Government ministers and members of parliament in the East African nation of Uganda will receive free iPads – on top of their already exorbitant salaries and free automobiles, according to Ugandan media. The New Vision newspaper of Uganda reported that the government decided to hand out the free devices in order to make the business of running government more efficient and accelerate the pace of legislation. With the help of South Korea, all Ugandan government documents will now be available online to quicken the process and eliminate unnecessary and unwieldy paperwork, stationery costs and other bureaucratic snafus.
“No more excuses, all committee reports and ministerial statements will be sent electronically. These tools are for parliamentary business,” said Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kagada. BBC reported that the cost of providing “free” new iPads to all 375 MPs and other ministers will total some $370,000. In addition, all MPs were already granted more than $41,000 each to purchase an automobile. Moreover, in 2012, MPs voted to raise their salaries by 38 percent – to more than $8,000 per month (in a country with an annual per capita income of about $550, according to data from the United Nations).
Naturally, the expenses on this program has elicited some criticism as a waste of precious resources in a country rife with poverty and political corruption. "Taxpayers are already paying too much to take care of their MPs," opposition MP Semujju Ibrahim Nganda told the BBC. Readers’ comments in the New Vision newspaper were more vitriolic. One irate Ugandan suggested that the money could have been more wisely spent to upgrade the country’s roads, schools, hospitals, clinics, etc. “Honestly, MPs [already] get fat salaries and allowances,” another reader vented. “They can afford the 3 or 4 million [Ugandan shillings] it cost to buy an iPad, so why are these gadgets bought for them on top of their very generous allowances? Why are MPs pampered at the expense of the taxpayer? Where is the fairness? I think school teachers and university lecturers need iPads more than legislators who often do not turn up [in parliament] but still get paid.”
Another reader highlighted what he or she viewed as Uganda’s (and, by extension, Africa’s) misguided values and priorities. “Africa owes the West more money than we and our generations to come can pay,” the commenter lamented. “The Black illusion of success is measured by the kind of car we drive and the gadget we carry. When will these MPs make policies that [favor] industrialization where we can make gadgets of our own? We [can’t] even assemble bicycles 50 years after independence?” Uganda’s school teachers and health workers, who have unsuccessfully sought salary increases for the past couple of years, will also likely resent the perks offered to MPs.
Earlier this summer, the profligacy of Ugandan politicians reached a new extreme – the parliament in Kampala entered into talks with an unnamed Chinese company to buy out the debts of government ministers and MPs who were confronting high repayment fees in connection with the loans they took against their salaries. Of course, China is eagerly seeking to develop oil and infrastructure projects in the African country – and critics contended such a questionable financial arrangement between Uganda lawmakers and Chinese firms would only tighten Beijing’s influence over Ugandan affairs. In addition, ordinary Ugandans were outraged that their well-paid lawmakers could not survive on their bloated salaries and needed to take out loans. "It's clear this makes a mockery of Uganda's independence and may not serve the long-term economic interests of the country," a Western diplomat in Kampala told Reuters at the time.
Human Rights Watch recently condemned Ugandan government officials in a blistering report outlining the extraordinary amount of corruption in the country, particularly the embezzlement of public funds. “No high-ranking government official, minister, or political appointee has ever served a prison sentence despite investigations into numerous corruption scandals over many years and an impressive array of anti-corruption institutions,” HRW said in a statement. “[In contrast] activists fighting corruption face arrest and criminal charges.” Corruption has even damaged the efforts of human rights activism and other charitable endeavors in Uganda. For example, HRW cited that donor funds valued at $12.7 million – money designed to rebuild parts of northern Uganda ravaged by war -- was stolen from the Office of the Prime Minister late last year.
“Scandal after scandal, the government’s patronage politics and lack of political will undermine the fight against corruption in Uganda,” said Maria Burnett, senior Africa researcher. “Throughout [Ugandan] President Yoweri Museveni’s 27 years in office, his promises to tackle corruption have proliferated while officials responsible for graft at the highest levels go free.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.