Journalist Joseph Kabuleta one time remarked – curiously in a sports column – that in Uganda, a lead government-leaning newspaper would print a headline, “$10b missing in ministry x,” and nationals would walk past newspaper stands like nothing had happened.
Business as usual.
“It is government money,” many will say half-interestedly. “Those guys… anha … they have really eaten,” some will exclaim.
Kabuleta sought to demonstrate how not simply laidback and unimpressive Uganda’s public was, but also the fact that average Ugandans do not appreciate the connection between their pains (starvation, poverty, disease, poor infrastructure) and the ways in which they are governed. The government exists separately, and they also exist on our own.
See, there is no agitation for better public service delivery (education, health, public transport – it is all mediocre). There are no sustained campaigns demanding answers when public resources are robbed or simply illogically allocated. Except some scattered incoherent noises.
Sadly, it is not uncommon for half-educated political commenters to laugh at Ugandans legitimately crying out, “twagala government etuyambe,” often when afflicted by natural calamities.
Twagala government etuyambe is a legitimate plea, but many idiotic opinions consider this laziness. No wonder, the government of Uganda has treated Covid-19 lockdown relief supplies as a favour to Ugandans, thus taking its time to deliver. They also chose they also have a select group of recipients – although the lockdown was non-discriminatory.
But this meek and complacent attitude of Uganda’s political public – the ordinary tax-paying folks – and the simplistic stupidity of our so-called “public intellectuals” – laughing as twagala government etuyambe – speak to a rather deeper predicament.
This predicament is not individual but, rather, structural. It is policy-induced stupidity. I locate this state of public inertia in two complimentary moments in our recent history: (a) 2005 the abolition of direct taxation, specifically graduated tax, and (b) 1980s structural adjustment programme, which pulled governments out of the markets and effectively privatised livelihoods.
These were not simple market-driven events, but deep cultural shifts. They gave birth to new consciousnesses, which sadly anesthetised political publics. They not only individualised hitherto collective publics, but also turned them into passive spectators to their clearly egregious exploitation. Let me demonstrate these more vividly.
The pain of structural adjustment is not simply the corrupt-ridden dismantling of cooperatives and parastatals, which actually ruined many economies – as had been predicted.
It is neither the absurdity of governments abandoning key public goods and services, leaving them in the hands of ordinary folks. It is the culture it created: “You Are On Your Own.”
Being on one’s own even in things clearly so big for a private person became a normal consciousness. This is why we hire private security guards for our homes (even when we proudly hail Museveni for “giving us” sleep). This is why private health clinics are in big business, even when Mulago national referral hospital now has four branches.
See, how does a national referral hospital such as Mulago, expected to offer a public good because Ugandans pay taxes have a private wing – supposedly for better-quality service? It is simply ridiculous. Private schools are flourishing because of the same mindset. And like Mulago hospital, Makerere University is struggling with a tuition challenge.
It is stuck in terrible split identity – as a public, but also as private institution. Against these failures, NGOs are flourishing, and NGOs and CSOs have sadly turned the smartest brains in the country into rich idiots. Also dumb and laidback. Everyone is on their own. Government owes us nothing, and we demand for nothing.
Then enter indirect taxation: Picture this; you earn a gross salary of Shs 2.5m, and Pay as You Earn (PAYE) is 18 per cent. This is about Shs 450,000 in real terms.
So, you walk to your designated ATM machine and withdraw Shs 450,000. You then amble you tired frame to another
bank or kiosk and hand it over to a chap dressed in a URA uniform. You expect nothing in return but a receipt acknowledging tax payment to
the government of Uganda.
Or a simple mobile money operation the same way we pay for OTT. And you will be doing this for 12 months a year. Yes, the fact that many Ugandans will default on this arrangement underscores the fact that whoever will be patriotic enough to pay it, will definitely demand accountability from Museveni’s government.
They would never allow Museveni to have Shs 2.5 trillion of this as “classified” budget. But they pay this tax without seeing the money, nor realising it. They negotiate their salaries with phrases such as, “how much after tax?”
Indirect taxation has elixired nationals in countries with lower literacy rates into long daytime slumber while their governments loot them with wanton abandon. Indirect taxes came to Africa too early to be appreciated. Although it is hailed as an easy way of collecting taxes – and a lot of it – the cost on our political public is overwhelming.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.