Over the last few months, it has been exposed that officials in the office of the prime minister and in the ministry of public service stole over Shs 600 billion (US$ 250m). Our country has bad roads, 26 mothers die in child birth per day, 80,000 kids die every year from preventable diseases (in ten years you have a number equal to the Rwanda genocide of 1994), children study under mango trees for lack of classrooms, limited agricultural extension services and supply of electricity is only to eight percent of our people. Therefore Uganda needs every coin of public funds to serve its citizens. However, this collective vision has been lost. Instead, we see a pattern of actions where the interests of the many have been usurped by the greed of a few.
Hence, official loot becomes the glue that holds together NRM’s multi ethnic and multi religious coalition. Otherwise, how would one keep such diverse men as Kahinda Otafiire, Gilbert Bukenya and Amama Mbabazi under the same roof? Remove corruption and the system could crack. Rather than see it as a criminal act by individuals seeking material self-aggrandizement, my view has been to see corruption as a social institution through which political power is organised, distributed, exercised and reproduced.
From this perspective, one can understand that allegations of corruption against powerful politicians and their auxiliaries fit this instrumentalist view. However, corruption in Uganda also involves “small people”: the nurse at a local clinic who sells to her patients drugs that are meant to be free; to a head teacher at a rural primary school who pockets the capitation grant; the traffic police constable on the street who lets an offender go free in exchange for kitu kidogo i.e. a bribe; the agricultural extension worker who does not show up for his job but earns a salary.
How does NRM politically gain from such small-scale yet widespread corruption? Besides, this has the most detrimental effects on public service delivery. There is a saying that a fish begins rotting from the head. Once you have the top creaking with corruption, it infects the entire body politic. This is theoretically convincing but empirically not always true. I have read many studies of corruption in high places in Italy, Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan that make ours look like chicken feed. However, elites in these countries, while corrupt at the top, tend to discipline small public sector functionaries.Thus, in spite of corruption, work gets done.
In Uganda’s case, it is obvious that NRM also suffers the costs of corruption. For instance, its national and international reputation is badly tainted. During the last election campaigns, the failure of public services was an important part of Kizza Besigye’s platform. Even in rural areas where I covered Besigye and President Yoweri Museveni’s rallies, Museveni was accosted with complaints of failures in public service delivery. Each time he tried to name his achievements in service delivery he would be booed by his supporters. He therefore adopted a strategy of deflecting blame from himself to local government functionaries. It worked but for how long?
Therefore, even if NRM may benefit from corruption, it also suffers its costs. Many people harmed by corruption are its supporters. Perhaps NRM does a cost-benefit analysis and finds that it gains more than it loses through corruption. But this also means it is not always a beneficiary of every act of corruption. For example, how does NRM benefit when people like Godfrey Kazinda, David Oloka and Christopher Obey steal billions? Surely, NRM should have a vested interest in fighting certain forms of corruption.
Why then is the political will missing? Perhaps it is not just political will but actual capacity to take on the thieves. Assuming this government (or any other newly elected government) decided to fight corruption. Would it change the current trajectory? To fight the corrupt, government would have to rely on existing institutions and manpower – the police, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP), the Inspectorate of Government and the judiciary. But with thieves commanding billions, how many officials from these institutions can resist the temptation of Shs 100m delivered at their doorstep? Besides, the existing legal regime favors the corrupt.
For example, having stolen over shs 400 billion through ghost pensions, Obey and Oloka were taken to police and given bond. Now they are free on the streets and it is their legal right to be. Does anyone think that they are out on the streets waiting for their day in court? Is it possible that they could be busy trying to use their billions to influence police investigations, to buy off state attorneys in the DPP’s office, using their allies to hide evidence, sell off their properties and send their monies to numbered accounts abroad?
Should we be surprised that in spite of mountains of evidence, the DPP has not yet preferred any charges against them – two months later? The choice facing any government official trying to nail them is overnight riches (because they can pay handsomely) or the thankless job of fighting a lost cause i.e. serving a government that pays them peanuts. The state cannot compete with the thieves in bribing its own officials to be more committed to the public good.
Corruption has become too deeply entrenched that fighting it may require a combination of political will backed by the arbitrary use of power – a willingness to be ruthless. It seems to me that any leader willing to take on this monster would have to disregard due process, run rough shod over peoples’ legal rights and use extra legal means to bring social justice. That may be necessary, but is it desirable?