Until the president made it rain, Kaliro was just an ordinary upcountry district, tucked away in Eastern Uganda. And it wasn’t like it was the first time that Museveni had handed out cash; over the years, Museveni has used money to woo support, counter political threats, undo damage, and—ultimately—keep his converts perpetually looking to him for help. What was peculiar about this day in late April, five years ago, was that the Shs250 million he was giving out—about $100,000 then—was packed in a sack.
“Today,” he said, “I will contribute to your activities 250 million shillings.”
From behind him, where the VIP were protected from the sun, beneath a yellow tent, a soldier emerged, sack in hand, which the president raised in the air, turning this way and that for all to see. It was heavy, so a smiling official came up to rescue the President from the weight of his donation; a moment later, a man in a brown suit and yellow shirt—the party color of the National Resistance Movement—carried the sack on his head, stooping, a smile intact on his face.
At the same event, Museveni also gave out a truck, a minibus, and motorcycles to be shared by members of the Busoga Youth Forum (an association of youth from ten eastern Uganda districts, including Kaliro). But it was the money that drew the most saliva. And there was something about a sack of cash.
Perhaps it was the first time that Ugandans saw a donation by Museveni in front of rolling cameras. Perhaps the act normalized the president’s donations, which fall like manna on those who toe the line. It would not be the first nor the last time; since then, the president has famously given out the cash in brown envelopes and more recently, dummy cheques.
It’s easy, however, to see why there have been no more sacks. The uproar was immediate: youths from other districts of Busoga shouted their voices hoarse accusing their MP of misleading the President, and of sidelining those hailing from other districts from Luuka, Kaliro, Jinja, Mayuge and Bugiri districts (she pleaded innocent). Museveni and his handlers had justified the theatrics on grounds of transparency (“to raise the attention of all the youth that the fund has been made available, launched and the pledge fulfilled,” said the President’s Deputy Press Secretary), but it piqued the attention of Ugandans on social media, who quickly cashed in on the #sackofmoney to take jabs at the government.
There was something, it turned out, about a sack of cash.
Museveni’s money doesn’t come cheaply. You have to earn it; you have vote the right way when the time comes. The President had pledged to make this donation to the Busoga youth during the 2011 general election campaign and the Busoga youth were rewarded for holding up their end of that bargain: they had earned the money with their votes.
Museveni is unapologetic about driving these kinds of bargains. Only last month, while delivering money to youth projects in Wakiso and Kampala, the president urged the youth “to support leaders who will ensure your problems are attended to, not those pre-occupied with opposing government programs.”
“Those in the ghetto, if you want to get out of ghetto, listen to what NRM is telling you,” he said. The president would say he is wrestling with poverty, through the Operation Wealth Creation program; his critics—people like MP Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine)—have argued that the president’s cash splash in Wakiso and Kampala is meant to counter the oppsition’s support base in these areas.
If the #sackofmoney caught the interest of Ugandans on social media, the interest of professional news media has sometimes been a bit more immediate: in 2009, the Uganda Journalists Association took Shs150 million from Museveni, ostensibly to build the association’s headquarters. There was immediate disagreement, of course, first over the ethical dilemma that this donation created and, later, over accusations that the money had been diverted by association officials. Daniel Kalinaki taunted the journalists for what he called their begging mentality, and mocked them for picking such a small morsel from the President’s tray; “If Museveni offers you a toad,” he said, “choose a juicy one!” But though some called for the Inspector General of Government to investigate the matter, UJA officials didn’t bat their eyelids about the money; they were also taxpayers, they insisted; why should “help” from the President be shunned?
This donation—made on World Press Freedom Day—contrasted sharply with Museveni’s open dislike for the media. Having often referred to journalists as rumor mongers, enemies of the state, and economic saboteurs—indeed, having once called the Daily Monitor “evil”—his hostility speaks volumes about what a personal donation to that “enemy” might be meant to accomplish.
Though the relationship is rarely as contentious, Museveni also uses cash donations to keep church leaders close. There’s no law barring religious leaders from participating in political issues—indeed, before the 2016 election, some religious leaders urged Museveni not to stand again for president—but the government has often castigated churches for voicing their concerns against ills in society; in this case, the president declared that religious leaders were not competent to lecture him on politics. Religious leaders should stick to preaching the word of God, and stay out of politics, he said. This makes many believe there is a legal backing to the rhetoric, even though there is clearly not: during campaigns, politicians turn churches and mosques into campaign backdrops by showing up, cash in hand, to contribute to this or that fundraising drive.
When Museveni began moving to amend the constitutional amendment placing an age limit on presidential candidates, some religious leaders expressed their opposition and called on the president to leave Article 102 (b) untouched. The appeal was futile; Parliament approved the amendment in December 2017. But the President must have realized that things had gone sour, and met with leaders of all the major religious denominations in April 2018, taking them on a two-day tour and serving them a meal at his upcountry home in Rwakitura, Kiruhura District. The money was soon to follow: in May, the president promised Shs5 billion to the umbrella body, the Inter-religious Council of Uganda, and a month later, a photo by the President Press Unit captured a smiling group of religious leaders standing on the porch of State House.
The money, of course, was to help them eliminate poverty in the flocks they lead. And by the time the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the age limit removal—on the 26th of July—the once-feuding parties had mended fences. Museveni, now 74, received the greenlight to stand again in 2021, when he will be 77 years old.
Unlike religious leaders, what the constitution defines as “traditional leader[s] or cultural leader[s]” in Uganda are barred from participating directly in partisan politics. But while the same article in the constitution also bars anyone from being forced to “pay allegiance or contribute to the cost of maintaining a traditional leader or a cultural leader,” the great influence these leaders have means the government finds ways to maintain their upkeep. Sometimes that means cars, sometimes that means houses; always, it means money.
Some handouts stand out more than the rest. In 2005, for example, MPs were given Shs5 million each to consult with Ugandans on the pending removal of presidential term limits — which some saw as a bribe to vote in favor — as came to pass months later. An MP later said he regretted taking the money, because “we put our country in trouble by removing term limits.”
And then there is the time Museveni gave some Shs110 million to MPs to clear their debts, money that was seen as payment for supporting the “sole candidate” resolution shielding him from challenges for the presidency from members of his own party (Northern Youth MP Evelyn Anite got to her knees when she moved the “sole candidate” motion); or the time when the President gave Shs2 billion to MPs ahead of the election for Deputy Speaker of Parliament, money which was supposedly for MPs to celebrate their reelection, but which some took as a sweetener for the NRM-preferred candidate, Jacob Oulanyah; or the time Museveni dangled Shs13 billion in “consultation money” at MPs ahead of the age limit removal amendment in 2017.
That last time, several MPs rejected the money even after rumors swirled that they were pushing for a deal to trade the removal of the presidential age limit in exchange for extending their own tenure from five to seven years. But only eleven MPs returned the money, a drop in an ocean of more than 400 lawmakers; some MPs who were opposed to the amendment took the money, choosing to distribute it to their constituents (or to use it for providing essential services for their voters).
Recently, Catherine Kusasira—a musician who claims unfettered access to the president—came dangling cash for the families of slain police commander Muhammed Kirumira and Yasin Kawuma, the driver of MP Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine), killed during a by-election in the northern district of Arua. In full view of cameras, she placed wads of cash on the table before grieving widows, their children, and in-laws. Disagreements quickly ensued—over how much each should get, who the true widows of the deceased were, and whether they should accept the money at all—but in the end, the money was distributed.
The president’s gifts reinforce a begging mentality among the population; for almost everything, one must cry to the president for help, even when ministers, advisers and government departments exist. In September, New Vision reported that women in the eastern district of Mayuge—who were receiving maize seeds from an MP—complained that their leaders had not helped them meet the president; “We are silently dying for you Mr President,” one said, “but no one has voiced our concerns to you.”
“We appeal to the president” is a phrase that comes too easily to the mouths of Ugandans. In 2013 and 2014, tusaba gavumenti etuyambe (literally meaning, we appeal to government to help us) trended for months, on twitter as the hashtag #TGE. A senior lecturer at Makerere University’s School of Law, Dr. Ronald Kakungulu-Mayambala, blamed the #TGE attitude on a Ugandan dependency syndrome, accusing Ugandans of “shamelessly ask[ing] the president to fund expensive weddings of their children, offer scholarships to their family, foot the burial expenses of their beloved departed ones, etc.”
When officials from Uganda Revenue Authority asked Museveni to offer a “presidential appreciation” for a case the authority won against Heritage oil company, it was dubbed the “golden handshake” scandal when the president okayed a Shs6 billion payment to officials who, ostensibly, contributed to the court victory (this time, it was the #GoldenHandshake hashtag).
Just a two weeks ago, in fact—three days before Uganda’s Independence Day celebrations—Museveni went to downtown Kampala to rain nearly Shs3 billion on associations of commercial traders (called “Saccos,” ironically, for Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization). It was the first time since 1996 that the president visited the CBD—an area notorious for running battles between Opposition leader Kizza Besigye and the police—but cash smooths over so many past sins. You have supported my opponents, the president said (in so many words), but what have they given you?
On October 9th, the occasion of 56 years since independence from the British, Ugandans sat before their TV sets and watched a long speech from the President on how far the country had come and how bright the future looks. Like the previous year, the president’s speech celebrated regaining freedom, but emphasized that Ugandans needed to “reflect on the internal contradictions that led to the final domination of Africa by imperial forces for several decades.”
The president didn’t talk about how dependent Ugandans have become on his brown envelopes. And so, alongside his appeal for hard work and job creation initiatives, the crowd gathered in Kyotera to listen, cheer, and hope that the manna would soon rain in their area, just as it did in Kaliro.