Pay district chairpersons decent money or just allow them to steal safely

Author, Gawaya Tegulle. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • A district leader should earn more than an MP; at worst, they shouldn’t earn less.  

I picked the story somewhere on the sidelines, not from the man himself. When he was going to vie for district chairperson, he went to Pastor Wilberforce Okumu for a blessing. Oh, Okumu pastors a very nice church called Pearl Haven in Mbale City…I think it is the Watoto Church equivalent around those parts.

Turns out Okumu is kind of difficult to deal with; no shortcuts with him and no playing to the gallery. And there are not many like that, these days. He’s a different kettle of fish from pastors who bless known thieves and oppressors, instead of reprimanding them and bringing them to repentance. Okumu said he’d pray for him, but the candidate first had to take oath in God’s name that he would not steal taxpayers’ money. So Sam took oath, then Okumu prayed for him. He actually won that election. 

Okumu being a tough cookie aside, you understand the context better when you consider how much district chairpersons are paid. Except for the Lord Mayor of Kampala, who shouldn’t complain too hard really, the other chairpersons are a study in all things comical. Last I checked, Sam was earning less than Shs2m. But then he was entrusted with managing several billions every financial year as first citizen of the district. How we expect integrity in such a situation beats me. 

If a Member of Parliament takes home Shs30m or Shs40m a month, why should a district chairperson, who has far more responsibility than an MP, earn peanuts?

A district chairperson is for all intents and purposes, a president: he governs a defined territory to whom he has to deliver services, he has an executive (his cabinet) and a legislature (the district council), plus a budget. He has a bureaucracy or civil service (the technocrats of the district) and has further responsibility (collaboratively) in security. The only area outside his domain is the Judiciary; at least on paper. The inefficiency of a district chairperson as an individual has far more consequences than that of an MP. An MP can afford to simply come and sit in the House and say nothing and do nothing, and walk home with Shs40m; and that’s not to mention allowances here and there at the slightest excuse, trips abroad, and so on. In fact the majority of them do absolutely nothing.

The moment a district chairperson tries the same tricks, there will be disaster. In fact, the way Uganda runs now, read my lips, you can do away with Parliament and not feel the pinch: but you simply cannot take such luxuries with district chairpersons, for the simple reason that the State is governed on the basis of decentralisation and districts are the centre of service delivery. Mess with the districts, you’re messing with service delivery. It’s that simple. The average district chairperson is carrying the hopes of the people on his shoulders.

As matter of fact, the only difference between the President and the district heads is that the former is running a much bigger operation, in other words, operating at macro level. And maybe also that he personally runs the security apparatus. That’s all. For starters, a district leader should earn more than an MP; at worst, they shouldn’t earn less.

The only logical explanation for paying district chairpersons so little is that we expect them to steal from the monies allocated to the district. How they do it, is really none of our business. They are supposed to be bright and creative: cream off a huge chunk of the money as soon as it hits the district account - and find a way to account for it. Monopolise the tender processes. Give jobs to your family members. Save monies for yourself through doing shoddy work on projects, or not doing it at all. Just find a way to provide accountability.  And when you are bone broke, ask for a supplementary budget.

If we have embraced decentralisation, then we really have to fund it in a way that makes it work and with a living wage paid to those at its core. Pay district leaders well. If not, let’s allow the district leaders to steal safely…and not prosecute them – as long as they steal reasonably; kwegamba, as long as they don’t take everything. Just a little here and there should be okay. 

Mr Tegulle is an advocate of the High Court of Uganda     [email protected]

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