Tuesday, May 31, 2011

What's in the news?

So what has been happening in Uganda while we've been sunning ourselves on a Zanzibar beach?  Quite a lot actually. We came back to some interesting news stories, so here's a selection of what we read about last week.

Firstly, Kizza Besigye seems to have given the police the slip, so Saturday's Daily Monitor reports. You may recall the long-running conflict and personal antipathy between Besigye of the opposition FDC and President Museveni, which poisoned the election and then erupted onto the streets. Well, the walk-to-work appears to be over. We also had a ride-and-hoot (bang your saucepan, blow your whistle) protest which appeared to drive the authorities frantic - so much so that the police have been attempting to track down every single car which is believed to have honked its horn at 5pm. In a surreal move, they published lists of the registration numbers of some of the guilty cars (62) and motorcycles (72) in New Vision. We were even told that they had arrested a man for laughing while the honking was going on; however we haven't checked whether that story was true. I wonder if the police tape-recorded culprits hooting, which the New Vision says they would need to do if they are to arrest them under the National Environment (Noise Standards and Control) regulations of 2003. If so, how do you distinguish between one horn and another? Quite important to know this as the maximum penalty is reported to be Shs18 million (roughly US $4,500) or 18 months in jail.

Besigye himself was put under 'preventive' house arrest, under the Criminal Procedure Code, a law which The Independent said was originally made by the British to suppress Ugandans agitating for independence. People living in the vicinity of his house have been suffering as well: roads have been blocked with spiked strips and the police have been camping out in every spare corner, even, we are told, in people's private compounds. To no avail: Besigye outwitted them on more than one occasion and, the Daily Monitor reports, finally managed to get as far as the airport and board a flight to America, for 'medical treatment'. The Independent reported that earlier, on May 16, police mistook his wife Winnie for Besigye himself and towed her car (with her in it) to the police station, only to discover she was on her (separate) way to the airport  to board the flight taking her back to the USA to resume her job at the UN. Somewhat embarrassedly they claimed that this action was part of a routine check on third party car insurance.

As a result of what appear to be perceived by the authorities as police failures, both New Vision and the Monitor report that a number of officers have been suspended from duty - basically for showing too little enthusiasm during the ride-and-hoot campaign. Well, they don't seem to have been photographed 'caning' anyone for the last few days and the death toll remains at 10 (though with hundreds injured or behind bars, of course). Oh, and before I forget, the police commander who was in charge of the arrest of Besigye (you remember: pepper spray, beating, being dragged face down down and squashed into a police pick up - that arrest) is apparently being recommended for promotion. The last time this police officer reached public attention, according to John Kazoora, a member of FDC writing in the Monitor, was when he was recommended for prosecution for corruption and abuse of office in 1999.

So, Besigye's out of the way, but not before the government made what some newspapers interpreted as serious attempts to bring in detention without trial: a proposal that the Constitution be amended to remove the right to bail for violent crimes (rape, murder, treason, that sort of thing) .... and also the misdemeanour of 'economic sabotage' (a term often used as a synonym for 'protest', also called 'rioting'). The implications of this amendment were that anyone deemed by their activity of walking-to-work to be discouraging people from trading, could be slapped into jail for six months with no right to ask for bail. The amendment was opposed by the Uganda Law Reform Commission, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Solicitor General.  Even MPs felt uncomfortable about it as it goes against the presumption of innocence. The amendment was eventually rejected by Parliament, so the Sunday Monitor reports. The general view expressed by columnists in The Independent and Daily Monitor, reporting statements made by MPs during the debate, was that it was not very fair for the civil rights of the population as a whole to be affected by what was seen as a clumsy attempt to get Besigye and his mates behind bars. As the MP for Kawempe South put it, 'Innocent people cannot suffer because President Museveni has problems with Dr Besigye. The President should not use the Constitution to fight personal wars.'

The British haven't been getting a good press here recently, either. Firstly, in one of his widely reported speeches the President included the BBC with the Daily Monitor and Al-Jazeerah in giving too much coverage to the rising fuel and food prices and hence being 'enemies of Uganda's recovery'. The Resident District Commissioner of Arua then accused the UK in the presence of the British High Commissioner and the USA in the absence of theirs, of funding the protests, a contravention of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961) which allows foreign envoys to carry out their functions without harassment. The editorial in the Monitor described his outburst as a 'rant'. The British High Commissioner walked out of the meeting, not something that often happens. In an interview with BBC's Network Africa, Henry Bellingham, the UK's Minister for Africa,  requested that President Museveni be 'statesman-like and rise above any moves against the opposition.' According to the Daily Monitor, these comments were dismissed by the Deputy Principal Private Secretary to the President as 'idle' as Mr Museveni 'does not need lectures on governance.' The UK is one of Uganda's key development partners and biggest aid donors.

Anyway, we have a Parliament full of virgin MPs, all licketty-splick and shining new. I said 'full' and I meant 'full'. The last Parliament (the eighth, though only five, I think, have been elected) had 284 elected MPs. The new ninth Parliament has 375, a number which will probably go up to 400 or so once the non-elected MPs are added. The number of Cabinet Ministers has also gone up from 21 to 29 and the number of state ministers from 41 to 47. These numbers matter to taxpayers.

Apparently, according to the Independent, each MP receives  a monthly salary of Shs2.6 m, a subsistence allowance of Shs4.5m, a constituency allowance which varies but is about Shs3.2m, a mileage allowance of Shs3.8m (or Shs5.5m, depending on the source), extra constituency mileage of Shs2.5m, town running of Shs1m (or Shs1.6m), medical allowance on average of Shs200,000 and a gratuity of Shs3.5m. The total comes to about Shs18-21 million per month (approximately US$9000). Multiply these figures by 375 MPs and you get a monthly figure of about Shs8 billion. Similar figures for salaries and allowances are given in other newspapers like The Observer, though the exact amounts they report may differ slightly. The salary quoted does not include payments for the ex-officio MPs or for air tickets, meals, accommodation and various other transport allowances. It also doesn't include the Shs190m which each MP receives for a new vehicle. Vehicles for the Speaker and Deputy Speaker cost Shs419m each.

Oh, and one thing I forgot to mention was that the MPs, Opposition as well as NRM, are claiming that with 14% inflation (April), their pay is insufficient and they want a rise of an extra Shs4 million. They also want taxes on their new cars to be removed and a Shs50 million advance. The Observer reports that many MPs are trying to get bank loans 'to settle campaign related financial obligations and maintain a desired standard.' An advance would mean that there was less need for a loan. Actually, no one should know any of this information about MPs' salaries: New Vision and other newspapers report that the journalists were thrown out of Parliament when they were being discussed.

We have been hearing about various Cabinet appointments and replacements, including a new Education Minister about whom we don't know very much yet except that she's young, female and used to be a lieutenant in the army. The new Minister for Finance and Economic Planning, Maria Kiwanuka, is already getting a good press. Dr Mulera, a regular columnist for the Monitor, says that she 'is one of the brightest women of our generation with great expertise and extensive experience in local and international business and finance that should stand her in good stead'. She has a major task in getting Uganda's economy back on track. The new Health Minister is Pastor Christine Joyce Dradidi Ondoa, a consultant paediatrician, who is reported by the Daily Monitor as having done some impressive work 'turning around Jinja Referral Hospital.' The Parliament also has a new Speaker, Rebecca Kadega, the first woman to hold this post. So, good to see so many strong women in post. Perhaps unexpectedly, Uganda has a new Vice President Edward Ssekandi, who appears to command cross-party support. The Monitor reports Mike Mukula MP, who nominated him, as saying, 'The new Vice President is a man who has stood the test of time, a man of integrity, a man of ability and above all a man who humbles before God.' Quite a number of Ministers who were implicated in corruption scandals have been dropped, though the new Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi,  still appears to have a few question marks over his name, according to the Monitor.

However, back to the inflation rate which has been bothering the MPs, leading to their demand for higher salaries as compensation. Inflation is a problem right across East Africa, with food and fuel prices affecting every country. Today's BBC Network Africa report on Kenya reported very high price rises for food.  Kenya has, however, reduced fuel tax to try to deal with some of the problems. However, not all countries are affected to the same degree. Uganda is particularly badly hit, with price rises affecting food, fuel and health disproportionately. The image below, taken from Mark Jordhal's blog, while relating to prices back in February still presents some of the issues quite clearly.

UGprices Inflation in Uganda
Image from

How is inflation affecting ordinary citizens? (The figure for May is  16%, with the food inflation figure  about 39%.) Well, in particular, they are finding it difficult to pay school fees as their modest incomes have to cover significant increases in fuel and food (the trigger for the walk-to-work protests). Schools (especially boarding schools, of which there are many), are understandably also raising their fees to cover the huge increase in the price of food. Some basic foods are said to have nearly tripled in price since the new year. Rises in school fees are being implemented despite instructions from the government to the contrary, though obviously private schools have more flexibility in this than government schools (though the latter often also have boarding costs to consider). The school fees story received a lot of coverage in all the newspapers, New Vision, Daily Monitor and so on, a couple of weeks ago when term started, probably because it affects so many families. What everyone is concerned about is the potential impact on enrolment and attendance. The first stories about some children not returning to school are just beginning to trickle through to the press. Remember, about a third of Ugandans exist on less than $1.2 a day. That is less than $32 a month. Compare that with the $9000 earned by MPs.

Oh, and one more story which may or may not have anything to do with inflation. According to the Daily Monitor, the Centre for Governance and Economic Development has reported that children in Terego County - in Arua in the north, where education is receiving particular attention because of poor PLE and UCE results -  are boycotting classes to hunt rats.  Apparently they taste good.

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