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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Is the word ‘corruption’ synonymous with the word ‘Uganda’?

‘The lesson is that given entrenched corruption in Uganda (which I don’t think even the opposition can end), the best way forward is to build consensus around promoting some public goods while accepting less costly violations of procurement rules.’

These words come from Andrew Mwenda, the highly – and justly - respected journalist who writes for The Independent (the Ugandan weekly, not the British daily).  The point of his article, ‘The price of Besigye-Museveni rivalry’, is that challenges to the probity with which major projects are conducted in Uganda actually delay desperately needed developments, with an inevitable impact on industry and hence the economy, as well as on individual lives.  He gives as an example the construction of the Bujagali dam, which was supposed to be completed in 2002 and is still under construction.  As an investigative reporter during the late 1990s when the plans were being discussed, he observed manipulation and bribery of politicians at first hand.  Mwenda claims that the institutions charged with oversight of government procurement used to force bidders to go before their committees in order to extract bribes from them, rather than to ensure that the process was clean and fair.  As a result of all the delays, the electrification vital for the development of Uganda’s industries, public services and infrastructure, including vital information and communications technology, has been painfully slow, the target still being only 20% of the country with access to electricity by 2015.

Mwenda’s is a pragmatic, and understandable, position, though absolutely damning in what it implies about the ethical standards of both the Ugandan public sector and the business community.  Its assumptions are that little can be done about corruption in Uganda in the short term: people just have ‘work round it’, accept that it exists and try to operate regardless.  Trying too hard to prevent it just results in nothing happening at all.

Certainly, you do not have to live here long before you become aware of how corruption’s tentacles wrap round every single public service, every government department and, presumably, every major business.  Companies wishing to bid for contracts are apparently expected to build in ‘sweeteners’ for influential people, or else they lose the deal.  Billions of shillings are salted away into people’s pockets or back bedrooms from government departments, local and national: sacks of it, quite literally sacks – bank notes a lot of the time, because Uganda is still largely a cash economy. Vans go between government departments loaded with the stuff. When confronted by corruption, people have three choices: blow the whistle and lose your job or contract, turn a blind eye and become complicit or demand a payoff and thus join the racket oneself.

So, what are we actually talking about?  Here is a selection of recent news stories from the papers.  Just remember, these are the instances of corruption which have actually come to light and are being dealt with.  The words ‘tips’ and ‘icebergs’ come to mind.
  • Senior officials in Jinja District are accused of giving themselves publicly-owned land near the Nile and putting it into their relatives’ names, with a view to claiming compensation once the new bridge is built.
  • In April, Shs300 million given to State House to fight poverty remained unaccounted for and the papers concerning the funds were passed to the Criminal Investigations Department by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
  • A couple of months ago the Monitor claimed that MPs had spent Shs4.6 billion on ‘fake’ foreign trips for which they had been unable to account properly to the PAC. (Though who are the British to speak about MPs cheating on travel and subsistence expenses?  Nevertheless, not even the most elaborate duck house costs quite this much.)
  • Health Ministry officials are accused of stealing Shs600million from the Ministry’s bank account, enough to buy vaccine for 7,500 people, during the yellow fever outbreak in northern Uganda at the end of last year.
  • More than half a dozen ‘ghost' fuel firms have been profiteering from the current high fuel prices.  Uganda imports most of its fuel from across the Kenyan border.
  • The National Sewerage Corporation has cut off a church in a Kampala suburb which had made three illegal bypasses enabling it to use more water than it paid for each month (Shs50,000, or about £12).
  • 125 police officers were demoted after it was found that they had paid bribes ranging from Shs 200,000 (£50) to Shs500,000 to officers in the Human Resource Management and Development Department, to gain promotion.
  • The Uganda Wildlife Authority is being investigated in relation to Shs85.5 billion given by the World Bank for the Protected Areas Management for Sustainable Use project, and some officials have been suspended.
  • At the other end of the scale, and the country, 30,000 goats supposedly provided under a government poverty reduction programme have vanished (or never been born!).

The biggest story at the moment has to be the suspension of the ex-Vice President of the Uganda government from her job at the state-run Microfinance Support Centre after reports that Shs10 billion is unaccounted for. It is claimed by the press that in addition to requesting major advances (like Shs50 million) she also drew Shs500,000 per day for desk work (on top of her salary), for things like report writing and correspondence to the Finance Ministry as well as activities such as meetings, office relocation, presentations at workshops and a visit to women entrepreneurs in Kampala.


One could go on and on.  These are just snippets from a steady stream of news stories every day of every week. Apparently the country loses Shs500 billion to corrupt officials every year, enough to pay the salaries of 200,000 primary school teachers.

It is not that corruption and embezzlement are unknown in other countries.  After all, no one who has lived in South Yorkshire can claim ignorance of corruption in local government.  Only a couple of months ago, half the officials in one of Edinburgh City Council's departments were suspended on grounds of corruption.  As one of my friends said, the other half must also have known. West Lothian's well-known MP was taken to court for fraud just last year. Glasgow City Council is just emerging from a major corruption scandal involving undue influence, access to key committees and, once reported in the tabloids, a tasty dose of sex and drugs. Corruption has brought about the downfall of some very well-known European politicians.

However, in Uganda, corruption is on an industrial scale and penetrates every level and aspect of society.  And the casualties are there for everyone to see. In Europe, corruption also has victims but they are largely invisible. The victims stare you in the face in Uganda. You see them limping down the streets, hanging around hospital verandahs or walking barefoot to school to sit on earth floors in overcrowded classrooms. By siphoning off funds, corrupt officials in the Ministry of Education and Sports or in districts and schools across the country damage the futures of millions of children dependent on public funds to pay for their primary or secondary education. Corrupt doctors and nurses cause the deaths of patients whose families cannot afford the bribes required for treatment. They leave wards unmanned while they go off to work in their private clinics. They steal government-supplied drugs and sell them in those same private clinics, leaving the government health clinics empty and thousands dying of preventable diseases like malaria. It is not enough to acknowledge their pitiful pay and poor living conditions: there are ethical issues here. These people are members of the caring professions, with professional codes of practice. Can they not see what they are doing? Have they no shame, no pity, no compassion?

Why is this happening?  A man called Richard Nyhiiro recently wrote an interesting letter to the Monitor in which he argued that traditionally, Africans either subsisted through hunting and gathering (i.e. were able to access ‘free’ food) or grabbed their resources from the weak.  People are said to have ‘eaten’ when they are appointed to a position of responsibility.  Nyhiiro claims, and I have no idea if this is true, that there is no African language with a word which means exactly the same as ‘corruption’.  In Bantu languages, he says, corruption is referred to as nguzi, related to the word for trade.  There is a proverb which says ‘it is a blessing to have a kin in a position of responsibility’ – nepotism, in other words, and diversion of resources into family households.  He suggests that there is something about traditional African culture which is out of tune with modern approaches to governance. 

‘With no economic bases for achieving development, when we get an opportunity to manage communal resources, we misappropriate them,’ Nyhiiro says, a sad and depressing conclusion.

Another view is that in countries like Uganda, people have lived in such poverty for so long and have had to struggle so hard to survive that they have become hardened.  Deprivation leads them to carry out the most callous acts.  It is a year since the Kampala bomb blasts, when over 70 people died, and the papers are full of human stories of death and survival.  There are certainly stories of selflessness and generosity.  There are also stories of people picking the pockets of the dead, dying and badly injured while they lay on the ground.  Some victims, lacking ambulances, were helped onto boda bodas by their friends only to be turned off when they couldn’t produce the extra money demanded to take them to hospital. 

A fascinating and disturbing book published 30 years ago, ‘The Mountain People’ by the anthropologist, Colin Turnbull, described what happened to a tribe of hunters called the Ik, in Karamoja in the far north east of Uganda, when the colonial authorities set apart the land where they lived and on which they were reliant for food, as a national park. The Ik starved, and under the stress of dire food shortages, those 'natural' family ties which we take for granted and assume to be inborn, for example, the bond between mother and child, started to unravel.  Parents sometimes took food from children, a breakdown in family relationships which mirrors some stories from World War II concentration camps. Turnbull’s conclusion was that the survivors were so damaged that they could no longer operate any longer as a community, for essential features of communal life such as cooperation and consideration for others had been destroyed.  The Ik would prey on any people they came in contact with, whether outsiders or members of their own tribe.  Shockingly, he suggested that they should be separated and relocated among other tribes elsewhere in Uganda.  In actual fact, that did not happen and the Ik still exist today, more resilient perhaps than he predicted.

That degree of starvation has not been a consistent feature of life across the rest of Uganda, but enormous suffering and both chronic and acute privation have been, the result of the best part of nearly 35 years of bloody dictatorship, insurrection and civil war.  Some people have become survivors, salting money and goods away for a rainy day.  Others like to advertise their wealth and hence their apparent security – the ‘big men’ in their flashy cars. Many Ugandans have to support orphaned nephews and nieces and indigent relatives and find it a constant struggle to pay school fees.  The extended family is a mixed blessing.  There is always someone claiming their right to a share of your salary: to buy land, to pay for training, to invest in a business.  Out of pressures like these come small dishonesties which, in time, become larger dishonesties, and before they know it people are up to their necks in filth.  The papers are full of notices placed by banks and insurance companies which feature photographs of ordinary individuals and statements indicating that they are no longer representatives of a particular company.  The churches are no help either.  Many of the most corrupt members of society are prominent members of their churches, and welcomed for their wealth, influence and patronage.

It would be easy to think that everyone is like that.  In fact, many of the Ugandans we know are acutely embarrassed by the dishonesty around them.  But what can they do?  They keep their heads down and hope not to notice, because they have to survive too.

It is difficult to know what can be done about all this.  How do you change an entire culture?  Perhaps Andrew Mwenda is right.  You can’t change it.  You try to control it, minimise it and circumvent it, but, in the end, you accept it for otherwise nothing would ever get done.


If you found this post interesting, you may also like to read the following posts:

Caring for the sick in Uganda

What do we mean by 'motivation'?

Catching up with the education news - in  Uganda, that is

You may also find other articles by Andrew Mwenda of interest: Why we need to focus on results (follow up to the article referred to above) and The political value of corruption published in January 2012 following a number of corruption scandals.

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