The coronavirus disease pandemic and the general lockdown restrictions imposed to slow its spread have brought much of the world and life in Uganda to a halt.
People have lost livelihoods, freedoms, rights and a sense of normalcy. The pandemic is leaving broader swathes of unemployment, lay-offs, salary cuts, deprivation and hunger. To survive, Ugandans are begging from anyone and everyone especially their government, politicians, neighbours and members of parliament.
“This is the worst time to be an MP,” said Asuman Basalirwa, the MP representing Bugiri municipality.
In a day, he said, he receives about 150 phone calls from constituents and rural folk begging for financial help. To get a feel of the torment MPs go through every day during the lockdown, this reporter spent a full day with Basalirwa just days after President Museveni energized the public onslaught against the lawmakers for appropriating Shs 10bn or Shs 20m to each legislator to ostensibly assist them fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In his own words, President Yoweri Museveni said recently during his twelfth address to the nation, “It is morally reprehensible for MPs to give themselves money for personal use when the country is in such a crisis; totally unacceptable to me and the NRM. They have entered themselves into a trap and the best way out is to donate the money to the districts where they come from...”
In defense, the MPs led by speaker Rebecca Kadaga said they too are getting unprecedented levels of requests for help from constituents and residents in places they stay.
“We are receiving a lot of calls and messages on our phones, but for every 10 of such calls or messages, nine are requesting for food, others are asking for medical assistance, others school fees... Now maybe fees not too much because children are at home but after the lockdown, they will all come. By the way, we had already started spending money even before getting this supplementary. Every MP here has spent more than Shs 30m,” a furious Kadaga told a hastily arranged press conference at parliament a day after Museveni’s assault.
A Ugandan MP earns between Shs 30m and Shs 64m in salary and emoluments, depending on where one’s constituency is located. The farther away from Kampala the constituency, the more the emoluments.
But are MPs really besieged as they say; are they receiving unprecedented volumes of phone calls and messages requesting for help?
We sought to find out. Asuman Basalirwa surrendered his phone to The Observer for a day and night, for us to experience firsthand what he goes through on a daily basis.
The first-time legislator said he ordinarily gets calls for assistance, but the magnitude during the lockdown has been without precedent. On Sunday, May 3, Basalirwa gave his phone to this reporter at 2 pm but with one concern: “I’m not sure they will tell you what they are calling for, if they hear it’s not me speaking.”
“Trust people who are cornered; they will say why they were calling if I tell them the honorable asked that you tell me why you’re calling,”
I replied. Indeed, all of the callers stated why they were calling.
Within three minutes of receiving the old-fashioned ‘kabiriiti’ Nokia (preferred by MPs for its battery life; smartphone batteries would not handle the traffic), it rang five times.
All the numbers were not saved in the phone contacts, which meant that they were new callers, or unknown to Basalirwa. I did not pick those calls to know why they had called.
But from 2pm to 9:52pm when the last call came in, Basalirwa’s phone rang 63 times. Someone even called at 4am, but I was dead-asleep.
When I relayed this tally to Basalirwa, he said that was on a lower side.
“There are days during the lockdown when I got more than 150 calls.”
WHAT DO THE CALLERS WANT?
“Honorable, thank you for the work, naye muna, tuli bubi; njagalayo akantu ngule daaku. Sirina na futali,” this statement was echoed in different variations by at least 40 callers, asking the MP to send them money to buy food to break their Ramadan fast and also for the predawn meal (daaku).
Basalirwa’s Bugiri municipality is predominantly Muslim.
“Tell Honorable that my kid was admitted to Bugiri hospital, but I have no other way out. We don’t have food at home yet I’m stuck at hospital and I can’t also buy medicine that the doctor told me. Please don’t forget to tell him,” a caller from Naluwerere beseeched me.
All the callers wanted similar things: money to pay their hospital bills, or to buy food at home.
Many others sent messages.
“Assalam alaykum dear counsel, how are you and the family, please brother help me with something for my family. It’s very hard during this fasting and most especially the quarantine,” one message read. The sender signed off with his name, but The Observer shall withhold names for their dignity.
“I’m here to inform you of the death of my hubby’s maternal grandpa,” another read, but without stating what the sender wanted. But it would not be farfetched to conclude that the message expected condolence fees in response.
“Assalam alaykum Hon. I’m from Bugiri town, I need something from you because my life is not good; daaku is the problem,” another message read.
“Mr Asuman Basalirwa I’m sorry for the interruption sir, but I’m from Mayuge. I just request for help from you sir. I have got my father who is sick suffering from backache and he can’t do anything. I’m the firstborn with my three little sisters whereby I’m the father to now cater for them. My mum is not around. Now as I’m talking I have tried to get for them porridge for the whole of last month but the flour is almost over. Sir I request that if you are able to get for me like one kilogram of posho [Maybe he meant to type 10kg!] I will be grateful. I know the situation is not good but I pray that you be able,” the message read.
It should be recalled Basalirwa is not an MP from Mayuge district, but the requests come from as far as that. Even for MPs residing in Kampala but with upcountry constituencies, neighbours and others from the Kampala community knock at their gates for financial help daily.
“Even in my Kampala home, I wake up when people are at my gate. They have their MPs and the Lord Mayor, but because they have another MP who sleeps in their area, he also has to help,” Basalirwa said of people in his Kawempe North area, whose representative is Latiff Ssebaggala Ssengendo.
“Hajji Assalam alaykum warahmatulahi wabarakatuh. Gyebaleko gy’otuusako engalo. Nze mugandawo... nga ndi eno mu kyalo ne family obulwadde gyebwatusanga, naye embeera si nnungi ng’ate tuli mu Ramadan. Allah bw’aba akuwadde ku rizik ntaasa,” Meaning: ‘Haji how is work. It’s me your brother...I’m stuck in the village where the lockdown found me with my family. The situation is not good yet we are fasting. If Allah has provided you with something, please come to my rescue’.
‘Hon, I’m...a teacher. I’m dying of hunger though I’m learnt. Please look for ways of rescuing me,” another sender wrote.
And the messages go on and on and on all on the same subject: assistance. When asked about how many of these requests he is able to meet, Basalirwa said it depends on the amount.
“Sometimes somebody calls you and says his child is joining university but he doesn’t have the tuition of Shs 3m. Of course I can’t meet that request; it’s too much. My monthly salary is Shs 6.2m; if I give such an amount it means, I will have surrendered half of my salary,” Basalirwa said.
At the weekend when The Observer requested to man his phone for a day, Basalirwa could only surrender it at 2pm on Sunday, because he had to travel to Bugiri on Saturday. Earlier on Friday, he could not surrender the phone because he had just deposited mobile money to send to his people in Busoga sub-region.
WHAT’S THE ROLE OF AN MP?
The 1995 Constitution under article 79 lists only three functions of parliament: making laws on any matter for the peace, order, development and good governance of Uganda; representation and also protecting the Constitution; and promoting democratic governance of Uganda.
Do the MPs know that it is not their role to provide food, ambulances and health care relief to their constituents?
“We do,” Basalirwa said emphatically, but “our system is broken; the health, education, economy, infrastructure are all broken. We live in a state of brokenness. So, the MPs become the shock absorbers of that brokenness. How do you simply look at people who are unable to bury their loved ones because they can’t afford a casket? How do you look on when people are dying of hunger – not imagined, but real? Even if you were not an MP, out of humanity you would help,” Basalirwa said.
He said until government does its work, the MPs continue shouldering the burden. How about they stick to their lanes, regardless?
“You become irrelevant because some of the laws we make have no impact on the ground. For example, you are making the anti-money laundering law; when will an ordinary person deep in Bugiri face money laundering? There are people who are not connected whatsoever to your economy but they are the ones you represent; what are you going to do? That’s why the most popular MPs in their constituencies are not necessarily the most eloquent on the floor of parliament. That’s why you will find people like Ben Wacha, Livingstone Okello Okello, Aggrey Awori, among others, lose elections yet they are stars on the floor of parliament,” Basalirwa said, in a roundabout way, also admitting that the help is also for campaign purposes.
So, for as long as one wants to be reelected, one has to dance to the tune of the voters.
“If you want to be electable, then you have to do these things. If you want to be the conventional MP, then be ready to serve one term; it’s such a delicate balance,” Basalirwa said