Death by bureaucracy; the futility of playing by the rules in today’s Uganda

Thursday September 23 2021

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE.

By Daniel K. Kalinaki

At the beginning of the year we imported a few items from China worth about $8,000. Although none of the items in the consignment is locally manufactured, the tax bill came to Shs20,000,000, or about 70 per cent of the value. 

That was a kick in the teeth. To add insult to injury, we received notification of the bill while going through a very potholed street in the city – but that’s a story for another day.
The consignment included a small number of solar lights, and the clearing agent called to ask if we had carried out pre-shipment inspection. We hadn’t. This, he gravely announced, was going to be a problem, but one that could be cured by three million shillings, in used notes.

Still smarting from the tax bill, we refused to play along. The items were not for commercial use, were a small quantity, and we were guilty of ignorance of the rules, not of trying to subvert them. We were advised to write to the good folks at Uganda National Bureau of Standards and appeal for a waiver.

Fulsome with praise and being careful to renew our assurances for our highest consideration to their good offices and the thankless job they do to keep sub-standard items off our market, we wrote to the great and good at UNBS confessing our ignorance and pleading for mercy. The response? No. Rules were rules, UNBS followed the rules, as we ought to.

In summary, the rules were as follows: pay a fee to have the goods inspected locally, then take out a bank bond for about five million to keep the goods under lock and key in a private store where we wouldn’t pay demurrage as we awaited inspection. 
Fair enough, rules are rules, right?
Except they aren’t always followed by those who make them. Two weeks after samples of the imported items were taken away for inspection, they could still be seen gathering dust on the floor of the warehouse office. 

When we inquired, we were informed that there was no transport to move them from the warehouse in Namanve to the laboratory in Bweyogerere, less than five kilometres away as the crow flies.


‘What about the brand-new UNBS pick-up trucks zipping around on the streets, we asked?’ but we were met with that insouciant shrug of the shoulders and rolling of eyes that low-level bureaucrats give when the winds blow you into their sphere of power.

So we waited, and waited. And waited. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months. Lockdowns came and went. We waited. Emails went unanswered. Phone calls were neither taken, nor returned. Rules were rules. In the meantime capital lost value, covered in the dust of sloth, entangled in red tape. 
This was an expensive experiment in bureaucracy, but one we were happy to experience first-hand. In a country full of counterfeits, those foolish enough to play by the rules are made to suffer and fill compliance quotas. 

The ‘clever’ ones get away with murder. We could, of course, have thrown a bicep here or there – in fact there are a few people who would have willingly “thrown their bodies there for us” to solve this problem, but most citizens do not have the same clout or access.

These small bureaucratic failures snowball into a culture of mediocrity and unfulfilled expectations. An official promises to call you back, but never does. 
Public servants turn up late, leave early. Plans are not approved in time. Roads take decades to be built. A society collectively drags its feet. Even our descriptions of ourselves slows to mundane mindlessness; we are as-if as-if. There-there. 

Yesterday, exactly seven months to the day since we first engaged with the great and good at UNBS, we emailed them again, and this time got a response. Our samples were ready for collection, as was our bank bond. 

We don’t know if they had been tested, when, what the results showed, and how long they have been ready. If we had imported consumables that had since expired, would we now be expected to throw them away or sneak them into the market?

A good work ethic, highly productive and skilled workers, and rule of law; that is the key to growing out of poverty. If you punish the good guys, you shouldn’t be surprised when the bad guys win.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter. 
[email protected]; @Kalinaki