On November 24, 2010, Yoweri Museveni, incumbent and candidate in the presidential election a few months away, was campaigning in Nakapiripirit District in Karamoja sub-region. At a rally in Nabilatuk County, he told locals their area would be elevated into a district if they voted for him and the ruling NRM party.
“Since the people of Nabilatuk are supporting us, if you want a district, we shall give you a district,” he said to thunderous applause – or, I suppose, much blowing of horns and shaking of ostrich feathers. It worked wonders: Museveni won Nakapiripirit with 94 per cent.
By the 2016 election, however, Nabilatuk was a district only according to the Electoral Commission, but was still half-formed. Residents briefly threatened to vote for the Opposition in protest but once reassured 6,917 out of the 7,121 voted for Museveni.
Their patience was rewarded in July 2018 when Nabilatuk, stated population 68,409, was carved out of Nakapiripirit. Even if MP Bobi Wine was allowed to hold a concert here every other weekend – and he is not – and even if Kizza Besigye was allowed to campaign here every alternative month – and he is not – Nabilatuk will, in 2021, majority vote for candidate Museveni.
Nabilatuk will also remain a poor, semi-arid, godforsaken place where about three out of every 10 people live on less than Shs3,700 per day; fewer than one in 10 has access to a latrine, with one teacher for every 40 primary school children; 98 per cent rural and, until recently, one doctor for 80,000 residents of the wider area.
The people of Nabilatuk will vote for ‘no change’ in 2021 because they are poor. The people of Nabilatuk are also poor because they will vote for ‘no change’ in 2021. Discuss.
This column argued last week that, based on public data, including from the World Bank, interventionist programmes such as Operation Wealth Creation and presidential wealth creation tours had made no impact on meaningfully lifting people out of poverty or structurally moving them along in the value chain of income. The tours are merely political campaigns paid out of the public purse.
The story of Nabilatuk is a random demonstration of what happens to a people when politics is done to them under the guise of ‘development’. Here is a poor, rural and semi-arid corner of the country which could use better public health facilities, schools, and perhaps subsidised irrigation to support ranching. What they have been given, instead, is a district.
Here is how it works: The district status entitles Nabilatuk to at least two seats in Parliament, a Local Council 5 chairperson and executive, as well as a cadre of support staff and a district head office. Overnight, therefore, space for more than a dozen opinion leaders will have been created at the patronage trough.
By the end of the current term of Parliament in 2021, just two MPs from the district would have earned Shs4.8 billion in salaries and allowances. Add the LC5 executive, support staff and other running costs and you are looking at Shs10 billion or more over five years.
This money will not come from Nabilatuk. In its report for 2017/8, the Auditor General’s Office reported that the mother district, Nakapiripirit, had budgeted to raise Shs177 million – yes, million, not billion – from within the district. It only raised Shs135 million. So this is yours and my money, taken to line some local elders’ loin-clothes half a world away.
This would be forgivable if it made a good return on investment. However, keeping the Shs10b figure and assuming the incumbent’s take rises to 9,000 votes in 2021, this still represents a very expensive cost per vote of Shs1.1 million.
So we will end where we started last week. If we mean well we should invest in public goods and targeted interventions that are sustainable and have been proven to work. But if we insist on handing out money then the smarter thing to do is to do away with the edifice of electoral pretense and hand out the whole electoral budget. A million to each of the Nabilatuk voters would make more impact, even from mere demand-side economics.
And as we shall see next week, there are cheaper and more fun ways to elect the president and MPs. Some, believe it or not, even toy with the idea of being honest with voters!
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org