Alupo, Nabbanja US trip sparks outrage

The Permanent Representative of Uganda to the United Nations, Mr Adonia Ayebare (left above), follows proceedings during the 78th United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters in New York City, US on Thursday. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • Many concerned citizens say the billions splashed on allowances and travel expenses for the New York junket should have been ploughed into critical, but financially starved sectors.

Government’s decision to send parallel delegations to the ongoing United Nations General Assembly in New York, US continued to attract outrage around the country yesterday, with angry Ugandans accusing it of financial irresponsibility.

Majority of concerned citizens, civil society leaders and political watchers surveyed by Sunday Monitor pointed out that the billions of shillings spent on the 70-plus officials is money squandered. 

They also wondered how both Vice President Jessica Alupo and Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja were permitted to attend the same UN event, yet the Finance ministry only recently indicated to Parliament that the government is cash-strapped and would be carrying out budget cuts. 

A rearranging of public expenditure, MPs were told, is a necessary part of other austerity measures planned in the wake of the World Bank’s suspension of an estimated Shs1.7 trillion in financial aid to Uganda because of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023.

Attempts to speak to Mr Ramathan Ggoobi, the Secretary to the Treasury and Ministry of Finance permanent secretary, were futile over the last 48 hours. Other relevant ministry officials never answered calls to their known cellphones.

With those difficult realities at the back of their minds, individuals Sunday Monitor spoke to were deeply upset by government’s “reckless” handling of the country’s limited finances.

Many pointed out that the billions splashed on allowances and travel expenses for the New York junket should have been ploughed into critical, but financially starved sectors such as primary health care and education.

Citing the obvious and baffling duplication, Mr Julius Mukunda, the executive director of the Civil Society Budget Advocacy Group, said only a few people would have been enough to represent Uganda.

“We consider this expenditure as nugatory expenditure that we are not likely going to get any return out of,” Mr Mukunda said.

Mr Mukunda observed that “we have lack of coordination among government agencies because the work being done by the prime minister can as  well be done by the vice president and vice versa. So, we didn’t need two very important people in one meeting”.

An equally distressed Mr Filbert Baguma, the general secretary of the Uganda National Teachers Union (Unatu), put the wastefulness into a grimmer perspective, observing that Shs2 billion can pay the salaries of 3,700 public primary school teachers.

Staffing levels remain abysmally low at that level. Available statistics suggest that to achieve optimum staffing for effective teaching, the country must recruit at least 78,888 teachers, ensuring a manageable ratio of one teacher for 40 learners.

“[Considering] primary schools teachers, whose gross monthly salary is Shs560,000 per teacher, you will find the salary of over 3,000 teachers could be paid using that amount of money,” Mr Baguma said.

He wondered what value the officials would bring back home after the ten-day UN meeting. “What is it that they are going to do?” he asked.

Similarly, the Unatu chief said the Shs2 billion would have been sent to local governments, enabling them to deploy badly needed secondary school teachers. 

“We have more than 2,000 secondary school teachers who are supposed to be deployed in Universal Secondary Education schools. They did interviews and were informed that they passed. For one year, they have never been deployed and the reason [government keeps giving] is lack of money,” he said.

Separately, local governments are struggling with so-called seed secondary schools where they exist. Such schools were mostly established from scratch and suffer acute infrastructure and manpower challenges. Those constraints are undermining efforts to improve access to education in rural and underserved poor communities.

Ms Christine Nakimwero Kaaya, the Kiboga District Woman MP, told Sunday Monitor that Shs2 billion would have helped her district realise the seed school dream.

“That Shs2 billion would help establish four seed secondary schools in the sub-counties of Nkandwa, Bukomero, Kayera and Kyomya whose secondary school-going children are learning under ramshackle facilities. It is terrible that in the period we are telling everybody to use whatever they have sparingly, the so-called leaders are using taxpayers’ money for non-essential [trips],” she said on Friday.

Shadow Foreign Affairs minister Muwada Nkunyingi on Friday told a media briefing at Parliament that “amid this reckless, wasteful expenditures… we must protest the government’s selfish and wasteful foreign activities… tilted towards offering leisure for government bureaucrats.”

Also, Ms Angellla Kasule Nabwowe, the executive director of the advocacy group, Initiative for Social and Economic Rights, noted that such money would be better used to breathe life into projects affected by the World Bank aid suspension.

Ms Nabwowe revealed that the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) project worth $300 million (Shs1.1 trillion), for example, is off the table yet it had a pending presentation to the executive board of the World Bank.  Under GPE, government planned to renovate and expand 100 traditional schools.

“We have the problem of World Bank stopping funding Uganda. The little resources we have would be invested in projects that were impacted like the GPE project,” she said.

Ms Nabwowe referred to scores of students still stuck at home a week after the last term of the year opened, unable to pay fees at private institutions. Meanwhile, UPE and USE schools are overwhelmed by large numbers after more parents, facing financial difficulties in the post Covid-19 economic downturn, switched their children to public schools.

Leader of the Opposition in Parliament Mathias Mpuuga observed that Uganda’s struggling public health sector urgently requires an investment of less than Shs7 billion to recruit badly needed medical workers to cover the nearly 50 percent unfilled vacancies in the sector. The New York billions would have gone some way in answering that need.

He also referenced the “shameful” condition in which he found so many government schools he visited during recent countrywide oversight tours. Mr Mpuuga said during his tour, he discovered many schools lacked pit latrines, and furniture and were generally dilapidated.

“The regime has lost control! That’s why the supposed leader of government business (Prime Minister Nabbanja) is at the helm of confusing government delegations. Only a visitor to Uganda would be surprised by the confusion and the propensity to spend,” he said.

Whereas a vast section of the public is enraged by the said trip to the United States, Mr Godber Tumushabe, a governance specialist, said he was not surprised.

“I really believe that this kind of opulence is very characteristic of the NRM regime [because] that is how they spend money, right from the President and the people who work under him,” he said.

During our Friday interview, Mr Baguma also looked at the missed opportunity to settle outstanding arrears at Kyambogo University where the government committed to pay on behalf of National Teachers Colleges (NTCs) -- whose students finished their studies but remain in limbo. 

The university Vice Chancellor, Prof Eli Katunguka in July told Daily Monitor that they had withheld the graduation of thousands of Grade V teachers over the last three years because of an unpaid Shs1.2 billion debt incurred by the colleges. 

These monies were supposed to cover convocation, examinations and transcript fees.

Officials at the NTCs say that whereas the affected students paid the Shs470,000 fee needed to foot that bill to their respective institutions, the monies were diverted to offset operational expenses. They lamented that the Shs1,800 government allocates to each NTC student’s daily upkeep is grossly inadequate.

Amid the stand-off, Ms Ketty Lamaro, the permanent secretary at the Education ministry, said talks are expected with Kyambogo resolve the fate of 3,000-plus teachers.

Until 2003, the awarding institution for qualifications attained at NTCs was the Institute of Teacher Education Kyambogo, or ITEK. However, ITEK was later merged with the Uganda Polytechnic Kyambogo and the Uganda National Institute for Special Education to become a full-fledged university which still awards those qualifications.  

Govt reacts to backlash

On August 29, the Foreign Affairs minister, Gen Jeje Odongo issued an “instrument of appointment” naming Vice President Jessica Alupo head of Uganda’s  51-member delegation to the 78ths Session of the UN’s general assembly focusing on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), among other global issues. 

The VP and Gen Odongo flew to New York from Cuba where they attended the official reopening of Uganda’s embassy in Havana. Upon arrival in New York, it emerged that another 20-member delegation of Ugandan bureaucrats led by Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja was airborne.

Yesterday, the spokesperson for the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM), Mr Charles Odongtho, responded to the public’s outraged disbelief.

“…The numbers attached to the Prime Minister’s delegation has been over-stretched and misrepresented. The fact is that the Prime Minister moved with seven people and not beyond 20 people as Ugandans have been made to believe,” Mr Odongtho said.

Adding: “The prime minister was accompanied by seven people, all of them technical and her security detail.”

He also defended Ms Nabbanja’s presence in New York, saying: “She went because this was the SDG summit and the SDGs are housed under OPM.”

However, information from government sources indicated to this newspaper when we broke the story last week that no official from the SDG secretariat in OPM was on Ms Nabbanja’s delegation. 

It was also established that Ms Justine Lumumba (junior minister, General Duties, OPM), under whose docket the unit falls, travelled on VP Alupo’s delegation, suggesting that OPM’s mandate on SDGs was suitably covered.