Ugandans driven to despair by spending on MPs’ cars as basic services suffer

A fifth of Ugandans live below the World Bank poverty line, and as many as 60% hover close to it. Meanwhile, the government plans to spend billions of shillings on cars for its legislators. Photograph: Ivoha/Alamy

Beckie Mauso has had enough. The 28-year-old wife of a police officer in Uganda has a heart problem that requires her to visit hospital regularly. But every time she has sought treatment at the Mulago national referral hospital, she is told there are no drugs and referred instead to another public hospital.

“There is no help there either,” Mauso says. “They have never given me even the simplest tablets. They sent me to buy syrup at a private clinic and I paid 90,000 Uganda shillings [£20].”

She doesn’t believe this is because the government has no money to fund health facilities. She maintains the money is being misused.

Mauso is just one Ugandan raging at government plans to spend billions of shillings on cars for MPs. “As wives of serving officers we aren’t allowed to demonstrate, but this time I am ready to join those speaking against that,” she says.

The government wants to allocate some 64bn shillings (£14m) for legislators to buy cars, which, they say, will allow them to work more efficiently in their constituencies. However, Ugandans say the country is too poor to afford such a huge cost.

Uganda, with a population of 37 million, has more than 400 MPs. In this parliament, each MP will receive an extra 47m shillings to buy a car. MPs can also claim mileage costs and are entitled to a medical allowance for treatment abroad and a retirement package – among other perks.

The move has angered Ugandans, many of whom are struggling to put food on the table or access affordable healthcare. One has even gone to court to block the move, although some analysts said it is unlikely to succeed.

“I have no problem with MPs being given money, but our cries should also be heard. What we are asking is simple – let us have drugs and health workers in hospitals,” said Lilian Nabaggala, who lives in the capital, Kampala.

Loyce Nandela, a resident of Kamwokya, a Kampala suburb, said: “Look around; everyone is not happy. Teachers haven’t been paid, intern doctors have been striking – but you have more money to give MPs.”

But Denis Hamson Obua, a legislator from the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, said the the extra money wouldn’t be enough to buy a new vehicle “befitting the status of an MP”. “Democracy is expensive,” he said. “And I think we are being fair to the public because that money they are giving us can’t even buy a new car.”

In April, the government said it could not afford the 31bn shillings needed to replace the country’s only radiotherapy machine.

In August, public universities delayed opening for the new academic year because non-teaching staff were striking over unpaid salaries.

Health centres have at times gone for months without drug supplies while 29% of households use water from unimproved sources (pdf). Youth unemployment remains the highest in east Africa.

Almost 7 million Ugandans (one-fifth of the population) live below the World Bank poverty line of $1.90 a day and more than 60% are thought to hover close to the line.

Ugandan MPs are among the best paid public officials in the country, earning at least £54,000 annually. On top of that, they have received extra money – outside their normal pay.

At the start of their five-year term in office in May, President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 30 years, handed 362 legislators, mostly from his ruling party, 5m shillings each as a gift.

Analysts said it was a sweetener to legislators to vote in the speaker he wanted. It is expected that Museveni, 72, will ask MPs to remove an age-limit clause that would technically end his rule when he reached 75.

“There is an issue of misplaced priorities,” said Cissy Kagaba, the director of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda. “Political benefit for the few [severely] upsets us as taxpayers. At the back of it all, roles and demands from the population remain unattended too.”

Dr Gerald Karyeija, an academic at Uganda Management Institute, said: “Whenever the public sees MPs getting something, it elicits public dismay because the government has failed to delivery [to the ordinary people]. The public thinks it is getting a raw deal. The challenge is that we have a very big number [of parliamentarians] and maintaining it is very difficult.

“The country had 382 legislators in the previous parliament. The government has created new districts to create smaller administrative units, arguing it would ease service delivery. But it has come at a cost – more MPs and other public administrators are required, eating into the money that would otherwise be used to extend social services to the locals.”

Beatrice Anywar, an independent MP, said: “The country is crying [out] for more doctors … not MPs.”

Obua agrees that Ugandans are getting a raw deal when it comes to service delivery, but said the problem was not MPs. “It is corruption. If we fought stealing of public funds, the sky is the limit for Uganda.”

Many Ugandans believe the focus should be on a smaller parliament, one that taxpayers can afford. For Mauso, basics such as drugs in hospitals should be the top priority.