A towering blunder? Suddenly, we’re all talking about the new URA complex

Wednesday February 6 2019

The building that has sparked so much debate is

The building that has sparked so much debate is the recently opened 22-floor URA Towers, new home of the Uganda Revenue Authority. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NMG 

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At last, Kampala folk are preoccupied by an issue that is not about politics or corruption. (Well, politics and corruption are almost the same, as corruption feeds politics and politics protects corruption.)

Right now, the hot topic is a building! And what a breath of fresh air in a city polluted by the foul burps of the greedy few who gorge themselves on the sweat of emaciated taxpayers!

The building that has sparked so much debate is the recently opened 22-floor URA Towers, new home of the Uganda Revenue Authority. With a price tag of Ush139 billion (about $40 million) nobody is crying foul over the cost and no corruption is suspected. But some experts say the government-owned building is politically prestigious but economically senseless.

Supporters of the URA Tower – who obviously include the taxman’s management – point at the colossal sums the authority has been spending on rent in different parts of the city, upto Ush7.4 billion ($2 million) per year. But opponents say a smarter approach would be for URA to call on private developers to bid and then pay a realistic rent to the developer, with both parties making a profit in the end.

Opponents of the building further say its construction does not augur well for efficiency at the tax authority. They argue that estate management is neither URA’s forte nor its core business, that the authority’s work is really data-driven and does not warrant investing so much in a building.

They claim that URA will soon need to set up other companies or departments for estate management, security, gym management and even breastfeeding (new office complexes are getting gender sensitive and following the example of Parliament Building, now provide for a nursery where mothers can breastfeed and leave their babies in care while working). And a gym is also becoming a must in new office complexes.

Tower opponents further argue that by putting 1,700 staff in a public building, URA is increasing the chances of taxpayers meeting with tax officials face to face, even though the computerisation of operations and putting them online over the past decade or so was meant to reduce this physical contact, which enhances the potential for corruption.

On a cynical note, the opponents further claim that URA staff should only be in office eight to five as the call centre (which can be anywhere like India) does the 24-hour beat. So, according to them, tax staff who stay on in the office after five are either doing their upgrading courses using public equipment or are waiting for Kampala’s perennial traffic jam to subside.

But the most repeated complaint by the Towers opponents is the withdrawal of business from the private sector, arguing that as more government bodies succumb to the fad of #MeTooOwnOfficeComplex, the real-estate sector is starved of revenue for re-investment.

They add that government should buy and own property overseas – a policy started by president Idi Amin in the 1970s that unfortunately was abandoned after he left – and that locally, it should rent properties owned by local developers who will not send the rent abroad.

Whichever argument convinces you, it is not about parties, thieves and tribes.

Joachim Buwembo is a social and political commentator based in Kampala.