What you need to know:
- From what we have seen this time around, there were some selfies in the chamber and a meeting between the VP and Burundi’s President. Whatever strategic geopolitical discussion they had could have been had in Kampala, Bujumbura or over Zoom for much cheaper.
News that Uganda sent 71 officials to the UN General Assembly annual meetings has drawn the usual snide remarks and a promise of an investigation by the Finance Ministry.
As this newspaper reported, we had not one but two official delegations; one led by Vice President Jessica Alupo, another by Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja.
It is easy to see why people would be upset about the sheer numbers involved. Many businesses are still suffering the trailing effects of corporate long Covid, which punched a big hole through their P&Ls. Others found out the light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train of changed customer preferences or entirely new business models in which their old competitive advantages were handicaps.
Newspaper pages are full of auctioneers fanning the fire sales of financial delinquents, some of whom now find themselves sweeping the streets they used to own. Many jobs shed during the pandemic have either not returned, or have been filled at lower price points.
Inflation has eroded purchasing power and household incomes. Money used to come and go, but these days it goes without saying. Yes, some of us are just jealous (those from Masaka are gerasse!) but to see government officials queuing up to take high-cost, low-return trips is hard to swallow.
One concern is that government spending, unlike that in the private sector, appears blind to financial performance. So officials continue to splurge on First and Business class tickets, some of which cost the same as small hospital X-ray machines, instead of stepping down to economy class where the rest of us fight over armrests.
Last year’s uber Uber bill by the Prime Minister’s delegation, for instance, would never have arisen if they had ditched the Big Apple’s notoriously bad traffic for the subway. But African Big Men and Women cannot be seen riding trains or buses, even if their counterparts from richer countries do so or ride bicycles to work.
The second concern is value for money. During the President’s last trip to New York much song and dance was made about an outfit that had apparently sewn up financing for the oil refinery. We, the sceptics, knowing the individuals involved, thought it too good to be true. The cynics said it reeked of bovine faecal matter. We now know we stepped in it, and can still smell it.
From what we have seen this time around, there were some selfies in the chamber and a meeting between the VP and Burundi’s President. Whatever strategic geopolitical discussion they had could have been had in Kampala, Bujumbura or over Zoom for much cheaper.
Our return on investment, if any, was overshadowed by neighbours who seemed very intentional and better prepared. We came off as participants, not contestants; shoppers, not shopkeepers.
Given the regular nature of these disappointments around every large global gathering bar athletics these days, might it not be time to lower expectations?
In the early twentieth century delegations of local chiefs and notables, mostly from Buganda, every so often made the long arduous trip to England to “see” the land of the White people. They travelled by land, air and sea for several months each way. These were “civilising’ trips; the officials were expected to see and learn and, with any luck, copy some of the things they saw in “outside countries”.
It is not too dissimilar from a bodyguard, aide or official picked today to travel to New York to see for themselves what “omuzungu akolele”. What to cynics is a waste of time and money is, for the individuals concerned and their families, the trip of a lifetime that brings forth stories (and shopping!) to be handed down from one generation to another.
Stories of buildings so tall, their tops suckle the breasts of low-hanging clouds. Or of metallic people-carrying snakes that are sucked into a hole in one end of the earth and spat out at the other a long way off. Massive buildings where all people seem to do is shop, shop and shop until they say, eh!
Strategic partnerships and closing investment decisions can wait! For now, there is a young girl in Teso who sees herself as a vice president one day, and another in Kakumiro who believes she can fly. Democracy dictates that these modern marvels should be shared across the citizenry. Next year we should take 500 and 1,000 the year after; they should just fly economy so we can arm-wrestle them.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.
[email protected]; @Kalinaki