I argued in this column last week that multiple checks and balances in public procurement in a country like Uganda tend to accentuate rather than control corruption. This is because multiple centres of control in a neo-patrimonial system do not create checks and balances as would happen in Sweden. Instead, you create multiple bribe-collection centres. Such uncoordinated centres make corruption expensive and therefore discourage investment. That is why a centralised corrupt Mafioso like that of Gen. Suharto in Indonesia tended not to undermine development like did the decentralized dictatorship of Marshal Mobutu in Zaire.
But would the removal of these multiple centres of control IGG, PPDA, Attorney General Chambers, Contract Committees in ministries and public bodies etc reduce the incidence of corruption in public procurement? I suspect they would not. Why? These multiple centres reflect the actual distribution of power in Uganda. Therefore, even if formal power was centralised in formal institutions of state, actual/effective power would remain dispersed among informal and diffuse fragments of our political structure.
Uganda enjoys a rare contradiction: Power is centralised (and personalised) in the hands of President Yoweri Museveni. So nothing of substance happens in this country without his personal involvement and approval. Yet equally, power is dispersed among many factions the first family faction led by Mrs Janet Museveni; the Presidents Office faction under the Principle Private Secretary (PPS) to the president, Amelia Kyambadde; the Amama Mbabazi faction of presidential favourites; and the myriad institutions like the Ministry of Finance, security agencies, the army etc.
Therefore, even if we did not have formal structures like PPDA, IGG etc., fights over government tenders would erupt; the aforementioned informal factions would ignite them. For example, a company backed by the presidents brother-in- law and foreign affairs minister, Sam Kutesa, may fight another fronted by the presidents son-in-law, Odrek Rwabwogo and yet another favoured by Kyambadde. Since power is centralised in the hands of the president, the fights over who gets what will take on a familial character i.e. factional infighting turns into a family feud. Africa has seen this before; a president having to decide whether to favour his concubine, brother or wife in a given tender.
Indeed, we may now begin to witness institutions like security agencies, the army and the Ministry of Finance vying to win favour with one of the factions around the president and vice versa. These developments will inevitably undermine Ugandas liberal economic policies. This is because such factional infighting over state-created rents tends to favour policies that limit access to economic opportunities. Of course, that is the inevitable logic of a personalised neo-patrimonial order: open competition for economic opportunities risks placing vital resources in the hands of rivals.
It is through this prism that we can understand the essence of the public fight over NSSF and Temangalo. One would have expected the opposition to be the force behind attempts to censure Mbabazi. Instead, we saw NRM leaders leading the battle Jim Muhwezi; local government minister, Kahinda Otafiire; vice president, Gilbert Bukenya and all NRM MPs from Kabale. These were directly and/or indirectly supported by Kyambadde and Mrs Museveni. The PPS and the First lady are competitors with Mbabazi regarding influence over the president; that is why they supported his censure. Muhwezi and Otafiire represented the struggle of historicals to reduce Mbabazis clout.
Bukenya tacitly supported the anti-Mbabazi crusade because he sees the politician from Kanungu as rival in the queue for succession.
Journalist and editors in Uganda, like international donors, dont see this. They report such contests as battles over accountability. Yet these are power struggles within NRM to trim Mbabazis wings. To be clear on this matter, even though I strongly believe that the price at which NSSF bought the land was good, I found the way in which the Fund was arm-twisted to pay it out ethically repugnant. Therefore, Mbabazi and finance minister, Ezra Suruma, should have resigned or been fired.
How then do we design a public procurement system that can deliver results in such a faction-ridden system? This is where my position tends to generate the greatest controversy. First, many Ugandans genuinely believe that we should insist that government adheres to the rules of procurement and contracting; any breach during the process should make the deal null and void.
I hold strongly that we cannot wish away corruption. It will take us time to eliminate it. In the short term, our nation needs investments to create jobs. Yet in that same short term, we cannot have a graft-free procurement and contracting process. Better government will come in the medium to long term not as an event but as a process. This means that we have to make a trade-off: to accept that certain rules will be violated in the process of getting us the goods and services we expect from our government.
Many of my intellectual friends have agonised over this position. They have called and written to me concerned that I am surrendering to corruption. But I insist that accepting that evil exists (and therefore we must learn how to live with it) does not mean that I have accepted evil is a virtue. Indeed, we should not resign ourselves to corruption; we should accept that our world is imperfect and that a perfect world is not attainable. However, our society is capable of infinite improvement. We cannot have what we want now, but we can progressively work towards it over time.
In the short term, we should not seek to hold government to account strictly on procedures of procurement; we should focus on holding it to account on results. Thus, instead of berating NSSF on whether they used the right procedure to buy Temangalo, our main focus should be whether it can actually develop the 5,000 low cost houses. Once construction begins, we can move backwards and settle scores with Mbabazi and Suruma and insist the NSSF improves on respect for the rules. By focusing on procedure first, we lost on both accounts; the two ministers were not punished and most likely the houses will not be built. That certainly is not a formula for success.
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