yet another comedy of small errors

This week’s unnecessary chaos around the State House salaries made me angry on two levels – one because of the number of people involved in perpetuating this comedy of errors to national levels; and two because of the number of adults involved in propagating a very untenable idea that resulted in the otherwise entertaining #PayMe96Million social media chants and rants.

Starting with the second, to me it was obvious that in this country where people with second hand US$20,000 cars (liabilities) earn the label ‘tycoon’, we would have known long ago if anybody were banking a Ushs96million a month salary for even a week, without it being documented in Parliament with the media present.

As soon as I saw the offensive sheet indicating monthly salaries in State House PayMe96Mn - highlightedranging from Ushs20million to Ushs96million, I knew it was a stupid mistake but quickly moved on because I believed Members of Parliament would be more interested in addressing the close-to-100-deaths of Ugandans in western Uganda last week.

Besides, I was handling a stupid mistake in my own environment: That morning, I had concluded a transaction that should have earned about Ushs2.5million in one fell swoop, in US dollars – less than a day’s salary of that (mbu) highly-paid State House employee.

Issuing instructions for official documentation to complete the transaction, I left for a meeting and along the way made a couple of debt collection phone calls and monitored emails. One of those emails contained the invoice we were supposed to send the client for the above Ushs2.5million job card, but it read US$112 (One hundred twelve United States Dollars).

A quick glance had me frowning because the original calculation involved was ‘75,000 x 38’ (Shillings) – to me, clearly much more than the invoice read.75,000 x 38 I emailed back my accounts guy asking, “Is the mathematics correct in this?” and he responded minutes later with “Yes it is” (no punctuation marks AT ALL).

The confidence with which he had responded, underscored by the poor punctuation, shook me a little so I asked the people I was with to do a quick mental calculation to confirm that ‘75,000 x 38’ was, indeed, only US$112.

Even now, as you read this, it isn’t.

Picking up the phone, I asked someone else at the office to go over to the accountant and set him right just in case he was stuck with a really faulty calculator or computer or mobile phone or neighbours, since all these were available to him to cross-check the mathematics instead of insisting on the wrong answer.

She walked over to him, conducted an arithmetical exercise with the fellow and confirmed that, indeed: “It’s 258,000.”

I wavered.

But I refused to turn to electronic assistance because as far as I knew, 75,000 multiplied by a simple 3 (three) was already more than 210,000. I had a slight headache at the time, and thought that perhaps the problem was with my general body functions, so I asked them to check again and, indeed, their answer was still “258,000”, with a little irritation in their tone.

I hung up and moved on with what I hoped would be more understandable aspects of my work day. One of those was a meeting with a finance guy from one of my debtors, who told me the payment I was chasing after had already been remitted to my bank.

We went to and fro a few times saying “It wasn’t!” and “It was!” enough times to sound like children, then stopped to discuss the matter more seriously.

That’s when he admitted to me that months ago, when the payment had first been remitted, the bank account number had been wrongly written out, so the money had bounced back to them but they forgot about it for a couple of months till we started chasing them down for it.

“So I am sure we sent it this time!” he concluded. We had investigated jointly for a number of hours, querying both our banks at various points till, on this Tuesday, the suspicion came to me that perhaps the money had been sent to the wrong bank.

I was right.

It had gone to an old bank account we had closed over a year ago, in spite of the fact that this same client had received two sets of correspondence advising them of the change and had thereafter made several payments into the new bank account.

“Error”, they apologised, and got about fixing it. And so later on Tuesday night, after disregarding the #PayMe96Million thread a little bit, I looked up sharply remembering that we hadn’t concluded the matter of the ‘75,000 x 38’ invoice to the client – many hours later.

Luckily, the duo at the office had put their heads together after the phone call; investigated the matter further, and had written to me:  “Each item is UGX38. For 75,000 the equivalent is 285,000…”

That’s when I turned back to the #PayMe96Million thread and studied the offending offensive document a little bit; and I called someone to ask why it even existed.

“What?! But a correction was sent to Parliament…” PayMe96MnLetter

To cut a long story short, I eventually got hold of the corrected document and saw how the error had occurred, with the annual salary somehow getting pasted into the column for monthly salaries, allowing the rest of the formulae to take hold… …and to me, after my experiences and especially the one of that very morning, it was clear why the junior officer’s error had gone past the supervisor, bosses, proof-readers, printers, document signers, and so on and so forth.

All of them committed errors in NOT spotting that initial error – as would have I, if that ’75,000 x 38’ hadn’t jumped out at me. And even though the correction had arrived at Parliament DAYS before Tuesday, the loud, indignant, sensational allegation on the floor of Parliament had gone unchallenged by ALL the Members of Parliament who HAD received said correction but had not read it – another error. #PayMe96Million 1 #PayMe96Million 2

So for all of Tuesday night, ordinary people who hold loaded guns at the compound gates providing overnight security and those that mix up food in kitchens next to dangerous detergents were angrily considering that their bosses earn salaries such as Ushs96,000,000 a month.

Revolutions and wars have been triggered off by minor errors such as these.

I still can’t imagine what the people whose names appeared on that original list are telling their spouses and domestic staff, if otherwise intelligent professionals are still crying wolf over #PayMe96Million.

Presidency Minister Frank Tumwebaze was gracious in admitting that mistakes happen everywhere and refusing to consider firing the person who committed the first error – otherwise very many people elsewhere would be losing jobs for ‘errors’ – including Cecilia Ogwal et al for failing to read the correction document or even doing some arithmetic before tickling an angry revolution among common folk.Ssebaggala

In a perfect world, my accountant and all State House employees in the chain that led to that document getting to a Parliamentary Member disinclined to basic arithmetics, would be out of jobs right now and providing opportunities for more efficient people to run things with the seriousness required. We would be surrounding ourselves with people who understand that small errors sometimes have a large impact on serious matters.

And Uganda would generally be less prone to incendiary political action such as we saw in Kasese, Bundibugyo and Ntoroko, that the Members of Parliament found much less interesting than the sensational Ushs96million-a-month salary.