KIZZA BESIGYE: To Save Lives, Uganda needs to restructure its COVID19 Response

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Rtd. Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye (Courtesy Photo)
By :
Kizza Besigye

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The hallmark of any country’s sustained development rests on setting the right priorities (plans and policies) and having efficient governance machinery to implement them.

Priorities ought to be set by the people to whom they apply and who provide the resources to be used. That’s why Parliament (House of People’s Representatives) has this critical role. That’s also why Parliament has an oversight role over the Executive, which has the implementing machinery. Parliament is supposed to get accountability of all government functions on behalf of the people.

Should there be any disputes in the functioning of the above arrangement, the third arm of Government, the Judiciary, would come into play to resolve the dispute.

At the heart of Uganda’s socioeconomic problems that have been laid bare by the COVID19 pandemic is the total dysfunction of the political arrangements spelt out above.

The historic challenge of the Ugandan State (and most African States) is that the Executive (President) has predominant power. The President sets priorities and implements them as he wishes. In the very unlikely event that the Judiciary (which he carefully selects) rules against his actions, he can ignore their ruling or force a change of it.

To stamp his authority over the other organs of Government, Mr Museveni, has variously deployed armed forces to attack and intimidate these institutions. He has publicly threatened to scrap them.

The constitution of Uganda that enshrines the State structures and separation of powers has been wilfully violated innumerable times. Huge sums of unbudgeted money has been taken out of the Government Bank account (Consolidated fund), on orders of Mr Museveni, without the knowledge or consent of Parliament, as required by the Constitution.

Regrettably, instead of Parliament asserting its power, in the interest of the people it represents, it surrendered its roles to the Executive (President) in return for some personal benefits of its members and leaders.

The State of Uganda is, therefore, under total capture by Mr Museveni and elements of his forces. They use our resources as they please.

It’s decades of wrong priorities and unaccountable governance that’s responsible for the huge challenges that COVID19 has exposed: a grossly undermanned, underequipped and under-facilitated healthcare system; lack of reserves in Bank of Uganda to cushion people’s welfare under lockdown; lack of food reserves; over-dependence on imports etc.

CURRENT SITUATION:
What has been going on with public finances since end of last year, and, more so, since the COVID19 lockdown, is most scandalous.

Since December last year, huge and unexplained amounts of money have been provided as supplementary budget under State House Classified Expenditure or “Classified Expenditure” under Ministry of defence.

Since Dec 2019, STATE HOUSE has received Shs 252.2 billion in Supplementary provisions for “Classified Expenditure”, on top of the originally budgeted Shs 68.1 billion.
TOTAL STATE HOUSE CLASSIFIED EXPENDITURE IS SHS. 302 BILLION!!

Since Feb 2020, MINISTRY OF DEFENCE has received Shs 800 billion in Supplementary provisions for “Classified items”, on top of the originally budgeted Shs 225.4 billion.
TOTAL DEFENCE CLASSIFIED EXPENDITURE IS SHS 1,025.4 BILLION!!

Ministry of Internal Affairs, Uganda Police, Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and External Security Organisation (ESO) also received supplementary budgets for “Classified Expenditure” amounting to 4.6bn, 17bn, 4.9bn and 16.9bn respectively.

Therefore, under State House and Ministry of Defence (Classified Expenditure) alone, we have provided over Shs 1.3 trillion during the time COVID 19 has been raging!

Under Sec 81(2)(g) of the Public Finance Management Act, the Minister of Finance is required to make regulations governing how “Classified Expenditure” would be accounted for. Up to date, no such regulations exist! Therefore, there are no known ways of establishing how “Classified Expenditures” are budgeted or accounted for.

There are, already, quite unsettling reports about how this money is moving and to what purpose it may be destined.

Over Shs 2 trillion was spent on “Classified Expenditure” in Dec 2010, without the knowledge or mandatory authorisation of Parliament. A part of that money was eventually responsible for the 30% inflation that followed the 2011 elections. BOU Governor Mutebile should have gone to jail for this, and other unconstitutional expenditures he has authorised.

It seems that the BOU has been a little more “careful” this time. Uganda Government secured a loan of Euro 600 million against which these expenditures are being made. Secondary, the government this time went to parliament for “approval” of the supplementary budget.

It was during the processes of “approving”’ these “dubious” expenditures, that the MP demanded “something small” for themselves also. Hence the Shs 10 billion that has rubbed the country the wrong way.

By this time, Mr Museveni had also completed the process of assuming (illegally) Emergency powers and excluding all except his chosen cronies to be a part of managing COVID-19 programs.

MPs sensed danger of being undermined and a possible backlash from their constituencies. They passed a resolution halting the process of food distribution until the modalities were discussed in an inclusive manner. This was trashed and food distribution commenced under the tight grip of Mr Museveni and cronies.

It’s likely that Mr Museveni saw the opportunity of deflecting the mounting anger/hunger and anxiety of the locked-down population onto the naïve (and money-minded) MPs- hence allowing the Shs 10 billion. Goat’s ears were placed on MPs heads, so that the leopards can eat them. This happens quite often but it seems they never learn.

The Shs 10 billion supposed to be shared by MPs is as unjustified as it’s disgusting. However, it should not deflect us from the main problem- Mr Museveni’s unchecked and grossly misdirected use of our money.

COVID 19 CHALLENGES & WRONG PRIORITIES:
The problems posed by COVID-19, both short and long term, are immense. The pandemic came when Uganda already had serious challenges in the Health Sector and the economy was itself on a life support.

The immediate priorities should have been:

1) Quickly support and prepare the healthcare system, to the extent possible, to confront the pandemic. This would include planning, staffing, training, revising pay packages, equipping, ensuring needed supplies, expanding facilities, COVID-19 testing and surveillance, research and development etc.

2) Support the actions to curtailing spread of virus- including programs for getting School children safely home; supporting hygiene measures by providing necessities- soap, water, disinfectants etc; spreading out food markets and supporting their hygiene; decongesting prisons; removing taxes on rent, communication, mobile money, etc; food and welfare support for vulnerable communities during lockdown (welfare centres should have been established all over the country) etc.

3) Supporting businesses that were immediately impacted by the lockdown with relevant subsidies, loan restructuring etc.

Plans and provisions for the post-lockdown recovery are vitally important, including:

1) Supporting education institutions and parents in re-opening schools. Parents’ capacity to pay school fees will be seriously curtailed.
2) Provisions for and management of economic stimulus programs.
3) Further investments in the Health sector.

As the lockdown days drag on, more and more people are going to die from hunger, lack of emergency health care, non-Covid19 health complications, and God forbid, if Covid19 escalates, it’ll be a disaster of unimagined proportions.

CLASSIFIED EXPENDITURE:
What’s the Shs 1.3 trillion “Classified Expenditure” supposed to buy that’s more urgent or important than saving the lives and livelihoods of our people?
It’s not conceivable that Uganda is preparing for a war in the current circumstances. Even if that were the case, healthy people would be needed to fight or support the war.

Mr Museveni cannot be on TV every other day to beg for food and Pick-Up trucks as preparation for a war! The only conceivable pursuit that’s consistent with Mr Museveni’s character is that of using the COVID-19 pandemic to further entrench himself in power. It’s likely that the crisis has been used to stash away public funds into a war chest for the next “election”.

It’s also likely to be the reason for clamouring to get pick-up trucks and not PPEs for healthcare workers, Ambulances, ICU beds, Ventilators (for artificial breathing often needed by COVID patients), COVID Testing Kits, etc, which are highly needed now.

Indeed, if he wanted, he could mobilise enough vehicles from government departments that aren’t functioning now. His own fleet could cover a third of the requirement. He is equipping his RDCs for a different mission. Saving lives and the welfare of Ugandans isn’t a priority for Mr Museveni; his preoccupation is the perpetual hold on power.

WAY FORWARD:

1) Shs 10 billion provided for the MPs should be put in a COVID19 PANDEMIC FUND that Parliament should set up and structure.

2) The Shs 1.3 trillion (or whatever remains of it) should be recalled to the same fund.

3) The approved budget for all departments of government should be revisited to reallocate whatever is possible to the Pandemic Fund.

4) Parliament should urgently consider the setting up of a non-partisan, all-inclusive, National COVID19 Administrative Task Force that has the force of law and with overall responsibility over COVID19 coordination of administrative functions. The Task Force should include representatives of the Business Community, Farmers, CSOs (NGOs), IRCU and Political Parties. Members can chose from amongst them a non-partisan leader. The National body should set up corresponding bodies in the Districts.

5) A COVID19 Professional Task Force, consisting of relevant professionals should be set up to guide on scientific approaches to controlling the pandemic.

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Besigye, is a former president of the Forum For Democratic Change

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