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

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The complexity of Uganda’s graft

The war on corruption is first and foremost a war over values and these have to be embedded in society first
Let me finish the argument on corruption I left hanging last week: that actually, a war on corruption is as much a war of values supplied from above (leadership) as it is a struggle for accountability demanded from below (by citizens). We have ignored the first part – the values part – and put too much emphasis on politics – the will to crack down on thieves.
And when I talk of leadership, I do not mean merely President Yoweri Museveni and his cabinet alone (although their role is critical), but ruling elites generally – in government, political parties, schools, churches, mass media, business, civil society, the family etc. What we observe in Uganda is a broad-based collapse in the moral fabric of our society.
My father worked as a civil servant in the colonial and immediate postcolonial administration. Like most of his contemporaries, he upheld the highest standards of public service: hard work, integrity and dedication to serving the public good.

This did not mean that he did not have personal ambitions. Rather, personal ambitions e.g. promotion (therefore higher social status), better earnings (through increment in his salary) and job satisfaction (a sense of personal fulfillment for doing a good job) were a result of him serving the public good.

The essence of a modern bureaucratic system is the reconciliation of personal ambition with national interests whereby personal advancement is predicated upon serving the public good. For this to happen the civil service has to offer a long-term career path and rewards. Indeed, the system needs to balance carrots and sticks – violations are sanctioned with jail and dismissal with disgrace; upholding the values and virtues of public service is rewarded with promotion and recognition.

But these legal/formal structures work because they are embedded in wider but informal societal values. My father was a son of a chief in the great Kingdom of Toro. At home, he was taught a particular morality – to work with dedication and probity at his job. His father’s contemporaries were chiefs as well. So his peers also shared a common ethos.

The headmaster and teachers of all the schools he went to were the pillars of this public morality – not through moral exhortations only – but largely through their actions. And finally, the priest at the church where he attended mass was the paragon of societal virtue.

On entering the public service, my father was not jumping out of the blue. He was a product of this rich fund of traditions, values, norms, and experiences. Although the colonial government was not a democracy, it served its subjects with dedication.

Thus, in spite of only rudimentary capacity by its subjects to hold it to account, it served. The immediate post colonial administrations of Milton Obote – and even Idi Amin – which were clearly not as democratic as the NRM is today – had much less corruption precisely because they inherited this public morality.

To understand the level of corruption in Uganda today, we have to look at the socialization of today’s graduate from university. The guy grows up in a home where his father is a civil servant earning Shs 930,000 (like Kazinda). The boy sees his father owns a sprawling mansion, has ten top-range luxury cars in his compound and takes his family for holidays in Monaco.

His father’s friends, Obey and Oloka, at the same salary, own properties worth billions and spend lavishly on a large entourage of hangers-on. At school, this boy’s headmaster was known to steal the Capitation Grant and the teachers to steal the school’s textbooks for their private school where they spend most of their time.

The priest at the church where this young boy goes for prayers steals offerings when he is not molesting him for sex. At university, the lecturers exchange marks for sex with the girls. In election campaigns in school, he literary bought votes to win elections – just as he saw his father’s friends do during the national election.

Having been socialized in this environment – from his home to his neighborhood, church to school and university – this boy now joins public or private office at 22 years only to find Obey, Oloka and Kazinda in charge. What do we expect from him when he is handling public or company funds?

When I last attended church in 1983, offerings were made on a flat open basket. When I next went to church in 2009, I was given something like a ballot box – you can put in money but you cannot remove anything – for fear of someone stealing the offerings.

Even in God’s temple, the thieves abound. Corruption is widely spread across all regions and institutions, public and private. One of our banks lost Shs 30 billion to fraud this year; a telecommunications company, Shs 47 billion. Even at The Independent, we have not escaped the cobra bite of fraud.

Corruption has penetrated our society so deeply that it is like a malignant tumor. I suspect that an effective surgical operation to remove this tumor could easily kill the patient i.e. a relentless war on corruption can cause regime collapse.

Since NRM survives by this corruption, it is not about to organize its own political funeral. But much worse; given the deeply entrenched interests who profit from corruption, a poorly thought out war against it could easily lead to civil war and the break-up of the country.

The war on corruption in government is not merely one of parliament, the press and civil society holding the government to account. Neither is it merely one of building multiple layers of control against individual decision-making.
This is the weakness in the parliamentary call for an authority to check the decisions of the oil minister. It is very likely this authority will create jobs for NRM functionaries who will collude with the minister to share in the spoils.

Uganda’s corruption shows that the tendency of the thief-catchers to collude with thieves is much higher than we previously thought. That is why a resolute “harsh punishment” policy against the corrupt has to go hand in hand with reconstructing the moral foundations of our country. The disappointing thing is that I actually don’t have a clue on how to do that.

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