The best part of entering old age in Uganda, besides the pleasant weather and cheap supply of fruit and vegetables, is the abundance of free entertainment by the society’s managers.
Now, hear their latest strategies for fixing the health sector: Raise the retirement age for doctors from 60 to 70 years!
Second, make vigorous physical exercise mandatory in the civil service. Third, jail school kids who can’t produce their immunisation certificates (as if our prisons aren’t already congested with petty offenders rotting on remand for lack of bribe money to get free bail).
In short, we are no good at macro issues, yet we are excellent at dealing with the micro picture. The most efficient industries in Uganda are those where the government has minimum participation – limited to collecting part of the operator’s sweat in form of taxes.
Take the matatu –what we call taxi – industry. Using decades-old vans imported from other countries, operators run an intricate, efficient network and have their own insurance schemes, education and development funds and not a shilling gets stolen from their common kitty.
But government transport companies just collapse. The buses, the haulage trucks, even the train system also collapsed and its reserve land along the cannibalised rail lines stolen by big people.
The airline was also killed and we are busy reviving Uganda Airlines hoping that new angels will “eat” it slower than past devils.
The boda boda industry would also work as perfectly as the taxis – if there wasn’t too much political interference in it. The half a million boda boda riders are rather too many to be ignored by the politicians – too many votes those are.
Small things, we manage well, but big figures disturb our heads. There is the public health insurance which has eluded Uganda (okay, and places like South Sudan), but the other day, our parliament guaranteed a loan of $300-400 million for a private hospital to treat the rich. Before the ink dried on the guarantee, the same parliament was told that a chunk of the loan had gone missing.
Talking of loans, we have a “kind of completed” a 50km road with a loan of $500 million, from Kampala to Entebbe, and are now trying to figure out a way of how to repay.
The national road managers were asked by parliament how they conceived the idea of the road and they said...hold your breath... that the idea was conceived by the lender!
Meanwhile, our finance minister, talking about some $60 million or so loan for combating domestic or gender violence, said he signed because “the woman” (a donor agency representative) rang him threatening to withhold other loans if he didn’t sign.
Such is our grasp of big financial issues. But don’t laugh at the minister. Another before him recently told parliament unblinkingly that she signed important oil agreements committing the country to nine-figure dollar arrangements without reading whatever she was signing.
Then parliament last week discovered that when Idi Amin expelled thousands of Asian businesspeople in 1972, Uganda paid them in compensation. But in the 1990s, some people flocked to Uganda and repossessed the same properties for which compensation had been paid.
The hilarious part is that government agencies, including parliament, are paying rent for the different premises for which payment was made. The loss is now running into trillions of shillings.
Now you know why my country is a nice place to retire. Free comedy finds you at home every evening in the news.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. Email:[email protected]