Like con men, a shady government can borrow…and borrow…

Sunday November 18 2018

 

By Alan Tacca

Sometimes it is just another newspaper report in which some notable person has expressed concern about the plight of Uganda’s debt-ridden future citizens. Sometimes it is the main front page feature, as happened last Sunday in this paper.

The emphasis may shift, but the same questions keep coming up: Is Uganda borrowing beyond her ability to repay without causing her future citizens too much stress?

Has the money we have borrowed been spent on goals, and with the focus and frugality of an honest performer?
Once upon a time, there lived in the republic a man called Ezra. Many tales about Ezra were circulated among the common folk and among big men. All told of great wealth.

The fame and power of Ezra grew and grew. At sports stadia, before, or even during a big football match, his arrival would sometimes be marked with a guard of honour mounted by his bodyguards. In Europe, a multinational corporation was reportedly to assemble a big jet aircraft for him.

Then, as mysteriously as he had appeared on the scene, Ezra vanished.
I do not know whether Ezra was a dedicated con man or just acting the part. But if some of the stories about him were true, some were almost certainly apocryphal.

In writing fiction, you could invent someone similar to Ezra, creatively closing the gaps to sustain the character.
In real life, I suppose, it would take a very competent syndicate to sustain the character. Otherwise his longevity in one locale as a glamorous mythical billionaire would probably be measured in months. Then he would have to change identity or move on. A nomad of sorts.

But while at it, larger-than-life con men can usually borrow and guzzle huge amounts of money and juggle their debts without losing any sleep. After all, ultimately, they do not intend to pay the outstanding creditors when their supposed status evaporates.

In some ways, the NRM government has built for itself a reputation rather like that of a syndicate of con men. It pays its debts when it must, and its leaders do not appear to suffer any pain of conscience when it fails or refuses to pay.
Some years back, I remember a very big government man mocking local suppliers of goods and services to government who had not been paid for unreasonably long periods. His comments suggested that the suppliers were foolish. He said he himself did not sell things to the government, because he knew its ways with money.

Uganda’s record with international organisations of which she is a member is a catalogue of delayed and unpaid fees, until threatened with expulsion.
With development agencies and patron powers determined to find little countries to lend their money, it seems natural that a government like Uganda’s has been borrowing money with total abandon and is not seriously troubled by the consequences of failing to pay in future.

Once in a while, some senior official, even the President, expresses concern, but the message does not carry much commitment, and the NRM government cheerfully settles back in its prodigal ways.
On balance, a country may not have the capacity to vanish with Ezraesque stealth, but then, when extremely debt-stressed, Uganda has been forgiven most of its debts in the past. So there is a precedent. All the government has to do is to keep the country and its people poor enough to qualify for such magnanimity. There are potential benefits therefore when a government behaves like a syndicate of con men.

Mr Tacca is a novelist, socio-political commentator.
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