The story of URA and why Doris Akol had to be sacked

What you need to know:

  • Pushed out. Against this background, Ms Akol’s position was increasingly becoming untenable. She could not resign, of course. We do not do resignations in Uganda.

With news about the rampaging coronavirus still grabbing headlines, it has been difficult to pay attention to other important developments happening in the country.
Last weekend, for example, President Museveni fired the head of the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA), Doris Akol, but the chatter on social media about the sacking was rather muted. People continued talking about the coronavirus.

Ugandans tend to revel in the sacking of people holding plum jobs. Part of the reason, I think, is that many people are not employed and can only dream of the fat salaries people in high offices earn. That creates jealousy, which drives the animated conversations about sackings, especially on social media.

Ms Akol’s sacking did surprise some Ugandans given the fact that the media has variously described her as one of the powerful Ugandan women who are in the good books of the President.

When her contract was renewed in September 2018, the minister of Finance, Matia Kasaija, told Daily Monitor: “The board and I recommended that her contract be renewed [for another four years]. She is doing a good job and, with some modification, she can do better.”
Ugandans at least expected her to complete her contract.

Her predecessor, Allen Kagina, another powerful woman close to the President, was in the job for 10 years, and she remains URA’s longest-serving Commissioner General.
Edward Larbi Siaw, the Ghanaian who was the founding Commissioner General, held the job from 1991, when the URA began life, until 1997 when Elly Rwakakooko, who had previously served as the chairman of the defunct Uganda Commercial Bank, took over.

Stephen Besweri Akabway, a former chairman of the Electoral Commission and ex-deputy Commissioner General of the URA, served in acting capacity from 2000 until 2001 when a Swede named Annebritt Aslund—she passed on in 2013—was hired. Her contract was not renewed after Justice Julia Ssebutinde, who chaired a commission of inquiry into corruption in the URA in 2002, recommended that she was not fit to run the tax body.

Kagina then became the chief taxwoman, and going by the President’s public comments, she ramped up revenue collection. The URA apparently did well under her leadership.

If that is true, Ms Akol had to either match or surpass Kagina’s record to prove to her boss that she was doing a great job.

A few days after Ms Akol’s dismissal, I watched a clip from a 2019 video on YouTube in which she was speaking at an event organised in Kampala by the African Tax Administration Forum, an organisation that works on taxation across the continent, and where Mr Museveni was the guest of honour.

She said that the URA had challenges taxing digital businesses, but when the President responded to her comments, he seemed to make light of those challenges, indicating that Ms Akol was probably giving lame excuses.

Mr Museveni has sometimes praised the URA for doing a good job, but some of Uganda’s development partners insist Uganda is collecting less tax revenue than its neighbours in the region and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

A 2018 World Bank Economic Update for Uganda (11th Edition) was damning. It assessed Uganda’s domestic revenue performance and concluded that the country was “doing poorly compared to its peers and its potential”.

According to the report, Uganda’s tax-to-GDP ratio is just under 14 per cent—lower than the ratio in neighbouring Kenya (18 per cent) and Rwanda (16 per cent). The tax-to-GDP ratio is also below the broader COMESA and sub-Saharan Africa averages.
The report noted that Uganda has the potential to collect revenues of above 20 per cent of GDP over the medium term.

“Reforms are required to put the revenue-to-GDP ratio on an upward trajectory so that Uganda moves towards its potential, and raises sufficient resources to finance its growth and development priorities,” wrote Diarietou Gaye, country director for Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda in a foreword.

Against this background, Ms Akol’s position was increasingly becoming untenable. She could not resign, of course. We do not do resignations in Uganda. People dig in and wait to be pushed. And pushed Ms Akol was—finally.

To be fair to Ms Akol, she cannot be blamed entirely for the URA’s perceived underperformance. As Christina Malmberg Calvo, who was World Bank country manager for Uganda at the time the report was released said, making more people and firms pay their taxes rests on improving delivery of public services, something Ms Akol and the URA have nothing to do with.

The writer is a journalist and former
Al Jazeera digital editor in charge of the Africa desk
[email protected]