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The politics of COVID relief

Deputy mayor, Nyanjura Doreen and her team giving out food items in Kampala last week.

Hon. Chris Baryomunsi, minister of Information Computer Technology, while appearing on national television informed the general public and politicians that all those that intend to offer food relief to the citizens should channel it through government. 

Government argues that food distribution by politicians would attract crowds, hence the corona virus would spread easily. Government further argues that there is need to test and ensure that the food relief meets the standard for human consumption, a narrative politicians from the opposition and a faction of citizenry disagree with. 

The government during the current second-wave lockdown has preferred not to use local government structures and involving local leaders in identifying vulnerable people/ beneficiaries affected by the lockdown to benefit from the Covid-19 relief money. 

The office of prime minister has instead worked through offices of town clerks to compile the list of vulnerable people in the targeted 41 municipalities and 11 cities. The fracas witnessed in some of the places where the lists were compiled were largely contested as a result of side-stepping LCI structures. To date, as the exercise draws near completion, the majority of the vulnerable groups have been left out of the beneficiaries list including special interest groups.

As it is always the case, when a vacuum of government failing to fulfill its obligations arises, politicians take advantage, seize the moment and fill the void. The last week has seen a surge in the number of politicians especially parliamentarians donating and distributing food relief to stressed households. 

Behind the noble cause of MPs supporting their constituents, is the grand opportunity to popularise and cement their 2026 ambitions. If this public gesture of MPs distributing food relief under the glare of media continues unabated, be assured of an early campaign season. Politicians are what they are and thrive on popularity. The temptation to use the occasion of donating food supplies for politicking is high even when the relief they offer under the current circumstances is justified.

The SecretKnown is that there is no return on investment for a politician to channel his or her relief supply through the Local Government covid-19 task force without the full glare of media and not generate political capital. The government directive though merited to control crowd gathering as a recipe for the spread of covid-19, faces a stillbirth given that in Uganda politicians are always the alternative to the gaps in government service delivery programmes.  

The UGX100,000($28) being given to the vulnerable only targets 501,107 beneficiaries. Uganda has way more than 500,000 vulnerable people. Besides, the amount given is just a drop in the ocean to support a household though the lockdown period that may even be extended.

Justifiably, legislators feel the pressure from their electorate demanding to take on the neglected role of government and offer relief to their constituents. But this has to come with government paying the price of MPs having the bragging rights. 

During the first lockdown, at the height of the political season, politicians were seen donating relief supplies in form of food and household items to the electorate. Secrets Known established that between March 2020 and June 2020, there was a spike in pre-campaign spending majorly brought about by the increase in donations in form of relief items like maize flour and beans by politicians. 

This political philanthropy was motivated by the opportunities to campaign ahead of the 2021 elections. The election campaign season could be over, but for a politician, as soon as one is sworn in, strategizing for a re-election starts and early campaigning kicks off taking advantage of every situation -good or bad. Covid-19 is just one of the situations and an opportunity for disguised politicking in form of Covid-19 relief donations.

As such, government can consider ensuring that the philanthropic legislators are allowed to enjoy the camera moments and launch their Covid-19 relief in constituencies but under a controlled environment where the numbers are not en masse and the SOPs and guidelines are adhered to. In this way, every party will be satisfied since the voters will have got relief aid, politicians gaining political capital, and government surviving the embarrassment of failing to fulfill its mandate.

It’s just politics!

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