About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Friday, December 23, 2016

Uganda’s war on corruption

Why do many people believe corruption is out of control despite many prosecutions?

In October, the Anticorruption Court convicted the main culprits in the theft of pension money. The three men were top officials of the ministry of public service; including the permanent secretary and the principle accountants. The story made headlines for two days and died away. Indeed, every day, there is news of public officials in Uganda being arrested, charged, and prosecuted or being convicted of corruption. But they don’t make big news. Yet the media – both traditional and social media – get obsessed with considerably minor stories and cover them for weeks on end.

Over the last five years, few public officials who have been embroiled in corruption have not ended in court and better still in prison. These include a former vice president, top ministers including those closest to the president, business persons etc. Over this same period about six permanent secretaries have been indicted and charged in courts of law with corruption. In fact, if you keep your eye especially on New Vision, there are almost daily stories of local officials in districts being prosecuted or convicted for corruption.

Statistically, therefore, it can be seen that the government of Uganda is fighting corruption. I have not done a statistical audit to establish how many public officials get charged with corruption, how many are tried in courts of law, and what percentage gets convicted. But soon I will assemble comparative data within Uganda over time i.e. comparing the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s and between Uganda and other poor countries.

I suspect there are increasingly more arrests and trials of the corrupt today than ever before. If my suspicion is right, why do many people believe that corruption is running out of control at the time when the Anti-Corruption Court has been most effective in prosecution? 

One reason could be that corruption has grown just as its prosecution has intensified. If this were true, it would suggest that the returns from corruption are very high and, therefore, many thieves do not mind spending five years in jail for it.

The other reason is that there is great fatigue with the Yoweri Museveni administration most especially among the educated strata of society. Again I do not have scientific data and this is based entirely on my anecdotal evidence gleaned from reading social media and following traditional media reports. Anyone who tries to defend Museveni and his government only invites derision and hostility. I have watched in silent wonderment at why the Museveni administration does not feel it vital to develop a communications strategy to improve its public image.

But the most important thing is that Museveni personally (and his government generally) has treated corruption as a criminal and legal rather than a political problem. If you follow the President closely, he keeps saying that he (and his government and political party) first fought extra judicial killings. He says that was easy to deal with. However, he argues that corruption is more complicated because now you need more professional people such as accountants and auditors to detect and prosecute it. And I think the weakness of the Museveni approach lies here.

The most successful country at fighting corruption in Africa today is post-genocide Rwanda. There, President Paul Kagame has looked at corruption not merely as a legal but most critically at a political problem. He sees it as a threat to the legitimacy of his government, a major stumbling block to the functioning of the state, especially its ability to deliver public goods and services to citizens. So he has created a political atmosphere so hostile to corruption that practically every public official in that country is scared.

The biggest threat Kagame has created around corruption is not that when you get caught stealing and/or abusing public funds you will be arrested, prosecuted and even jailed. That is only a small part of the punishment. And as we have seen with Uganda, thieves can be content with that process since they can steal billions, serve a jail term, and return home comfortably to enjoy their loot. What Kagame has done with corruption is that he has created an atmosphere of hostility within the society to socially ostracise the corrupt.

Today, if you are accused of stealing public funds in Rwanda, you may win the case in a judicial court but the court of public opinion will punish you more. People will shun you in public. No one will attend your children’s baptism or your birthday party. You will find few people willing to visit you at home, leave alone go out to dinner with you. Practically most people will see you as a dangerous person who tried to cheat the country. It is like being prosecuted as a child molester in Canada or Germany. People so prosecuted get socially alienated from the community.

This has been the most important element in Rwanda’s war against corruption – making those so accused suffer social costs over and above judicial ones. There is little shame on being corrupt in Uganda. In fact, public thieves are lionised in our country as it happens in many poor countries. After serving a jail term and returning to enjoy their billions, they surround themselves with a large entourage of hangers on, run and win seats in parliament and continue to enjoy their loot almost as celebrities.

The other lesson is that in Uganda, as in many poor countries, corruption is the way the system works, not the way it fails. It is the way governments build an electoral or a governing coalition. It is most typified by India; perhaps the most successful democracy in a poor country. In that country, the thieves have a license to rule. It is also the experience of today’s rich countries when they were still poor. In all these societies, corruption has been the instrument through which governments are able to placate the conflicting interests of their often divided, unruly and noisy elites.

Indeed, democracy tends to reinforce rather than reduce corruption in poor countries. I must admit even authoritarian governments like that of Mobutu Sese Seko in former Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) acted in similar ways with corruption acting as political currency for regime maintenance. This almost means that what we see in Rwanda is a unique and unprecedented experiment i.e. having a government in a poor country basing its legitimacy on public service as opposed to coopting powerful ethnic and religious elites using corruption and patronage.


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