Deputy Speaker’s newly-procured Mercedes Benz parked at Parliament this week. PHOTO/ FILE


Luxury cars for leaders: Necessity or profligacy?

What you need to know:

  • Two days after news of the acquisitions of new Mercedes Benz vehicles for the Speaker of Parliament and her Deputy broke, President Museveni showed up at Kololo where he gave the State-of-the-Nation address in a new Mercedes Benz.
  • Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja and Vice President Jessica Alupo also have new wheels, writes Isaac Mufumba.

The purchase of new Mercedes Benz vehicles for the Speaker of Parliament, Ms Anita Among, and the Deputy Speaker, Mr Thomas Tayebwa, at a cost of Shs2.4b has as expected, sparked off public outrage.
The Mercedes Benz S500 is outfitted with a 429-horsepower turbocharged and supercharged inline-six engine, a nine-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive.

The website, describes the vehicle as one that claims the “top spot in the super luxury car class, thanks in part to its mix of interior quality, seating space and comfort, poised driving dynamics, and cutting-edge tech and safety features”.

On Tuesday, two days after news of the acquisitions by Parliament broke, Mr Museveni showed up at Kololo where he gave the State-of-the-Nation address in a new Mercedes Benz believed to be a Mercedes-Benz Maybach S 680 4MATIC.

Details about the President’s new wheels remain scanty. Mr Godfrey Ekanya, who is a member of the Presidential Affairs Committee of Parliament, said the committee had dealt with matters around the President’s transport, but could not give figures.

“I think we provided for new cars for the President. I would need to check in order to get the actual figures,” Mr Ekanyas said.

However, the prices for the 2022 Mercedes-Benz Maybach range from $380,198 (Shs1.4b) for the basic trim level SUV Maybach GLS600 4Matic to $574,000 (approximately Shs2.2b) for the top of the range Sedan Maybach S680.

And Mr Museveni was not the only one arriving in new wheels. Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja and Vice President Jessica Alupo also have new wheels.

Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja arrives in her ceremonial car at Kololo Independence Grounds on June 9, 2022. PHOTO/ MICHAEL KAKUMIRIZI

Whereas money has also been spent on a new car for those officials too, there has been hardly any public reaction to what was acquired for them. The same cannot, however, be said of the news about Parliament’s acquisitions.

A lot of vitriol has been directed at Parliament and it is understandable. The argument is that MPs live among us, shop in the same places and suffer the same vicissitudes of life as the common man and should, therefore, have known better than okay such an expenditure.

Animal Farm reincarnated
Someone took to social media and equated the acquisition and Parliament’s defence of the same to submission that Squealer made in defence of the pigs’ consumption of milk and apples as captured in George Orwell’s book, Animal Farm.

“It is for your sake that we drink the milk and eat those apples. Do you know what would happen if we pigs failed in our duty? Jones would come back! Yes, Jones would come back!” Squealer who was in charge of propaganda at the farm submitted.

The goings on in Uganda strike a chord with what happened at Animal Farm after the ouster of Mr Jones. It would appear that government officials are telling the country that it is in the populace’s interest that cars that cost billions and many more millions to maintain are being acquired.

The actions are very much in contrast with the rhetoric that the country was treated to in the early days of NRM.

Preachers of water turn to wine
It looks like a tale of people who used to preach water turning out to be guzzlers of huge amounts of wine.
In 1986 when NRM/A had just shot its way into power, Mr Museveni preached frugality. He travelled in a black Mercedes Benz that he inherited from the Milton Obote and Tito Okello days.

His ministers too travelled in Toyota Laurels, while top army commanders and Resident District Commissioners (RDCs), then known as Special District Administrators (SDAs), travelled in Land Rover Santanas.

It is difficult to place a figure at exact point in time when the changes began, but by 1996, the President was travelling in a white Mercedes Benz Cross Country while ministers and other high ranking government officials rode in Mistsubishi Pajeros.

President Museveni is seen in one of his two limousines for the first time in 2012 at the Kololo Independence Grounds during celebrations to mark 50 years of Uganda’s self-rule. The two armored limousines were estimated to cost Shs6b. PHOTO/ FILE

Since around 2012, we have had an assortment of presidential cars, including Land Cruisers, two armoured Mercedes Benz Pullman cars that cost Shs6 billion and the Maybach GLS600 4Matic. Why would a President of a poor country whose citizens are groaning under the weight of inflation be allowing such expenditure?

Prof Paul Wangoola, a former member of the National Consultative Council, which served as Uganda’s Parliament following the ouster of Idi Amin, argued in a previous interview that Mr Museveni is indifferent to the suffering visited upon Ugandans by high commodity prices because he is insulated against what most Ugandans suffer.

He refers to the provisions of the Emoluments and Benefits of the President, Vice President and Prime Minister Act of 2010.

The law provides for chauffeured cars, security; medical treatment for self and family, a fully facilitated State House and air travel and education for up to four biological children. He also is provided with money to donate.

Under the circumstances, Prof Wangoola says, the President has enjoyed freebies for so long that has over the time become detached.

“He is too comfortable to understand what is actually going on. If he wants more money he simply has to tell the minister of Finance to table a supplementary budget. A person who has been living such a soft life for nearly 40 years cannot appreciate the outcries of a people who are being bogged down by such high commodity prices,” Prof Wangoola argues.

Long motorcades
The size of the presidential motorcade is more than 10 times what presidents Amin and Milton Obote had.
Mr Henry Kyemba writes in the book, State of Blood that Amin often drove around without escorts or bodyguards, while Obote moved with a convoy of not more than four vehicles, including a lead car. Mr Museveni’s motorcade is, therefore, the longest presidential motorcade that Uganda has had.

Other government officials switched from Pajeros to Land Cruisers. Parliament has now followed suit.

In defence of Parliament
Rubanda District Woman Member of Parliament Prossy Akampurira Mbabazi, who is also a member of the Parliamentary Commission, defended the purchase saying it had been made with the approval of the Parliamentary Commission.

“The decision was endorsed by the parliamentary commissioners and money to purchase the two vehicles was approved,” she explained.

Ms Mbabazi further expresses her disappointment that the public is inclined to look at the vehicles as items that both Ms Among and Mr Tayebwa will carry along with them when their tours of duty at Parliament come to an end.

“I don’t know why people are taking it as if it is her car; that is a parliamentary car and once they leave office, they will not take these cars home,” she said.

Whereas it is easy to see where Ms Mbabazi is coming from, it is also not difficult to see where the public is coming from.

The 11th Parliament has already shown signs that it would not be out of its reach to make to the effect that the two principals can take the cars with them when their tenures come to an end.

In January, following the death of the Governor of Bank of Uganda, Tumusiime-Mutebile, Bukooli Central MP Solomon Silwanyi tabled a proposal suggesting that the official residence of the governor in the upscale Kololo area be donated to the family of a man who had been one of the highest government employees with a monthly salary of Shs53.3m and a raft of allowances.

Mr Silwanyi argued that Mutebile had worked for government for a long time and may have left the family with nowhere to go, a bizarre argument which Ms Among and a host of other MPs seemed to support.

Under the circumstances, would it be out of the league of a Silwanyi or any other MP to propose that it would be good if Parliament supported the Ms Among and Mr Tayebwa to get befitting means of transport since they will have served as Speaker and Deputy for a long time?

Ms Mbabazi would have you believe that the purchase of cars was necessary. She argues that the cars that Ms Among and Mr Tayebwa have been using are old, having been used by their predecessors in the 9th and 10th Parliament.

“The current cars [for the Speaker and Deputy Speaker] have been here for more than 10 years and once they get old, it is reasonable to get other cars for our Speakers,” she says.

President Museveni in his official car in the 1990s. PHOTO/ FILE

The problem is that whereas the public appreciates that the Speaker and Deputy Speaker are entitled to proper and befitting transport, there is no evidence to suggest that the so called old cars had proved to be an impediment to their execution of their duties.

Most important though, is that the decision to purchase new cars came at a time when the people who pay the taxes that they are spending are crumbling under the weight of high commodity prices.

Mr Julius Mukunda, the executive director at the Civil Society Budget Advocacy Group (CSBAG), says that the timing of the implementation of the decision of the Parliamentary Commission was wrong.

Besides, Mr Mukunda argues, Uganda has so many other pressing issues, especially in the areas of health, education and roads infrastructure to be spending such huge amounts of money on such cars.

“Have we reached that level to procure such vehicles in the banana republic? What signal does it give when we say we need to be frugal? We need to have value for money considering who we are as a country,” Mr Mukunda told Sunday Monitor.
The recommendation by most economists, including those from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has been that government needed to check its profligate expenditure especially on non-priority and non-productive sectors, especially at a time when the shilling has been losing ground against the dollar and other currencies.

The recommendation has always been a reduction in public expenditure. Cars would in that event not be on the list of items on which to spend money on. Convincing the ordinary taxpayer that this was case of necessity pushing their hand and not profligacy is always going to be a hard sale.