A very large delegation of Ugandan MPs and other government officials spent this past weekend attending the Ugandan North American Association (UNAA) meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. The speaker of parliament and her deputy were the leaders of the delegation.
Another group, including the leader of the opposition in parliament and the mayor of Kampala was at the UNAA Causes meeting in Los Angeles, California.
The Boston group heads to London this week for the UK Ugandans’ convention. Another delegation just returned from Stockholm, where they attended the Nordic Ugandans’ meeting.
Kampala newspaper reports that the North America trip alone cost Sh. 2 billion (over $600,000) immediately triggered the question: What is the Ugandan taxpayer’s return on this investment?
UNAA, now divided into two rival organizations, has been around for 28 years. While I would have preferred to see a united UNAA, I am confident that even in its factionalized state, the organization remains an excellent forum for socialization, networking, discussing business and celebrating our shared roots and experiences.
The presence of Ugandans from home always adds a welcome dimension. However, the thought that the taxpayers underwrite these junkets is difficult to justify.
Contrary to reports in Kampala papers that UNAA has 120,000 members, neither faction of the organization has even 1,000 members. Membership in UNAA (Boston) is based on payment of a membership fee. UNAA Causes has an open door policy.
The figure of 120,000 is a rough guestimate of the total number of Ugandans in North America. The vast majority have no interest in UNAA.
UNAA (Boston) conventions usually attract about 1,000 attendees, the majority coming to socialize rather than to participate in the social, business and political forums. UNAA Causes (Los Angeles) had 600 delegates this year.
Fewer still bother to attend the annual general meetings (AGM) where the business of the Association, including elections, takes place. Fewer than 100 members attended last year’s AGM in New Orleans, Louisiana, where new leaders were elected. So these Kampala delegations have very limited access to the larger Ugandan Diaspora.
No doubt the Ugandan Diaspora makes a significant contribution to the annual foreign exchange inflows. However, these are remittances that are driven by our tradition of supporting our families and investing at home, not by the speeches of visiting politicians.
The government and opposition politicians know this. Their interest in UNAA Causes, UNAA and other Ugandan Diaspora community organizations has less to do with business than with partisan politics.
These organizations, and certainly their members, have the potential to influence opinion in the host countries and back home.
It is no wonder, then, that the Uganda Government has taken a very keen interest in UNAA. During UNAA election years, the Kampala government used to send delegates to vote for a pro-Museveni candidate.
However, the UNAA Constitution was changed in 2010 to prohibit non-residents of North America from voting. (Only 118 UNAA members voted to ratify that constitution.)
Nevertheless the government has continued to give money to UNAA (Boston) as its contribution to the cost of the annual convention.
For years the government’s donation stood at $20,000 per year. However, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential elections in Uganda, the government increased the amount significantly. I am told that the government’s contribution may be as high as $100,000.
I was opposed to this exploitation of the Ugandan peasant even when I served on the board of UNAA. We were a minority who held this view.
UNAA Causes does not get a cent from the government of Uganda. Well, at least not yet. However, the presence of opposition leaders at this year’s meeting may encourage Mr. Museveni to take a little more interest in that faction.
All this to say that Ugandan taxpayer’s money is spent on these conventions as a partisan political investment, not an economic one.
The investment serves a dual purpose. First, it maintains a political link with the Diaspora. Second, it buys the goodwill of MPs. After such a luxury trip abroad, the recipient MP is very likely to support a bill that favours the interests of the ruler. Lifting the age limit, for example, may be more important than uplifting the Wretched of the Earth.
A friend who was at the Boston event send me an e-mail to report: “I just flew back from UNAA Boston this afternoon but what I saw (our MPs merry making) was extremely disturbing, annoying, embarrassing and surprising. For example, while many of us who stayed in same hotel as the MPs tried to save money by eating at surrounding restaurants, they mostly had all their expensive meals at hotel. And you should have seen their shopping at end of conference!!!”
The amounts the Ugandan taxpayer has been charged are particularly striking. Whereas, for example, some medical interns are expected to work without pay, each MP that went to the UNAA (Boston) event enjoyed a business class ticket worth $5,700 and a per diem allowance of $520. The speaker and his deputy received per diem allowances of $720 per person.
Asked to explain such expenditures Chris Obore, parliament’s director of communications, stated that the MPs were “entitled” to these allowances.
Which begs the questions: What is the normal Ugandan citizen’s entitlement? Is she not entitled to good health care and other social services?
Is a Ugandan doctor or other professional not entitled to a wage and benefits that are commensurate with the training, intensity, complexity and risk of her work? What exactly does an MP do that makes him more entitled to all this money than, say, a lone doctor toiling away at Mparo Health Centre in Kigezi?
Conventions of UNAA and UNAA Causes are excellent gatherings, which Ugandan politicians should continue to attend, but at their own cost. The savings from the Boston trip alone would have made an enormous difference to the health centers at Mparo, Mvara and Mpigi combined.