OFWONO OPONDO: Teachers climbed the summit and now hanging in own breeze over pay

It was Julius Caesar who stated “All bad precedents begin as justifiable measures” and so the ongoing revolt by Arts teachers in government schools over pay should remind us how all this started, and hopefully be lesson for the way forward. These teachers are revolting allegedly because they disagreed with President Yoweri Museveni over his preposition that for now, only science professionals be given pay rise of 300 percent. In a sense, having met President Museveni two weeks ago and have been unreasonably adamant, seem to have climbed the summit and are now dangling in own breeze as no one else can fulfill their demands.

Reports indicate that other civil servants are plotting their own strike over insufficient pay in what could bring the country into paralysis to demonstrate how important and relevant they too are. Many have lived on low pay but resorted to their wits sometimes corruption until the recent pay rise for science professionals most of whom don’t innovate although government argues are more needed to kick life in the economy. ‘Scientists’ in lower education levels are thinly defined.

Clearly, the huge gaps and inequalities in the public sector pay cannot reasonably be justified, but as the saying goes, if you are not big enough to lose, you are probably not big enough to win either. Many believe that teachers are doing so partly because they have seen what Caesar is getting. The strike which started as a grumble on the back of two years of Covid-19 lockdown is being seen by some as blackmail to hold the public hostage. As the shepherds of young minds, teachers have better means to make their case heard and have been got pay rises over the years. Opposition surrogates posture that they support teachers’ strike, but won’t ask them quality education delivery.

Many Ugandans believe that the long overdue comprehensive pay reform that government proposed many years ago if handled with equity, would be a more rational approach to shared national prosperity. Free citizens, competent management, and an effective government working in a non-confrontational way has an opportunity to create and share abundance

Health workers, university lecturers, and judicial officers who staged similar strikes some years back compared their pay with that of KCCA and UNRA employees who they considered minions, and each called off their revolt after government promised them pay increase which have been implemented over time although they still grumble that it’s insufficient.

In half-clever ploys they usually listed vehicles, personal security, decent office and residential accommodation, and salary increase as tools they need to function efficiently, which weren’t in dispute. However, for the judicial officers, opinion polls consistently ranked them with police as top corrupt public institutions in Uganda, and couldn’t enlist public sympathy. As their strike progressed, some lower judicial officers couldn’t sustain themselves, and so while judicial premises were ostensibly ‘closed’, the small gates and windows remained open for them to frequently sneak in, evidence of low-key activities.

The reason CEOs in government agencies were given huge perks was ostensibly to reward performance and shield them from undue pressures since they control ‘critical’ sectors and huge budgets. Now with everybody demanding higher pay, it is time in the name of transparency to ask for their performance contracts to be put on the table. This could reduce acts of blackmail by non-performers but also compare with what an average Ugandan earns.

Official wage inequality is symbol of something fundamentally wrong in Uganda’s public service. Too many offices are competing to achieve the wrong results, led astray by perverse incentives that produce bad outcomes. The excessive rewards for those at the top like MPs and CEOs among others are a disincentive to public service.

If we were all patriots working to transform Uganda, we would appreciate that our duty where we are all shareholders include acting in good faith to promote success for all citizens in the long term. We would appreciate the desirability of our collective responsibility to build and maintaining a reputation for high standards of business conduct and the need to act fairly among fellow citizens. Unfortunately, our education and democracy seem to be producing egoistic leaders and elites who believe they should be the privileged few and don’t worry much about other citizens.

Public servants ought to learn patience, long-term support for critical investments and continuous improvement that helped build most powerful world economies including Japan and German from the ruins of World War Two. For the educated elites serving in government to change their ways, it will take courageous leadership to look them in the eyes and say that current plans for growth cannot deliver exciting returns and secure the country if we continue along the same path.

Some of those who argue how critical their services are, which may be true, should remember they aren’t forced to work for government, after all, the scientists who discovered penicillin and insulin never got paid that much. The teachers must climb down the false high horse.

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