An election victory is a moment of celebration—and a moment of uneasiness for many members of parliament.
First, they borrow to run an election campaign. When they win, they stake their salary to borrow more money to save their mortgaged property. The worst nightmare for a lot of MPs is the piles of constituency demands for cash and help.
Interviewed for this story, many lawmakers said they are overwhelmed by the financial demands for assistance. Budaka County MP Arthur Waako Mboizi said voters think lawmakers are constituency property. He said MPs are not seen in the realm of representatives, who are supposed to deliver vital information, that should channel development and service delivery.
“They load everything on MPs, from meeting burial expenses to taking children to school to making contributions to churches, mosques, and others. “The law is very clear; ambulance services are a preserve of the government, but you find that a lot of ambulances have been bought by MPs,” he told The Observer.
He said voters call on MPs for every small need. People think MPs earn jackpots.
“You borrow money to run an election. When you win an election, you use your salary to borrow more money to save your property. Our voters don’t know that. When you start earning, they say you have forgotten [them], yet they took your money in the campaigns,” he said.
“We have become absentee landlords in our constituencies. You can’t dare go to your constituency unless you have a real hardened heart to tell these people the truth. You either go at night and leave very early in the morning or stay in Kampala. They converge on your compound by 5am. This has killed the moral fiber of society,” Waako said.
Whoever started this game of dishing out money to voters must reverse it, he said; otherwise, this country is going down and we shall never recover. People have refused to work and are looking to MPs for assistance, he said.
“People must change their mindsets. They should stop waiting for handouts. People are becoming useless in their societies. It is good to increase MPs’ salaries, but that will not solve the problem. When salaries are increased, voters will know, and the burden will pile up,” he said.
He said presidential donations should end. People should be encouraged to work. They shouldn’t get things for free; they should work and earn their money, he said.
“We hear the president and the prime minister have donated this and that. As government, we borrow a lot of money, and some people are donating it to whoever they want,” he said.
“I don’t belong to that school of thought; I don’t donate money. Don’t vote for me because I can’t become a charitable organization. People must learn to work,” he said.
Established shortly after independence in 1962, the parliament initially had 92 members. That number has since increased to 120, 319, 375, 426, and 529 legislators in the 2021-26 term.
The core role of MPs is to pass laws, lobby for, and monitor government services in their constituencies.
Through various parliamentary committees, MPs scrutinize government programmes outlined in the State of the Nation address and fiscal issues such as taxation and loans. Earlier this month, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament (LOP) Mathias Mpuuga said MPs are overwhelmed by constituency demands. He said MPs are asked to do what the central government should do for Ugandans.
“On my desk, I received a request from a member of parliament for my contribution to put streetlights in his constituency. It’s either an admission of government absence or MPs abdicating their duty and taking on other people’s duties,” he said.
“If we can stand together and demand that services are delivered and the money we appropriate is used properly, then you will enjoy your job and not run away from your constituencies. If you decide to cover for your party, you will continue suffering, and please die silently,” he said.
Mpuuga further argued that there is no way parliament can convene a session without the prime minister, Robinah Nabbanja, and without a statement from her on the order paper.
“When a government is run like a WhatsApp group, a junior minister rises to speak when there is a government chief whip,” he complained.
Nakaseke Central MP Allan Mayanja Sebunya said; “We want the government to meet its obligations. If it upgrades health centers like Nakaseke and Kikamulo health center III, then there is no reason for MPs to step in and fix those facilities. The government should upgrade roads.”
He said if government is keen on improving service delivery, then MPs wouldn’t have to build maternity wards, schools and other things. Mityana South MP Lumu Richard Kizito said MPs are overburdened because the government has failed to do its part.
He said Kenyan MPs are given constituency development funds of about Sh4 billion to meet constituency needs. They are also given staff and vehicles. In Uganda, MPs are given a salary and fuel, he said.
“I meet burial expenses, grade roads, and pay school fees. Voters present all sorts of problems, hoping that I have money. When you look at what I spend and my salary, you will be surprised. I use that little money to help my people,” he said.
“What we are doing is not sustainable, and that is why most of the MPs are so poor. They can’t sustain themselves for a month or two without parliamentary salaries. Whoever comes out of that parliament remains poor because voters ‘ate’ all his money,” he said.
“Every month; I spend more than Shs 3 million on burial expenses. In general, I spend Shs 15 million on sick people, school fees, and other expenses. We remain with very little money to sustain ourselves. I do that to consolidate my support in the constituency,” Lumu said.
Lumu added that the constituency development fund should be reinstated. That fund, according to Lumu, should not be given to MPs but to staff in the constituency. Shs 500 million should be allocated to each constituency. Buvuma County MP Robert Migadde Ndugwa said when voters see or hear what other MPs are doing in their respective constituencies, they think that is what an MP is supposed to do.
“An MP’s salary is Shs 11 million before taxes; we take home Shs 6.2 million. The other money, that we receive is supposed to go toward buying fuel to go to our constituencies, and that depends on where you come from. We are really overburdened because, unlike other government employees, we service our vehicles, pay drivers, personal assistants, secretaries, pay rent for offices in our constituencies, and others,” he said.
“We meet a lot of costs in our constituencies. We service ambulances, burial expenses, school fees, and others. Voters look at us as local service providers, funeral service providers, and others,” he said.
Last year, female legislators decried the growing financial burden constituents place on their purses. These concerns were raised at a three-day retreat organized by the Forum for Women in Democracy for first-time female MPs under their strengthening citizen’s engagement in elections program held at the Lake Victoria hotel, Entebbe.
The MPs said whereas some of their male colleagues are reelected without becoming charitable to their constituents, women are forced to contribute a larger portion of their purses to their constituents to buy their way back to parliament. A 2015 survey on election financing found that parliamentary aspirants in 2016 spent 10 times more than candidates 15 years ago.
The survey by the Alliance for Campaign Finance Monitoring (ACFIM) explored the relationship between money and voters’ choices. ACFIM advocates increased transparency in the practice of financing political parties and election campaigns in Uganda.
Approximately 146 MPs were chosen at random from among the 275 directly elected non-ministerial MPs. According to the findings, MPs spend an average of Shs 4.6 million per visit to their constituencies. Clustered in four regions, the survey found that MPs from western Uganda are the biggest spenders, at Shs 6.1m per constituency visit.
These are followed by MPs from the east (Shs 4.6m), central region (Shs 4.5m), and northern Uganda (Shs 2.4m). On the basis of political affiliation, members of the ruling NRM spend a lot more than their independent or opposition colleagues. NRM MPs average Shs 5.3m on each constituency visit, Shs 2.5m more than their opposition colleagues.
A veteran legislator was quoted as saying that MPs are judged in their constituencies by how much they give.
“People think that they should keep on milking you... And if you don’t do this, in the eyes of the voters, you have not performed,” the unnamed MP said.
Afraid of losing their re-election bids, the legislators admitted that they are forced to finance projects that are not part of their responsibilities. Apart from addressing the individual financial needs of constituents, MPs are also burdened with requests for contributions to projects such as construction of churches, mosques, schools, and other communal projects.
The MPs spent an average of Shs 36.7 million in 2016 each in contributions to such projects, according to the survey. MPs from western Uganda still led, with each averaging Shs 45.9 million in such donations. Eastern legislators spent Shs 35.7 million each in contributions to communal projects, Shs 15.3 million more than what each of the MPs from the north spent.
On communal services such as ambulances, boreholes, feeder roads, bridge repairs, public schools, or health facilities that should be the responsibility of government, each of the MPs spent an average of Shs 38.3 million in the previous year. Ironically, ruling party MPs trailed their independent colleagues in making contributions to such projects.
According to the survey results, independent MPs spent on average Shs 85.6 million, more than double what the NRM MPs offered. The burden is mostly borne by MPs from the east, who on average spend Shs 60.9 million, followed by their central region colleagues at Shs 43.6 million.