Colonial salaries were far better than Museveni’s

Sunday September 18 2011

By Alan Tacca

If the present chaos in the formal employment sector persists, President Museveni might end up featuring in our newspaper cartoons as a strike extinguisher. How was the great visionary blindfolded and led to this pass?
In the 1990s, during the huge farce about restructuring and liberalisation, and when the West was hyping Museveni as one of its favourite African poster children, Uganda was flooded with “projects”, “programmes”, “commissions”, “authorities” and what have you, whose roles replaced or overlapped with the work of the traditional civil service.

All these new arrangements were largely financed by loans and grants from international organisations. By Ugandan standards, the foreign technocrats who headed them got fabulous salaries. Locals scrambled and schemed to migrate from the traditional civil service and get onto a special project. A political god-parent was always an advantage. The informal apartheid aside, they, too, were handsomely remunerated.

Gradually, Ugandans took control of most of these bodies. So you had the head of a quite ordinary coffee, cow or decentralisation project earning more than the minister of agriculture – if the minister did not steal from the project! And you had a chief tax collector paid over Shs30 million per month, while the permanent secretary at the ministry of finance got around Shs2 million – before he raided some soft target under his docket to compensate himself.

For anyone who cared to look, this was unsustainable and potentially explosive. Instead of providing tough corrective leadership, President Museveni allowed runaway inequality to lure him into his present trap. MPs and ministers raced up their salaries (almost stealthily), and the regime fabricated a rack of new ministerial slots, new districts and more parliamentary seats, most of them parasitic.

Now, what if, say, the President has one of his so-called “trusted cadres” earning around Shs20 million at the Uganda Revenue Authority and he wants her to seize the capital city from the elected (opposition party) Lord Mayor; how much do you pay her? If it is a demotion, maybe you pay her just above the Town Clerk, which is far below Shs20 million and might be unacceptable to her. If it is a promotion, perhaps you pay her over Shs20 million, which is unacceptable to all the other workers at the City Council. In the event, completely without shame, the lucky city Executive Director has said she was asked by the President to propose her own salary! Her demand note: Shs43 million per month.

Of course, the extravagance at State House and the corruption in his government have eroded the President’s moral right to talk about a more equitable society. But now he has school teachers, university lecturers, health workers and (watching quietly) soldiers and police personnel on his plate. Most of them are paid slave wages, and they want a solution.

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Uganda was governed by British colonialists for almost a century. Casual wisdom would suppose that the colonialists had more income inequality than Museveni. Sorry; look again: Just before independence in 1962, the office cleaner, the porter – the lowest government employee – was earning Shs150. Excluding the governor, the highest-paid employee got around Shs6,000. Professors, medical consultants, ministers, permanent secretaries, district commissioners, boarding secondary school headmasters; all those senior people (Ugandans or white expatriates) were in the relatively narrow bracket between Shs2,500 and Shs6,000. Full primary (P6) school teachers got about Shs400. University graduates in teaching and most other government jobs started at around Sh1,300. A doctor got Sh1,700. All annual increments were predictable.
Let us compute: The highest official (Shs6,000) got only 40 times as much as the porter (Sh150), and less than five times as much as a fresh university graduate (Sh1,300).

Under Museveni, the lowest office attendant gets about Shs150,000. A primary school teacher gets Shs260,000, and a fresh university graduate in teaching or mainstream civil service gets about Shs450,000. A fresh doctor gets about Shs600,000.

Up to that point, the ratios are close to the colonial model. But above Shs2 million, salaries have become wildly arbitrary. With Shs30 or 40 million per month, each of the best-paid government officials hauls away 200 times as much as the lowly officer gets in his slave pay packet. This has far-reaching socio-political implications; because, however packaged or disguised, the wealth being dished out comes from the collective effort of our people. Glancing at the colonial salary ratio of fourty-to-one, the departed British governors must be smiling in their graves.

Mr Tacca is a novelist and socio-political commentator. altacca@yahoo.com