One way to tell that you have arrived at a government of Uganda facility, such as a district local government or even ministry headquarters, is the sight of motor vehicles rotting away in the compound.
The government seems to find it easier to procure new vehicles than maintain and service their existing fleet. Some of these vehicles, such as tractors, rollers, excavators and other equipment, cost billions each to buy, but even the usual ordinary pick-up truck is expensive.
One would think that maintaining and servicing these vehicles is cheaper and indeed more prudent than buying new ones, but this is Uganda. This could have prompted the ministry of Finance to announce that there wouldn’t be a budget for new vehicles for the next financial year.
The news articles that announced this revelation didn’t mention whether there would be a budget for maintenance and service!
There is perhaps nothing that public servants love more than a vehicle that comes with their offices. A car is a status symbol in Uganda for many since the majority of people come from poverty-stricken families. A car announces their arrival. One with the red or even blue license plates puts them on a pedestal they couldn’t probably have imagined while growing up.
In the 1990s, a rift erupted among the highest members of the judiciary. One judge was fighting with his superior over an official car — a Mitsubishi Pajero with a turbo engine, known then as an intercooler. One judge wondered why his car wasn’t an Intercooler and created such a public circus over it.
When politicians are appointed to office, the first thing they want to know is which car has been assigned to them and if they can upgrade to the latest version. When the current cabinet was appointed, rumors surfaced that some ministers claimed their predecessors had put juju in the vehicles and, therefore, needed new ones!
I don’t know for how long Ramathan Ggoobi, the Finance ministry’s permanent secretary and secretary to the Treasury, will be able to withstand pressure from politicians and public servants who want to buy new vehicles. Admittedly, this isn’t the first such directive the government has ever issued.
But I don’t remember if this was ever implemented. We shall wait and see. Though the obvious thing to do if the ministry of Finance wants to control its expenditure is to ensure that its motor vehicle fleet is in good working mechanical condition.
Largely, the government buys these vehicles when they are brand new, and if they are serviced well, they should be able to serve beyond five years. I was told the government also doesn’t have comprehensive insurance for its fleet.
This means if a car is involved in an accident, there is no compensation for it. So, instead of getting insurance companies to replace the vehicle, the government simply procures a new one. Buying vehicles all the time is more expensive than insuring them.
But does the government need to provide cars for all its officials?
In many countries, and even at companies in Uganda, officers are facilitated in buying their cars. This can be done by providing interest-free loans so that the officer can buy a car that they use for their official duties. The payment is deducted every month until the car is paid off.
The officer is then paid mileage every time they use the car. So the government wouldn’t be involved in maintaining and servicing the vehicle or selling it on the cheap just because the car has done five years.
The officer, knowing that this is their car, will handle it with the utmost care. Many wouldn’t demand the expensive SUVs that they use today.
To make these cars cheaper, the government can form partnerships with some of the vehicle manufacturers to assemble the cars in Uganda. Already, Kiira Motors has a plant nearing completion in Jinja. This would also create millions of jobs and kick off Uganda’s nascent automotive industry.
Alternatively, the government can do what many organizations are doing; hiring and leasing vehicles for its officers. Many companies and development organizations don’t own cars, even those that are branded with their logos. They simply lease them, and once they make about 150,000 kilometres on the odometer, they return them to the lessors and get new ones.
This minimizes a company’s capital and operational expenditures. Maintenance and service are handled by these companies, freeing the lessee from the hustle of fleet management. Of course, there are vehicles that the government may still have to buy, such as police and military vehicles and ambulances. But also, it can still lease them.
The writer is a communication and visibility consultant.