contract.

I told these people that using taxpayers’ money to buy iPads for the lawmakers who can afford one for themselves, is not only an insult to Ugandans but also despicable.

I am not sure whether the same group is working with the same politicians who were behind the botched deal, but whatever the case may be, any iPad deal that involves the use of taxpayers’ money must be rejected in public interest. With a budget balanced on the backs of the poor amid rising levels of unemployment and poverty in the country, it is obvious that our people already have enough problems. In any case, if the issue is about cost-cutting, let the Parliamentary Commission lobby members to buy personal iPads.

When you hear the cost involved in the iPad deal won by M/s Elite Computers (U) Ltd in total disregard of the public anger, yet just last week, reports indicated that 20 expectant mothers in Napak District had died in a space of 10 days due to lack of transport to Matany Missionary Hospital, then you can understand that either our politicians are out of touch with reality or they simply don’t care.

If indeed, Parliament cares, why is it so difficult to encourage members to buy iPads so that the Shs967.6 million for iPads is donated to Napak, Moroto, Nakapiripirit and Amudat districts to acquire ambulances?
The cost

Besides, each iPad is expected to cost about Shs2.6 million on average but there will be other in-built costs involved. For instance, on top of the Shs2.6m, there will be need for the authorities in Parliament to buy accessories such as SIM cards, cases, earphones, pens, charger stands plus two additional years of warranty.

However, when you calculate the figures based on the paltry Shs260,000 paid to each of the primary school teachers per month, you realise that for every single “toy” a member holds, it can pay salaries for 10 teachers yet in the countryside, big number of teachers and classrooms needed to ensure quality remain a challenge and the poor pay has compounded the situation.

The truth
The argument that Parliament intends to use the same money it has been spending on printing, stationery, photocopying and binding is only half-truth. The whole truth is that even with the procurement of these fancy gadgets for the members who don’t need them, printing, photocopying etc. will not be entirely eliminated. For instance, in the proposed 2013/14 Budget for Parliament, the taxpayer will have to foot a whopping Shs383.9 million for stationery, photocopying and printing.
Martin Luther King Jr is quoted to have said that every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.
Therefore, the Parliamentary Commission needs to know that it’s obliged to make compromises and that the acid test of members’ integrity in this scandalous iPad deal is where they draw the line in terms of what is not up for negotiation in light of the endemic challenges our people face.

Let’s not forget that great achievement is always born of great sacrifice, and is never the result of the selfishness.

HOW MPs EARN

Item Amount
Salary 2.6 million
ASubsistence allowance 4.5million
Constituency allowance Shs1m and above
Mileage Shs3.8million
Extra Constituency mileage Shs2.5m
Town running Shs1million
Mobilisation for ex- Officios Shs5.4million
Medical allowances Shs200,000
Gratuity Shs3.5million
Total Shs20 million
Free vehicle Shs103m each

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