After years of fumbling under a process that was at best only fitfully transparent, Uganda’s executive decided to fund the purchase of a new fleet for its resurgent flag carrier, from the consolidated fund rather than through borrowing.
Appealing as the idea sounds since it represents a lower cost option, closer scrutiny has thrown up some serious inconsistences about the ownership of the national carrier’s holding company.
Parliament’s budget committee was first appalled to learn that the government, through its Finance and Transport Ministries, were the nominal shareholders, holding a combined 0.001 per cent of the stock in the company.
But rather than make that crystal clear in the registration documents, the two sitting ministers – Matia Kasaija for Finance and Monica Azuba for Works and Transport — were presented as the owners in their individual capacities.
In an era of heightened mistrust of the government by the public, the unallotted shares raised suspicion that like another suspect project, taxpayer’s money was being used to fund a private business.
Matters were not helped when in panic, the executive tried to amend that error, presenting and then withdrawing in quick succession new registration documents that suggested the company had been registered overnight.
As it turned out, the anomalies were probably the result of a sloppy and highhanded work culture. Ever since the national carrier project gained momentum in 2017, government bureaucrats have felt no inclination to account to the public. This attitude probably turned the civil servants at company registration office into automatons that simply fulfilled the ministers' bidding.
When he summoned the House from recess to approve the expenditure on Friday, a perturbed Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanya observed that there had been gross errors and wondered if there was a government and people that were thinking ahead.
Yet the budget committee’s sudden patriotic posture, could not escape the scrutiny of a keen observer. Just a fortnight earlier, the same committee had signed off a puzzling deal under which the government of Uganda will borrow $379 million on behalf of its partner in a hospital PPP.
The approval of that deal which is now the subject of court action, put parliament at odds with public opinion and the hard stance on the Uganda Airlines request, was possibly an effort to repair dented credibility.
A major takeaway from all this is that transparency and public engagement on national decisions is healthy and can lead to better outcomes. Were the setup of Uganda Airlines to proceed without this belated public debate, the country would probably have been set up for costly complications in the future.
The other lesson is that impunity not only creates room for abuse but it also breeds mistrust that can sometimes work against the national interest at critical times.
It will be necessary for public servants to understand that their authority is delegated and hence the need for transparency and integrity, to maintain the trust and confidence of those on whose behalf they are acting.