JUST before Janani Luwum Day I took a short Uber to my last meeting of the day and chose not to plug in my earphones. I do that, sometimes, to listen from somebody fresh and, in this case, certainly more interesting than most people in the meeting I had just been discharged from.
Public transport operators fit in this category just as bartenders in movies do, and my chap that evening did not disappoint. I can’t recall why he got to musing over who pays for our national holidays and celebrations, but he was quite disturbed.
He wasn’t too bothered by the loss of revenue facing him because of the public holiday, he said. His concern was that somewhere, somehow, the money he spends on taxes was not being utilised properly. Every time he tuned into the news and saw government officials making speeches, he said, in front of crowds under marquees and tents, he felt he was losing money.
He reeled off a few random days in his recent past that had him thinking this, including Tarehe Sita Day.
Besides, he pondered, was he really expected to go to Church the next day to celebrate the late Archbishop Janani Luwum?
I was impressed by his thought process and pleased that I hadn’t plugged those earphones in. We had a brief discussion in which I told him he should take charge of his affairs and deal with his concerns as a good citizen should.
Voicing these concerns was a good beginning. Next, he needed to go straight to the people who determine how his taxes get spent. Luckily I didn’t need to detail for him how he and I actually fund the government; he struck me as being a university graduate with some enterprise that allowed him to also drive an Uber.
Nevertheless, like most of us he didn’t know which government office paid for all these events – but I had a clue and explained the allocation ministry by ministry for the most obvious events. Then I advised him to occasionally visit websites like www.budget.go.ug to see in real-time where the government is spending money and how.
Then, I suggested, he needed to find his Member of Parliament and tell him what he – the tax-paying citizen driving the Uber by which the government collects from fuel, airtime and corporation taxes – preferred for the money to be spent on.
This was the perfect time to engage in that exercise, I explained, as the national budget for the next financial year was in the process of being finalised. The key was to get to his MP, which detail he wasn’t sure of to start with, prompting a little more discussion of elementary civics. (This subject should be taught right from nursery school in this country.)
By then we had arrived at my destination and I feared it would be too complex for me to go into the nitty gritty of the process without losing my shirt to Uber waiting fees, so I suggested he follow the first step and establish exactly who his Member of Parliament is through www.parliament.go.ug.
I was pleasantly surprised when he emailed me a week later (for real!) to say he had discovered his MP was Paul Kato Lubwama (Independent). I was also saddened that the exercise had come to a seemingly abrupt end because the gentleman’s email address was not listed. His phone number was, though, so I hope my Uber guy invested in the airtime necessary to follow his concerns through to some end and prove that the citizen’s duty was carried out.
Even if he did stop at failing to send an email, this time round, my Uber guy had learnt something new quite at random and worked at it to make a difference to his society and his country.