Let Ugandans secure their future

Emilly Comfort Maractho

What you need to know:

  • Perhaps it is time to privatise NSSF, and allow a committee chosen by savers to be in-charge of recruiting its CEO rather than a minister appointing one, recommended by the Board. And that the Board would be selected through a process that savers are comfortable with, free of government influence. 

The early 1990s came with incredible promises. After years of chaos and decay in the 1970s and early 1980s, the capture of power by the National Resistance Army in 1986, celebrating its entry this week, was seen by many as the saving grace for Uganda. It was supported with hopes running high, and the promise for a fundamental change.

But the main change would come in the 1990s. Liberalisation was a game changer in Uganda’s recovery.  The neo-liberal reforms that government introduced, supported by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, among others, were somewhat transformative. The big issue was that government was a bad business ‘man’. It succeeded at nothing. Thus, the private sector held the key to economic miracles we were badly in need of. 

Off we went, downsizing the public sector, increasing provision of private sector services and decentralising government to the local levels, where people would be at the centre, not government. True government by the people for the people, from the grassroot, where participation is supreme. Selling of state parastatals and disbanding others was the norm.

For instance, while Uganda Commercial Bank and others were sold for what is now considered peanuts, others such as the Uganda Electricity Board, was split into smaller entities that government would be able to manage, given their strategic importance.

With that, Uganda Electricity Distribution Company Limited, Uganda Electricity Generation Company Limited and Uganda Electricity Transmission Limited were born. Well, it may seem now that government might be regretting that decision by seeking to return those entities to their mother, Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development. Even the strategically created Rural Electricity Authority has gone home. 

It is, therefore, not far-fetched to say, the diagnosis that government was a bad business man, still stands. If the happenings at National Social Security Fund over the years is anything to go by, we should be asking that government is left with only a regulatory role in the Fund. 

Perhaps it is time to privatise NSSF, and allow a committee chosen by savers to be in-charge of recruiting its CEO rather than a minister appointing one, recommended by the Board. And that the Board would be selected through a process that savers are comfortable with, free of government influence. 

The thing is, for most hardworking Ugandans in the formal sector, the thing between them and abject poverty after retirement is NSSF. That is when they can dream of building a house. Killing NSSF would ruin many lives. 

Ugandans need to be allowed to choose their social security savers. There will be those who behave like government and treat their clients badly, but for the most part, being allowed to choose would solve many problems.

We cannot be an economy that has liberalised to the point that even government will often remind us that their hands are tied in answering economic questions of the day, yet not allowed to determine the institution we secure our future with. Like children, the government must make that choice for us, to stick with NSSF and go to others as an extra thing. 

I get it, we must be forced to save, because left to our own devices, there will be no saving for most of us. But we should be allowed to pay the price, like most of us ending up in ruins come old age, probably begging on the streets of Kampala, unable to return to our villages, the places we forgot while we worked in the city or elsewhere. It is hard to protect adults.

Many of us sound surprised that there are “issues” at NSSF. We bought into this false narrative that government may be bad at doing many things, institutions rarely function as they should, but some like NSSF are insulated because of the integrity of its chief executive. 

There must be deeper issues that we ordinary mortals cannot understand. In a country where asking difficult questions of our public officials who are not used to scrutiny can create big problems for painting them as corrupt , even for journalists and media houses, we must be seeing the proverbial tip of the iceberg. 

That is why, reducing the role of government to regulation and giving us the right to choose who to save with is not a big ask. Despite demonstrable transparency at NSSF, it is incredibly opaque, if the current emerging issues are anything to go by. 

The state may focus on social protection of vulnerable groups. That is what the likes of Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development should concern themselves with. The NSSF is perhaps too big for an underfunded ministry to supervise  making the temptation to ask for some ‘ka money’ inevitable. 

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.                       

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