Uganda’s debt appetite has no end in sight. In December 2019, Uganda’s debt burden stood at about Shs 49 trillion.
In December 2020, debt stood at Shs 65.8 trillion. That is a Shs 16.8 trillion increment. It is safe to say Uganda now collectively owes Shs 1.5m per citizen in debt. But how much of that money has directly gone to the citizens owed?
It is fair to state that the Covid-19 pandemic pushed many economies to the brink and thus the need to borrow money to cushion the populace. However, there are countries, even in the region, that did not borrow as much as we did to cushion the population from the effects of Covid-19. And their Covid-19 figures, in terms of percentages of the population, are not far from our percentages.
The problem here is not that we are borrowing excessively; it is that we are borrowing for the wrong reasons! Even when we borrow for the wrong reasons, the custodians of this country exaggerate the amounts of money borrowed to cater to their selfish ends. Also, we are tethering on the brink.
We are now borrowing at rates higher than the market value because our debt burden is close to unsustainable, considering that the debt-to-GDP ratio stands at 46 per cent as of 2020. This has gradually increased from 33.8 per cent in 2017, 35.1 per cent in 2018 and 38.2 per cent in 2019 and is projected to be close to 50 per cent by June 2021.
The technocrats often say we borrow to fund infrastructure projects. But which of those projects are user-centric and which ones of them directly benefit those for whom the project is being established?
The auditor general’s reports to parliament over the years have shown that accounting officers have excelled at nugatory expenditure. These are expenditures that could have been avoided.
For a while, the country was paying interest and other sums of money for a loan that was borrowed for the Mpigi expressway, which was not being utilized. This road is just one of the many underutilized projects for which Uganda pays about $2.2 million annually.
The minister of state for finance, David Bahati, just the other day, tabled an amended budget with an additional Shs 3 trillion to, among other things, accommodate the money for the purchase of vehicles for the Eleventh Parliament.
I am not against providing vehicles to the legislators, but what end does the purchase of new cars for MPs serve their voters?
Within the region, we have august Houses that have provided state-owned vehicles for their legislators. However, these vehicles are not the property of the legislator, but of the state. They are not as exorbitantly-priced and when the legislator leaves parliament, the vehicle goes back to the state, to be refurbished and passed on to another department of the state. That is progressive expenditure.
About Shs 105 billion is meant for the purchase of vehicles for the legislators. We could build new health units and meet the remuneration of health workers for the next five years.
We could upgrade a number of regional referral hospitals to national hospital status, build and maintain kilometers of roads and enhance the much-needed capitation grants to schools providing UPE and USE. These are things that benefit many Ugandans who have to unfortunately share a debt burden for which they were not consulted.
We also need to bite back at the custodians of those engaged in wasteful expenditure. This should go beyond reprimand to the recovery of the misused funds from their private property.
The issue of collective responsibility should be set aside so that whoever is charged with public office starts to look at their offices not as an opportunity to amass personal wealth, but an opportunity to better the citizens of Uganda and jealously guard public resources.
We also need to share plans of how these monies we are borrowing will be recovered from the infrastructure projects they are being borrowed for.
Lastly, borrowing money for consumptive purposes should be stopped. Instances in which we borrow to consume or for mere luxury, such as purchase of vehicles for MPs, for instance, should no longer be tabled in parliament. Let the MPs buy the cars, through loans, like the rest of us. Otherwise, calling for suspension from loan repayments does not save the country.
The author is the executive director of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda.