“But the spectacle of cash-in-a-sack donation by an incumbent President ridicules the dignity of the recipients and denigrates the office of the presidency.”
They spend their days wallowing in Kampala’s oft-murky suburbs in a desperate search for scraps. Their emaciated bony faces are a ubiquitous presence on Kampala’s streets, greeting hundreds of drivers and passersby as they doggedly beg for money, food and menial jobs. During the day, they jostle for your business on the streets, some despairing for just USh100 ($0.05) to buy something to eat; and at night, their sleazy, insecure hideout exposes them to perilous situations involving sexual harassment, gang violence and other physical assaults. Such is the typical life of Ugandan street children, whose number has grown by 70% to over 10,000 since 1993. Recently, a consortium of NGOs advocating for the rights and protection of Ugandan street children appealed to Ugandans to quit giving handouts to street children so as to discourage the influx of needy children to the streets in cities like Kampala. Kampala City Council Authority is reportedly mulling over a plan to ban the giving of handouts to street children in an effort to turn off this magnet, and curb the growth in the number of street children.
President Musevei, however, has no qualms about dishing out handouts and political favors. In a practice that traces its roots to the fight and intense lobbying over the 2005 Constitutional amendment to remove term limits, Mr Museveni has honed the theatrics of publicly giving out [often] unsolicited brown envelopes stuffed with unknown sums of cash to individuals he deems deserving of such favors. Beneficiaries of this brown-envelope politics have included NRM delegates and supporters, Churches, schools and random individuals such as those performing at any of his numerous rallies. But in a stunning display of unprecedented presidential profligacy, President Museveni, on April 20, 2013, publicly handed over a white sack stacked with USh250 million (~$100,000) to the chairman of Busoga Youth Forum in Kaliro District. He also reportedly donated motorcycles and a truck to this group that is purportedly working on a variety of subsistence farming projects, including mushroom growing, banana production, piggery and poultry.
Since 2005, presidential donations have become so ubiquitous that there appears to be a growing expectation of some dramatic public display of presidential magnanimity in political rallies held by Mr Museveni. Mr Museveni has a penchant for making impromptu financial pledges and cash donations, the sum total of which has mushroomed to an estimated several hundred billions of Shillings, stretching annual State House budgets and shoving operations into the red (The 2012/2013 State House total spending stood at an astronomical USh204 billion). The President’s aides rationalize such gestures as Mr Museveni’s desire to personally keep tabs on numerous outstanding pledges made by the President, in an apparent effort to arrest the swindling of cash donations by representative officials.
Mr Museveni’s newfound public generosity also reflects a remarkable ability to capitalize on the prevailing customs. Today, presidential and parliamentary campaigns in Uganda are characterized by piecemeal handouts of consumer goods, particularly packets of sugar, salt and soap, and occasional donation of several jerry cans of locally produced Waragi for the hoi polloi to feast on. The vast majority of Uganda’s electorate is too burdened with the daily struggle of putting food on the table to concern themselves with arcane political issues such as the national budget or education policies. The language they understand best is that which meets the significant demands of day-to-day living.
Thus, a Ugandan politician with a knack for sporadic donations of tangible essential goods and cash to the electorate can reasonably expect some reward at the polls. The political ramifications for this cash-for-votes politics are inescapable: dishing out cash and goods to the electorate is crucial, not only for winning elections, but also to maintain and grow support for the incumbent. President Museveni’s public donations of cash, pick-up trucks and improved animal breeds/animal manure to NAADS farmers, or his pledges of expedited medical support to sick people he visits with in poor communities or a new community school or palace for the local chief—all of these gestures are in keeping with Mr Museveni’s understanding of the hard ball politics of corralling support critical to political success in Uganda.
But the departure from the brown-envelope politics to the cash-in-a-sack strategy marks a new low in what has morphed into a ludicrous case of political intrigues and patronage. Do most Ugandans need financial help? Absolutely—thirty eight percent of Uganda’s 35 million people live on less than $1.25 (~USh3,250) a day. But the spectacle of cash-in-a-sack donation by an incumbent President ridicules the dignity of the recipients and denigrates the office of the presidency. If Mr Museveni hoped to cultivate the image of a benevolent leader who will give cash to anyone at the drop of a hat, the emerging picture from this ill-advised cash-in-a-sack strategy is a caricature of a leader hell-bent on winning elections rather than serving the electorate.
Everything about this ostentatious generosity—the choice of Busoga Youth Forum, the donation of enormous chunks of cash (in a sack) to one Youth Group in a country where youth unemployment hovers around 80%, and an underlying aloofness toward the plight of the non-voting bloc such as [street] children—smells of just another trick up the President’s sleeve designed to solidify his political support nationally. What were the criteria used to select Busoga Youth Forum for this grant? Surely, there are similar Youth Groups scattered all over the country and in dire need of financial help. Why did the President elect to give out cash in a sack to an unaccountable group, rather than write a check in installments and monitor the use of such funds? A far more important question is: why is Uganda’s President personally giving out hard cash, sometimes randomly, to people of his liking? Are our banks so useless, and our local leaders and government so inefficient, that the President himself must step to the fore to personally hand over cash?
These questions aside, one cannot help but wonder what a donation of USh250 million (~$100,000) to organizations such as the African Network for the Prevention and Protection against Child Abuse and Neglect (ANPPCAN) could do for the 10,000 less fortunate children living on the streets. Or the boost to malaria/AIDS research such a donation would generate. This is not to suggest that financial donations to Youth Forums are a terrible idea; rather, this author laments the many missed opportunities for the President to demonstrate unambiguously a commitment to the common good, and a palpable inability to modernize the economy to meet the challenges of widespread poverty exacerbated by population explosion and dwindling opportunities. Cash-in-a-sack donation is a mere symbolic gesture of infinitesimal returns with regards to a faltering economy and Uganda’s struggling population, despite what political gurus in the President’s circle believe as to its political effectiveness.