Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ghost bicycles, ghost schools and real children

As in the rest of the world, everything in Uganda has a price. It's sometimes quite surprising whose pocket the money goes into and to what lengths they are prepared to go to make that money. The following big news stories have appeared in one place or another over the last couple of weeks. Some people get caught and some just get away with it. Some stories may make you smile and some will make you cry.

Corruption in the business world

The bicycle story. It was recently reported that 70,000 bicycles due to be supplied to village councils to enable officials get around their local areas have disappeared. In fact, they appear never to have existed. The Government deal was worth Shs9.9 billion ($340,660). 40% seems to have been paid over to a non-existent Indian company some time in December, allowing for partial shipment with further payments in March, but no signs of any bikes. Both the Bank of Uganda and Stanbic Bank have been embroiled in the scandal and issued notices disclaiming responsibility. As the Sunday Monitor (02/10/11) puts it, 'speculation is rife' with some claiming that the money was diverted into election activity. Who knows....  Ghost bicycles: you couldn't make it up!

From bicycles to roads. A French firm contracted to build the Jinja-Bugiri road, Basil Engineering, has disappeared after being paid Shs36 billion by the government. 'To the amazement of MPs,' said the paper, 'their [sic] physical address could not be traced'. The firm had also failed to pay 30% income tax. One MP has claimed that such companies without proper addresses are formed by corrupt government officials to steal money. Apparently the Public Account Committee is also unable to trace a firm called Dura Cement.

From roads to oil. One of Uganda's great hopes for the future lies in its oil deposits. These deposits run right down its Great Rift Valley and under 50% of the country. Exploration is going on in the far north west and around Lakes Albert and Edward. The companies involved receive 63.5% of the revenue and the country receives 36.5%. There has been a huge fuss about the secret nature of the deals, with the Speaker refusing to let MPs discuss them until yesterday, claiming higher authority. Parliament is to investigate claims that three politicians have allegedly taken bribes from Tullow Oil, a British firm: the Prime Minister, the Foreign Affairs Minister (yes, both these also implicated in CHOGM) and the Internal Affairs Minister, together with senior officials. Tullow Oil has angrily rejected the allegations and has itself accused other firms like ENI, an Italian company, of offering bribes while the President himself is pooh-poohing a Wikileaks assertion that he might have received them. He has also been quick to reassure the country that the documents shown to Parliament are forgeries. Meanwhile, Shs1.1 trillion paid by Tullow in capital gains tax is alleged to have disappeared from the Bank of Uganda. The Finance Minister has said that it is being used for the Karuma hydro power project, the Uganda Revenues Authority says it is still in the bank and the President suggested profiteers had put it into a fixed deposit account for their personal use. Who knows where the money is or what has been going on!

Political corruption

Today is a very special day. In 2007 Uganda hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), with access to a Shs500 billion budget. Of this budget, Shs247 billion was lost through procurement procedures being flouted and money being syphoned off into private pockets. Today some of those responsible have gone on trial, despite being exonerated by Parliament in March this year. All of a sudden, the ex-Vice President was arrested and sent to Luzira Jail on remand. He had been sacked in the summer, in advance of legal proceedings. He is now out on bail having parted with Shs50 million and his passport. The Government's Information Minister appealed for bail to be given, despite the Judiciary's concern about this, because 'Bukenya is a senior citizen and of advanced age who should be treated with decorum'. He is 62 and his nickname is 'Mahogany', or 'strength': Stuart and I are clearly geriatric. The corruption charges relate to the purchase of BMW cars and police motorcycles from the company Motorcare at inflated cost and without proper competitive tendering. The contract was worth Shs9.4 billion - $3,2 billion. The 204 vehicles were purchased for Euros 8.28 million instead of being leased at a cost of Euros 4.17 million; somewhere in the middle, a lot of money went astray. And in case western readers feel too smug, Motorcare is, in part, a Danish company. A mischievous press report claims that some of the spoils were used during the VP's election campaign, for example purchasing jerry cans of warigi (gin). Strangely, the President has pronounced the defendant innocent on the eve of the trial, but they do things differently here. Understandably, the Judiciary is upset.

Then, yesterday three more senior NRM politicians, the Foreign Affairs Minister, Government Chief Whip and Minister of State for Labour, 'stepped down' ahead of court appearances today for corruption, this time for causing a Shs 14 billion loss in constructing the driveways, parking areas and marina at Speke Resort ahead of the CHOGM. The landscaping alone apparently cost $7 million! Clearly money was creamed off somewhere. The Prime Minister (security minister at the time) has also been accused in the Parliament's Appointments' Committee report on CHOGM of having 'hidden interests' in the $5 million TETRA communications deal, though he has not been arrested (yet?). The EU Head of Delegation commended Uganda's Inspector General of Government for at last embarking on these CHOGM trials - an example of the positive pressure international donors can exert behind the scenes. The EU joined other international donors in threatening to trim at least 10% (Shs915 billion, or $320 million) from their contribution to Uganda this year because of concerns over failure to address corruption.

Corruption in public services

All the examples so far are of the elite and big business treating the country's money as if it were their private bank account. However, the public services are not exempt. The Ministry of Finance recently claimed that there are over 260,000 ghost (non-existent) pupils across the country and that 86% of all teachers in government-aided schools are also ghosts. His Ministry's figures indicate that 60% of 13 sample districts had ghost schools, 85% had ghost teachers and 100% had ghost pupils. The ghost teachers included the dead (naturally!), absconders and those in 'unknown' (ghost) schools. These ghosts cause a loss to the government of Shs6.794 billion each year, paid as salaries and capitation allowances to crooks - public servants working in local districts - on behalf of non-existent people and structures. In addition, there are all the people paid off to keep quiet. This is all money which would otherwise be used improve children's lives.

The Permanent Secretary for Education disagrees with the Finance Minister. He claims that many of these ghosts are in fact absentees and the pupils are actually ill or working in local markets or the family garden or farm. The Education Ministry estimates that in Bundibugyo district there are 12,273 ghost pupils in 107 UPE (Universal Primary Education) schools. Dare one suggest that all this means is that no one knows how many pupils, teachers or schools there are in Uganda?

Dare one also suggest that it doesn't make it any better if the ghosts are in fact absentees? These are children being denied an education. They are also children at risk. No one knows if they exist; no one knows where they are.

Anything can be bought and sold in Uganda - no different from most countries, I am sure, but perhaps more blatant - and everyone appears to have his or her price. Many of the most flagrant perpetrators of crime are from among the elite and are, as we have already seen, among the highest in the land. Those of us on the outside may smile at some of the frauds described above. However, there are some crimes which bring the rich and poor together in the most devilish financial transactions of all.

Buying and selling children

Yes, it's another business, and quite a lucrative one. Child sacrifice is the story which has hit the British media this week, if not the Ugandan one: Ugandans know all about it already. The British Jubilee Campaign and the Ugandan Kyampsi Childcare Ministries have just published a joint report into child sacrifice in Uganda which has been widely publicised by the BBC.

Over the last four years, 9,000 children have gone missing in Uganda, hundreds of them believed to have been sacrificed. A typical child sacrifice involves an educated member of the wealthy elite paying a witchdoctor to sacrifice a child from a poor family - never, of course, one of their own children - so that his body or body parts can be buried in the foundation of a building (sometimes still alive) or his blood mixed with herbs for 'medicine'. The aim is to bring financial prosperity to the 'buyer'. The number of children sacrificed has gone up over the last three years as people become ever more desperate for money and material goods. Some children are even sold by relatives or, unbelievably, their own parents. Most sacrificed children are boys, as they are valued more highly than girls.

Usually the child is castrated and beheaded and key body parts removed. Sometimes the perpetrators leave the child's head for the parents to find. A very few children have survived to tell their story. The witchdoctors are well known but people are often too frightened to report them. The fragmented polygamous families which are common in Uganda result in many children growing up without anybody really being responsible for them, or noticing if they go missing. Most children disappear from close to the house, for witchdoctors are part of the community. There are roughly 650,000 of them on the official register of witchdoctors/traditional healers. (I know, it's quite bizarre.) However, there are around 3 million practising witchdoctors, most of whom are not registered. Among these are many who practise child sacrifice.

The police figures are that 135 arrests for human sacrifice were made between 2006 and 2010. 83 cases went to court but only 1 person has been convicted.  Police claim that they have difficulty following up reports of sacrifice because the Child Sacrifice Unit doesn't have enough cars or fuel. This is probably true. On the other hand, the streets of Kampala are filled with police cars which are just used for transporting policemen from one traffic intersection to another in order to keep an eye on the local population, rather than protecting children or fighting crime. Local police, like local witchdoctors, are embedded in their communities. As with child rape, it is quite common for policemen to act as go betweens between criminal and family, negotiating the financial compensation, rather than solving the crime or bringing people to justice. The story goes that they are often paid off by the murderers and those rich people who have hired them: another way to make money from children. One other problem, of course, is that only 20% of births are registered in Uganda so it is very difficult to work out which children should be at school, let alone which have been abducted.  A further twist to this particular trade is that about 400 children each year are trafficked from Uganda to the UK to be used in human sacrifices within the wider African diaspora.

Buying a life is, of course, the ultimate financial transaction. However, all the examples of dishonesty and theft which I have given have an impact on the people of Uganda. This is no different from Britain where recently the newspapers have been full of stories about corruption and dishonesty at the highest levels. Every day, 320 Ugandans die of malaria and 16 women in childbirth. Diverting billions of shillings from the national coffers results in more people dying and more children being denied their right to education, or indeed, to a childhood. There are no such things as victim-less crimes. However, for people to sacrifice the country's future by killing its children in pursuit of personal financial gain is the sign of a society which has lost its moral purpose.

You may also be interested in the following.

The Jubilee Campaign
Catching up with the education news - in Uganda, that is
Demons, ghosts and evil spirits
Is the word 'corruption' synonymous with the word 'Uganda'?
Abducted children offered to undercover reporter - BBC 12/10/2011
Hundreds of African children trafficked to the UK - BBC 12/10/2011
Uncovering the business of child sacrifice in Uganda - BBC 11/10/2011
Child sacrifice deal offered to undercover reporter - BBC 11/10/2011
Witchcraft murder:the Kristy Bamu court case - BBC 03/03/2012

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