Suppose you are a village drunkard and you found a million dollars lying on the road, what would you do?
You would probably rush to the nearest bar and start buying rounds.
Then the village prostitute works out a way to get her hands on more than a few drinks from your money bag. She says she has always wanted to marry and bear children for a handsome hunk like you and wants to do it as soon as possible, provided you facilitate the process with $50,000.
Since by now you are properly zonked, you give her the fifty thousand and agree to start making the wedding arrangements the following day.
Next day, with your head still throbbing from a hangover, you call her and she makes some excuse why she cannot meet you that day. This goes on until 11 years later without a meeting and no marriage certificate, no children. And clearly, she has already entered menopause, and she no longer looks hot at all, if she ever did.
You too have grown old and indebted, no longer able to persuade a younger lady to marry you, while chances of picking up another million dollars from the road are zero.
Uganda’s government has done such a thing, not just once, but several times. It started a while ago. In spite a clear requirement that it takes an Act of parliament for the government to invest in a commercial enterprise, it has been taking millions of dollars of taxpayer cash to buy shares in private companies.
And like our village drunkard who found a million on the road, the owners of the private companies have ignored the government’s pleas for a child (profits) or even a marriage (shareholder’s) certificate.
It has so far sunk over three hundred billion shillings, which is a hundred million dollars because it started this zonked-out behaviour over a decade ago before the shilling sank to its present level of 3,800 to the dollar.
The Auditor General has been crying out for years for the return of government cash invested in private companies with no share certificates issued and, needless to say, no dividends paid. In 2007, the government put about one-and-a half million dollars in somebody’s hotel investment but got no share certificate.
The sole shareholder was grilled by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee over the certificate and he promptly collapsed and died. The place has since changed functions several times, turning into a supermarket, a university, an office block and nobody knows what next.
Years ago, the government also invested a quarter of a million dollars in a private airline. No certificate, no dividends. It is not clear if the airline is still flying, but the same government is now trying to revive its own defunct Uganda Airlines. And so on and so forth.
The PAC recently summoned Secretary to the Treasury Keith Muhakanizi to explain what is being done about these taxpayer billions.
The ST promised to engage the shareholders of the private companies to either issue share certificates or refund the money. The ST must have been laughing up his sleeve at his own words, which even a child would not believe.
Of course, there can be no refund of money that was partied away over the years. And if any share certificates are issued by the now collapsed or troubled private companies, they would not be worth used tissue paper.
Of course, acknowledging the government as a shareholder would automatically open these dodgy, private outfits to public audit.
And the lesson learnt? If you want free capital for your mismanaged or fictitious business, you know which government to ask.
Joachim Buwembo is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.