The level of indebtedness of MPs raises serious questions about the effectiveness of parliament in carrying out its mandate and the long term health of democracy in Uganda, observers have said.
A special report in the Sunday Vision revealed that one in every ten MPs takes home no salary, with all their earnings going to service their debts. MPs earn a minimum of sh22m in salary and allowances after taxes.
The total indebtedness of members is sh20b according to parliamentary sources, with sh7b of that due to money lenders who charge interest of as much as 25% a month. The remaining sh13b is accounted for by mortgages, car and salary loans.
New information shows that an additional 85 or 22% of the 385 member house take home less than sh2m and as little as sh18,500.
The Sunday Vision also revealed some MPs are resorting to desperate measures in their desperate times to evade their creditors and retain their dignity.
Some MPs have taken to going to parliament before dawn and leaving long after dark to evade their creditors. Inside the precincts of parliament MPs cannot be arrested.
“That is why they are easily blackmailed,” said Yona Kanyomozi, a former Member of Parliament who said the current situation has arisen out of a number of factors.
“Politics has become too commercialised and government has abdicated its role in service delivery leaving MPs to shoulder the burden. If government was doing its duty MPs would not be so beleaguered,” he said.
On a recent radio program MP Betty Amongin said that MPs are being forced to do things like own ambulances to ferry their constituents to hospital. MPs also find themselves contributing to education expenses, providing medicine, constructing roads and paying for power to be extended to their areas.
“The pressure an MP comes under is unimaginable … contributing to the welfare of constituents is seen as pay back from them having voted you into the house, and there is no limit to their demands on your time and resources,” said one former MP who says she is relieved to be out of the house.
Apart from the personal discomfort this indebtedness may cause the MPs, it has serious national ramifications.
The roles of parliament include passing laws, scrutinize and pass government expenditure, monitor government projects, vet appointments of public officials and to debate issues of national interest.
“The whole issue of their indebtedness has ended up compromising them and the decisions they make, in the process they have lost the moral authority to hold to hold the executive accountable,” said Cissy Kagaba, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda.
“Maybe that is why some of these serious issues and probes are not followed to their logical conclusion.”
Kagaba said the situation has altered the concept of the people’s representative and deprived citizens of social services.
“And if an MP is taking up next to nothing he has to find ways to make money hence the recent increases in allowances and they can make money from trips and special probes.”
The MPs have voted themselves a 38% increase in salaries and allowances for this year to sh148b with the increase in allowances alone accounting for sh30b. Parliament’s salary bill has jumped sh5b since last year.
“Many are MPs essentially bankrupt. The danger it poses is that they are easily influenced due to their desperate need for cash. I have always said that if I had $2 million I could buy Parliament and make it do my bidding. State and non-state actors know this,” said a well-connected social and political observer.
“Their effectiveness and independence are definitely compromised! This has grave consequences for democracy, development and national security.”
As an example, last year the suspension of oil exploration activity was funded by external sources. The frustration of the first Bujagali dam was also allegedly funded by foreign money. Government contracts in infrastructure development are worth millions even billions of dollars and parliament has oversight over them, it is not unthinkable that in search of leverage parliament would be a prime target.
In other countries the issue of setting MPs pay has been taken away for them to insulate them from their own greed and protect them from compromise.
In the UK the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) was set up in 2009, largely in response to the expenses scandal that rocked Westminster that year. The IPSA sets MPs’ salaries and verifies their expense claims. Last year due to the poor economic environment it froze MPs pay until 2013.
In 2009 it was revealed that some British MPs were abusing the system, claiming expenses for private costs like landscaping, borrowing videos, furnishing second homes
and animal veterinary bills.
Given the pressures on their pay checks it’s unlikely that MPs will cede the power to determine their own pay.
‘I think it is up to civil society to keep harping on the issue and not waiting for the elections, we need to let our leaders know we are watching them and that their actions have a direct impact on our lives. Outside of that I don’t see anything changing,” ACCU’s Kagaba said.