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African leaders can't count

*People still know they're lying

- Charles Onyango-Obbo

(Monday, October 3, 2005)

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"So it was that ahead of the 2001 presidential elections, Ugandaís President, Gen Yoweri Museveni, promoted hundreds of officers. However, among those who were promoted were officers who were already dead, and others who had deserted the army long ago."

The Kampala-publishedWeekly Observer last week had a story that would have caused consternation elsewhere in the world, but in Africa is not unusual.

Like in many countries where the military still plays a prominent part in politics, the custom in Uganda is to buy the support of the army ahead of elections with promotions and other goodies so that it doesnít sympathise with the opposition.

So it was that ahead of the 2001 presidential elections, Ugandaís President, Gen Yoweri Museveni, promoted hundreds of officers. However, among those who were promoted were officers who were already dead, and others who had deserted the army long ago.

According to the paper, former army commander Maj Gen James Kazini told a committee probing so-called "ghost soldiers" in the army that there was an official list of phantom soldiers. Their salaries, totalling about $1 million, were kept in an offline account with the knowledge of the Ministers of Defence and Finance.

This revelation will probably not raise even a single eyebrow, because it is an open secret that the money from the padded army payroll and procurements, has for years been one of the leading sources of hush money and the political warchest for the ruling National Resistance Movement.

IT IS easy to promote a dead soldier, because mathematical precision is not just Ugandaís, but many African countriesí main failure. For example, more than 40 years after independence, Uganda and Tanzania donít know where precisely their common border runs. After the late Ugandan dictator Field Marshall Idi Amin attacked Tanzania in 1978, Dar es Salaam struck back and its army marched all the way to Kampala and ousted the regime in 1979.

However, in the first days of the counter-attack, the Tanzania army got hopelessly lost in the forest on its way to the Uganda border!

Figures of crop production, economic growth, population, and almost everything else are unreliable. We rarely count even votes correctly, frequently exaggerating the tally for the government party and/or shaving off several thousands of ballots from the opposition.

This is one of the reasons our economies are backward. A government conveniently undercounts the numbers of nurses, leaving half of them unpaid for months. The poor chaps donít show up to work and patients die and school children go untaught. The president is coming to address a rally in a district, and arrives six hours late.

When you read African newspapers, there will always be a story of what the World Bank or some other money-giverís representative said at a meeting with the president. It will claim that he said the country has Africaís hardest working farmers, best educational system, or its most efficient civil service.

IF EVERY African country had the continentís best roads and most educated people, we would be the richest fellows on earth. But we are its poorest. The reason for this culture of inexactitude is to avoid accountability. If the economy grows only 2 per cent in one year, and people are crying about poverty, next year the government statisticians will say growth jumped to 6 per cent, and the problem is that the benefits havenít trickled down to everybody.

If too many children die today, next year you fix the numbers to show that infant mortality fell by 40 per cent and the future is bright. A country feels bad that its education system is lagging behind its neighbours, so at the New Year address the president uplifts the spirit of the nation by announcing that some donor funded study found a record increase in school enrolment over the last year.

But you must love the Africans on the streets. Talk to any of them, and they will tell you the government is lying.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is Nation Media Groupís managing editor for convergence and new products.

President Museveni delivering a speech
President Museveni delivering a speech
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Poverty In Africa & The Commission For Africa Report
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