Over the last year Uganda has latched from one major corruption scandal to another. The paradox of our nation’s corruption is that although it goes on with impunity, it does not go on with impunity. Although the corrupt plunder public resources at will, the public and the state seem to be permanently engaged in ferocious combat against them.
In the last year we have seen a former vice president and six ministers in court over charges of corruption. We have also seen a minister resign, two get fired and three step aside because of allegations of corruption. Three permanent secretaries have been interdicted and one is fighting for his job.
I cannot count the number of civil servants interdicted, in jail or bail for corruption. Recently we have seen police raids on the private businesses and homes of corrupt public servants and confiscated their property titles, frozen their bank accounts etc.
Yet I also know that in almost every arm of government, and in spite of all these wars and battles against corruption, public officials are busy pillaging national resources as if nothing is happening. Corruption seems to be our friend and enemy, we love and loathe it in equal measure. How do we reconcile these contradictory currents (oxymoron)?
I think the problem is our mindset. We are taught to believe that corruption exits in situations where you have a poor control environment (weak procedures to guard against theft), where state institutions like police, judiciary, Auditor General’s office etc. are weak because of poor financing or have been compromised by the executive (lacking independence) and where civil society is suppressed and the press muzzled.
The persistence of corruption in Uganda often leads us to embrace these arguments. I write this article with a lot of humility because for many years I was a key spokesperson of these very arguments.
In hot pursuit of these standard arguments, our ever-generous donors have spent time and money paying for improving the work of parliament, sent our police officers for training abroad, sponsored legislation to increase the powers of the Inspectorate of Government, financed “civil society” and of course supported us in the mass media against threats from the state.
As a result, our anti corruption institutions and procedures in government procurement and payments are as impregnable as the Maginot Line – that network of fortifications built by the French in the 1930s to protect their country against an attack from Germany. As we now know, in May 1940, the German army simply bypassed the fortifications (by going through the Ardennes forests) and France capitulated in six weeks.
Why did the Maginot line fail to protect France? Because the assumptions behind it – that the defense had an upper hand, that two soldiers with a machine gun in an entrenched position could kill a thousand enemy soldiers – could not work in the face of the new German war strategy of blitzkrieg, a war strategy that emphasised speed and surprise over the static immobility which had characterised the First World War.
Similarly the assumptions underlying the impregnable procedures and layers of control in government procurement and payment system have been elaborate but equally counterproductive. They assume that the multiplicity of institutions for oversight would make collusion difficult among officials. Instead they have bribes bigger.
Take the example of the dubious compensation of businessman Hassan Basajabalaba. When he initially lodged his claim, it was only Shs 22 billion. Government set up an inter-ministerial committee composed eight ministries and government departments. It is difficult to collude with such a large and diverse group.
Yet that is exactly what happened: Basajabalaba’s claim then grew to Shs 169 billion largely because these numerous layers of control increased the number of hands he had to grease. The pensions’ scam and in the theft in the Office of the Prime Minister also showed that oversight institutions (Internal Audit in the ministry of finance and external audit in the Auditor General’s office) rather than catch the thieves actually colluded with them.
Furthermore, our anti corruption theories (and therefore institutions we have cultivated) assume that the supply of accountability from the leaders at the top is a result of demand for it by citizens from below. To combat corruption, this paradigm holds, you need to put in place mechanisms that allow democratic oversight over the workings of public officials – hence parliaments, free press, civil society etc. Uganda has done this and more but corruption seems to grow in spite of (and I want to add precisely because of) these oversight institutions.
The most successful country in Africa in combating corruption is Rwanda. Yet we see little or no demand for accountability from its citizens through the press, civil society activism, political parties and parliament as we see in Uganda. Indeed the democratic impulse in Uganda is more developed than in Rwanda.
Yet ruling elites in Rwanda have made fighting corruption and the delivery of public goods and services to ordinary citizens through impersonal institutions the corner stone of their legitimacy. In Uganda, ruling elites have made trading patronage among themselves the central fulcrum of democratic politics.
I share some of my critics’ skepticism; that Rwanda’s anti corruption credentials are fragile because they have little supporting infrastructure within the society. Its leadership-driven approach while commendable is too top-down and centralised. It therefore runs the risk where change in leadership can bring the system crumbling down.
Uganda’s fight against corruption may appear weak. But precisely because it is diffuse among many societal forces, it has higher chances of sustainability even in the face of changes in leadership.
While the aforementioned risk in Rwanda is real, the lesson still is powerful. That fighting corruption is not merely a response to pressure from below, but needs to be buttressed by the supply of values from above. What is missing in Uganda is not democratic oversight but values-driven leadership.
The lesson from Rwanda is that leadership matters, and that how electoral coalitions are created has powerful implications on fighting corruption – a subject I will discuss another day.