How theft of public resources has been used to build a broad multi ethnic coalition that sustains Uganda’s political system
The last Quarter of 2011 in Uganda was filled with one corruption scandal after another. Yet in spite of many corruption scandals unearthed, the mass media were only reporting a small part of it. Across ministries, local governments and other public institutions in the country, corruption is the essence of the political system in Uganda. Politics is a vehicle for promoting the privileges of a few elites at the top at the expense of the many masses below; and the so called democratic process is a mechanism through which elites in Uganda have captured and privatized the state.
To win an electoral majority, the NRM co-opts powerful individuals from our different ethnic and religious factions. These individuals command a following among their constituents. They act as a bridge between the NRM and the masses. But the NRM does not co-opt them for free; if offers them public sector jobs with official privileges in exchange for their support and that of their followers. But it also allows them opportunities to profit through corruption.
Uganda’s multi ethnic elites lack a shared vision for national transformation. So the divided elite come to the state in search of particularistic advantage. The alternative to hostile stalemate in this coalition is the exchange of material favours – otherwise called corruption. Hence, corruption is the glue that holds this multi-ethnic coalition together. It is possible that if Museveni ruthlessly fought graft, he could cause his government to unravel. So government is actually a national coalition for corruption.
Even the struggle against graft in the mass media and the parliament is actually the way corruption survives, not the way it is undermined. Corruption creates many public sector dysfunctions in Uganda: hospitals and schools crumble under the weight of disrepair; roads and bridges break down with cracks, potholes and broken pavements; healthcare delivery is clumsy as medical workers don’t show up and when they do, it is for a few hours; medicines are diverted from public health units to private clinics where they are sold; teachers in school are in class for only 18 percent of the time; money meant for textbooks, desks and laboratory equipment is stolen with impunity; agricultural extension officers spend their time in towns, not farms etc.
These failures create widespread public discontent. So when one isolated case or corruption involving a high profile politician rears its ugly head in the mass media, in a parliamentary investigation and in a commission of inquiry, the public raise in unison demanding the head of the accused official. The government may initially put up some impotent gestures of protest – appearing to stand by a minister-thief in the face of public outrage. But after weeks of public debate and acrimony, it relents and throws up a sacrificial lamb: so the minister falls, a few people are dragged to court for trial and an angry public feels something has been done and cools down.
It is these rhythms of mind-boggling theft of public resources leading to disastrous public goods and services, then repressed public anger, followed by an isolated case of someone caught with their finger in the till (like Kabakumba Matsiko). This single incident generates mass hysteria. In Uganda’s largely liberalised and free media, the theatrical outplay of this especially among our pretentious elites borders on drama. Then that official is surrendered to the public as a sacrificial lamb. With such a gesture, our elites feel a sense of victory, their anger cools down and they return home to sleep as public officials proceed with their loot. Through these rhythms, the NRM has actually given Uganda’s chattering classes an illusion of empowerment.
Even at personal level, schemes abound. A Member of Parliament raises his profile by championing the cause of corruption. He may mobilise a coalition of other MPs to support his cause. However, this only makes him attractive for a ministerial position. Once he gets that, like Henry Banyenzaki today and Basoga Nsandhu before him, the MP goes silent. Was the MP positioning himself for a job when they began the fight against corruption or did he get captured along the way? Historical experience shows that whenever they do, they get a ministerial appointment. For now, let us watch Theodore Sekikubo, Gerald Karuhanga and Elly Tumwine.
President Yoweri Museveni’s greatest triumph has been to organise corruption on a broad-based scale. By expanding cabinet, the number of presidential advisors, increasing the number of districts, creating many commissions and autonomous government agencies and by establishing many security outfits, he has created highly diversified centers for corruption. Even the opposition has districts where they can goad themselves. Where in other nations corruption has been explosive, in Uganda it has been integrative.
Yet as the country urbanises and the population gets more educated, it seems the explosive tendencies of this strategy may begin to outweigh its integrative value. And if this happens, we are likely to see a national rapture. How this may play out is difficult to foretell. Will it be a mass movement from below led by the educated youths championing a liberal democratic politics? Or will it be the charisma of a demagogue seeking dictatorial power by leveraging social discontent as Adolf Hitler did in Germany in 1933? Or will it be a slow process of internal change through incremental reform rather than sudden revolution?
Anything is possible. For now, we can say that the political equilibrium created in 1986 through a coalition of corruption is entering disequilibria. To stave off violent contest, the status quo needs to be open to internal reform lest it risks external revolution. Of course in the short term oil revenues may give it breathing space to expand patronage networks without having to reform. But oil revenues could also increase internal contestations thus making the system vulnerable to external pressures.