By Andrew M. Mwenda
KAMPALA – Let me burst the bubble of Ugandan elites by exposing the delusions that inform their pretense of their cherished ideals. Since the new tax on social media and mobile money was introduced, many have claimed they don’t want to pay it because the government of President Yoweri Museveni steals public funds and is not accountable.
Never mind that Museveni’s government is now in its most intense developmental phase building roads, railways, bridges and dams than ever before.
But let me, for argument’s sake, agree that Ugandans believe in the collective political good. That if the government was accountable they would willingly pay taxes for the good of the country. Is this claim true? There is a way to test this behavior.
Kizza Besigye has sacrificed everything in the struggle to bring down the “corrupt, nepotistic, incompetent and dictatorial regime” of Museveni, making enormous sacrifices. He has been arrested and jailed more times that we can count. He has been charged with treason, terrorism, rape and worse. He has been teargassed, beaten and pepper sprayed. But he has remained true to his principles, resisted both state intimidation and bribery. In short he has proven to all that he is a leader we can trust.
Besigye got 3.5m votes in the last elections. He and his people claim that he actually got 6.5m votes Museveni manipulated the results. Now if all these voters believe in the collective good of Uganda, they can invest in the political liberation of our country by contributing Shs 10,000 per person per year. That would translate into Shs 35 billion per year at the official votes or Shs 65 billion according to the “real” votes Besigye got. In five years that would amount to a war chest of Shs 175 billion or Shs 325 billion depending on which votes you believe Besigye actually got.
With such money at their disposal, the opposition FDC would be able to build a formidable organizational machine, rally many influential Ugandans to run on their party ticket for parliamentary and local council elections and drive Museveni out of power. Why haven’t all these Ugandans not invested in their political liberation from Museveni’s corruption, nepotism, incompetence and tyrant? Do they not trust Besigye and FDC too? Has he and his party ever stolen their funds and caused them to doubt their honesty and sincerity?
Every day Ugandans go to church and make contributions much larger than the Shs 200 social media tax government is asking for. Every day they attend wedding meetings and contribute generously. Therefore it is not true that Ugandans, especially those rich enough to own a smart phone that uses social media, cannot rise Shs 6,000 per month to pay in taxes.
The reason is simple but fundamental: Ugandans see the state as a place you go to extract resources, a cake to eat, not a cow to feed and grow. Ugandans want welfare but are unwilling to pay the costs that come with it. They have a mentality that the state should provide them a large basket of public goods and services for free or very cheaply such as education, healthcare, water, electricity, high public sector wages, security, justice, roads, bridges etc. But they lack a corresponding sense of responsibility that such public goods and services must be paid by them through taxes.
The attitude of Ugandans contrasts sharply with that of Rwandans. In that country there is a highly developed sense of community and country. Rwandans pay taxes and do not complain. I used to think this is because the state serves them well. I released this is only part of the story. The bigger part is their shared sense of community ie that we are Rwandans and must build our country.
Even at party level, almost all Rwandans contribute a percentage of their salary to their political party especially the RPF. When government initiates a program, like giving every poor household a cow, people voluntarily contribute. When donors cut aid, government began a fund called agaciro (dignity) and Rwandans – poor and rich – rushed to voluntarily contribute to it as a national obligation.
This culture of community is lacking in Uganda’s politics perhaps because of our ethnic diversity. That is why all political parties in our country hardly receive any donations from their supporters. Whatever they get is small compared to what Ugandans are willing to give to their churches or to contribute to the weddings do their friends and relatives. The lesson is easy: we distrust the state and have a perverted sense of it. That is why we have high levels of corruption.
Andrew Mwenda is a renown Uganda journalist and owner of the Independent Publications