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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Byarugaba’s return to NSSF

How the fight against corruption is actually the way this evil has grown and consolidated in our country

Two weeks ago, President Yoweri Museveni forced the minister of Finance to reappoint Richard Byarugaba as Managing Director of the National Social Security Fund (NSSF). The president argued that since Byarugaba achieved and in many cases exceeded his performance targets, his contract should have been renewed automatically. Museveni also warned that if successful managers are fired instead of being rewarded, it would send the wrong signal to the market that government does not reward good performance.

But as Byarugaba plans to return to NSSF, Geraldine Ssali who has been acting MD recently revealed that management at the Fund spends 20% of their time answering queries from different state institutions assigned to investigate them.

As I write this article, the Inspector General of Government (IGG), Auditor General (AG), Uganda Police, and Parliament are all investigating or have just finished investigating the Fund. It is possible that Internal Security Organisation, External Security Organisation and the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence are moving inside NSSF pretending to investigate as well. Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) in the tens have been making their voices heard in denouncing corruption at NSSF and calling on government to act. And of course we in the mass media are doing our job of “investigating” in order to “inform the public” about the goings on in the NSSF.

Anyone reading about NSSF in the media in Uganda would think it is the most rotten organisation. Yet a comparative study of its performance shows that NSSF is the best performing government-run social security fund in East Africa.

People may ask: What is wrong with NSSF being investigated? Why should managers who have done nothing wrong worry about investigations? The answer is simple: put yourself in their shoes. If it were you being investigated by ten institutions everyday, would you work? Managers at NSSF are human beings. You cannot be subjected to daily investigations and work straight. Besides, such multiple investigations are a statement that we have no faith in the managers we have appointed. Constantly demonstrating lack of confidence in your employees, students, or children is not a formula for motivating them to worker harder and achiever greater heights.

Indeed, as a consequence of these constant investigations (plus other misguided decisions by certain public officials mandated to oversee the Fund), most of the best employees of NSSF have resigned and gone to work in other institutions where they are not subjected to constant harassment. The finance department alone lost seven of its managers while the Fund overall lost 25 top managers. But as the most qualified, honest, and competent leave NSSF because of these circumstances, professionals of similar caliber realise this is not a place to work. So when jobs are advertised at the Fund, the best alternatives just do not apply.

But there will always be people willing to apply for jobs in NSSF anyway. The result is that increasingly, the less qualified, the more corrupt and incompetent who have failed to work in other organisations will be the persons willing to apply to work with NSSF. Whoever will be recruiting for the Fund will have to choose new managers from the list of those who have applied. As the grain moves to better institutions, the appointing authority will have only the chuff to choose from. Therefore, even if the subjective motivation of those investigating the Fund were noble, the objective outcome of their actions will be counterproductive to the Fund.

The problem with the discussion of public issues in Uganda is that it remains stuck at the level of theory drawn from a textbook, itself telling the experience of Western societies. Rarely does the debate on such issues in Uganda leave textbook theories to examine the reality. Thus, a visitor not familiar with Uganda and finding all these investigations of NSSF would imagine that this level of official scrutiny of public officials by state and non-state institutions is a sign of a vibrant civic life. But in fact it is a political pathology that allows the beast of corruption to thrive in our country. The aim of these investigations is not to correct corrupt behavior but actually to facilitate it.

Institutions in any society structure incentives for different actors. In Uganda’s case, the constitution and other legal documents give powers to the IGG, Parliament, AG and Police to investigate any institution. These institution, therefore, have power to cause trouble for any public official. But this power does not move hand-in-hand with the ethics that make it serve noble intentions. Thus when Parliament, IGG, IGP, AG etc. send investigators to NSSF, they sometimes do not go there to expose the rot. Some of them go to ask for bribes so that they can “bury the case” and give management “a favourable report.”

Here is the context: there cannot be an organisation in this world without mistakes. Read the external annual audit report of any private or public company in the world, from Microsoft to Apple, Google to Facebook, there will be myriad audit queries raised. It happens every year at The Independent in spite of all the good intentions and competences of our staff. It follows that any investigation of any institution will find some mistake. In Uganda’s case, any investigation will expose mistakes. However, any official who does not cough bribes will get a bad report where trivial issues will be overblown to a poorly informed public as fundamental breaches of trust.

I have spent the last 16 years of my career as a journalist working on corruption cases. I came to realise as early as 2001 that what we consider “investigations of corruption” are the very means through which graft works in our country. I have learnt that an extremely corrupt official will always get a favourable report from any investigation because he can bribe the investigators. Paradoxically, the more corrupt an official in Uganda, the less the investigations that will produce a big expose. The more honest a public servant is, the more he or she is likely to suffer the wraths of investigators.

There are exceptions to this rule. The former Principal Accountant in the Office of the Prime Minister, Geoffrey Kazinda who is now in jail, is a case in point. But his conviction was only possible because Kazinda was a Trojan horse for a political attack on Amama Mbabazi who was Prime Minister. Someone wanted corruption close to Mbabazi exposed for purely political reasons; Kazinda offered a perfect channel. It was not the investigations into corruption but the power struggles around that office that shaped this particular investigation and its findings.


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