Money, money, money: controversy surrounds the State House employees in Uganda

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In this blog, Michaela Collord explores the controversy surrounding the inflated pay of employees in President Museveni’s State House, in Uganda. Michaela is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Oxford. This blog post was originally posted on the Presidential Power blog.

In early July, a veteran opposition MP, Cecilia Ogwal used a plenary debate in the Ugandan Parliament to call attention to a never-before-published list of staff salaries in President Museveni’s State House. The list, contained in the Ministerial Policy Statement for the Office of the President, pegged salaries for the highest earners among Museveni’s entourage at Shs 96m per month, or approximately 21,000 GBP.

Ogwal’s contribution prompted a flurry of press coverage accompanied by indignant comments from fellow MPs. “The entire civil service of Mukono municipality has a monthly budget of Shs 35m,” noted Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze, adding, “That means that one staff in the office of the president can pay all the staff at my municipality.”

Government representatives were also quick to respond, claiming at a press briefing the day after Ogwal’s intervention that the original salary report contained “typos”.  They also claimed MPs had failed to heed an amended list, which indicated that what were originally presented as monthly salaries were in fact annual.

MPs and press analysts have since questioned the veracity of these government assertions, noting incoherencies in the amendments, which now list improbably low salaries for many close presidential aides while failing to reduce the overall State House budget estimates to reflect these revised figures. Sceptics have also observed that the amended list was in fact sent to MPs the evening after Ogwal’s comments, not several days before as claimed.

Beyond the details of this one incident, however, the issue of salaries has rekindled deep-seated concerns over the lack of transparency in State House spending. In the past, these concerns have often focused on State House requests for what appear to be exorbitant supplementary budgets.  In 2013, the State House annual budget hit a record Shs 200b  (apx 45m GBP) after the Ministry of Finance requested retrospective parliamentary approval for Shs138b worth of “emergency” expenditure. Opposition and some ruling NRM party MPs protested, labelling State House a “bottomless pit” and criticizing the large funds allocated for presidential “donations.”

The controversy this year over seemingly lavish State House salaries is linked to similar concerns that State House funds are used to bankroll presidential patronage politics.  President Museveni has long been criticized for using State House jobs as a way to extend his core of NRM support. Moreover, the independent Observer newspaper used the newly published list to highlight a regional imbalance as staff from Museveni’s home region in Western Uganda dominate among State House employees.

The salaries issue has also led to renewed frustration over iniquities in government budget allocations. The controversy comes against the backdrop of a parliamentary review of the bloated public service payroll, weighted down by the large number of “ghost” civil servants. Allegations abound that these “ghosts” are the product of a concerted effort by several ministries to create additional means to siphon off cash. The grossly mismanaged clean up effort nevertheless exacerbated the situation, leaving thousands of teachers and health workers obliged to forfeit months of pay after being wrongly removed from the payroll.

The whistleblower MP Cecilia Ogwal underscored her aim to highlight the “startling” comparison between well-remunerated State House staff and the predicament of other, less fortunate government employees. “I pointed out that while we lament about the delay of salaries of teachers and other underprivileged civil servants, you will be shocked to learn about the earnings of civil servants in the Office of the President,” Ogwal commented.

There is some indication Parliament may be positioning itself to provide more effective oversight of executive spending, including in State House. Much of the most controversial spending, including for defence and in the Office of the President, is kept confidential. As a result, it largely escapes parliamentary review.

Ogwal affirmed that the recent revelations “[have] opened our eyes to investigate how much each staff is earning even in the classified expenditure.” The Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga has, moreover, announced she will use her powers to create a PAC sub-committee to audit classified expenditure, although this move may be motivated more by concerns over undisclosed defence spending in South Sudan than State House salaries. There is also an ongoing effort to reform public service management, which some MPs and commentators argue should be used as an opportunity to reduce inequalities in government employment practices such as exist between State House staff and the rest of the payroll.

Whether or not parliament will have any substantive impact is uncertain. Public service reform is progressing slowly. Kadaga’s sub-committee, meanwhile, may run amok as a result of its structural weaknesses. The committee will report directly to Kadaga and then to President Museveni while the rest of Parliament will only hear of its findings in a sanitized annual report. This arrangement, which sets the committee under the watchful eye of the president, raises questions regarding how independent it can really hope to be.

More generally, the Ugandan parliament has a poor track record of providing effective oversight of the Office of the President. Whereas opposition and government MPs have joined forces on other controversial issues, anything seen to directly target the president is invariably cast as “political” and divisive.

At the very least, the controversy arising from MP Ogwal’s intervention has offered a welcome moment for public debate. An optimistic reading suggests that, in the long run, it may help contribute towards the cumulative build up of parliament’s oversight powers and overall standards of transparency. Indeed, the mere fact a salary list was included in this year’s Ministerial Policy Statement can be seen as a positive outcome of last year’s controversy over the large State House supplementary.

Still, it is hard to avoid the more pessimistic interpretation that this latest episode is one among many routine, almost ritualistic, controversies over presidential spending power, which do little to shift the balance of power, even if they do help clarify exactly where that balance of power lies.


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