Friday, November 2, 2012

In Uganda, Robin Hood steals from the poor and gives to the rich

By now everyone will know from reports in the press that civil servants in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) - Robin(g) Hood and his Merry Men - have been diverting into their personal bank accounts aid meant for the poorest people in Uganda, those living in the ex-conflict areas of the north and across Karamoja. The aid was, among other things, for building houses for internally displaced people who have been living in camps for twenty years, providing healthcare clinics, schools, roads, clean water and strengthening judicial institutions  The reconstruction programme was part of the Peace Recovery and Development Plan for the north.

Seventeen officials from the OPM, the Ministry of Finance and the Bank of Uganda have been suspended all, apart from the principal accountant, fairly low level appointments, surprisingly enough. The Prime Minister and the Permanent Secretary, his loyal henchman, insist that they knew nothing about this elaborate and until now successful, scam. This may be the case, but anyone who has spent any time at all in Uganda knows that the OPM has, deservedly or not, the reputation for being notoriously corrupt. You could say that the Merry Men are working hand in glove with the Sheriff of Nottingham - a turn up for the books, one might add.

The one positive aspect of all this is that at least it was Uganda's Auditor General who discovered the fraud. Isn't it odd when we think it's wonderful when part of government actually does its job? And despite the misery caused to the children in the north with nodding disease whom the government said it didn't have enough money to treat and all the other victims, young and old, there have been some stories in the newspapers which made us laugh out loud.

Apparently, in a sudden rush to cover up their crimes, the Merry Men attempted to account for expenditure in the following ways: one man claimed to have bought 50 cartons of salt for the survivors of the Bududa earthquake from a hardware shop; lorries were ostensibly criss-crossing the country with tiny quantities of nails and wood; sometimes the same vehicle was recorded as being in different parts of Uganda on the same day; and a Ministry vehicle was serviced twice in three days. The OPM spent Shs6.9b drafting a policy on disaster management. Twenty eight officials received Shs340,000 (£82) each as 'facilitation' for attending a workshop and similar amounts for workshops which didn't take place. (Only in Uganda, would the term 'ghost workshop' mean anything other then an induction course for newly appointed evil spirits.) Oh, and the Prime Minister himself got a brand new Mercedes Benz - not that he was involved in the scam, of course.

In addition to salting money away in their personal bank accounts, the gang deposited Shs8.5b in various fuel stations (including the Total garage at Ntinda, round the corner from us), overpaid food suppliers by Shs8.6b and paid Shs13.7b to a company 'to plough fields in Karamoja without clear contracts and under dubious circumstances' (according to the Daily Monitor).

The countries which provided the stolen aid - Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark - are understandably furious. On Monday, they met the Prime Minister and Finance Minister, together with the UK envoy and representatives of the European Union and the World Bank. Discussion, said the Danes, was 'candid and detailed'.

Overall, about Shs150b disappeared. (Different figures appear on different days.) Ireland, which lost 4 million euros (£3.2), has withheld Shs66b which was to have been used for education, policing and combating HIV/AIDS in the north. Together, donors cut about Shs70b from their aid budgets, more than £1.5 million. They are demanding that officers are prosecuted and money refunded. The former is unlikely. Even if court cases are brought, they will be dismissed, or the President will absolve the guilty, as is usually the case. The latter, refunding, may happen, although we won't hold our breath. Seven years after ministers and officials stole millions of pounds from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), the money has still not been paid back and the culprits remain free. Robin Hood could steal from little children with impunity. As a result, GAVI suspended its funding and now it is reported that only Somalia has a lower rate of immunisation than Uganda.

More significantly than the funds already held back, donors are threatening to axe budget support which is currently about 25% of Uganda's national budget. Today the UK also announced it was axing Shs17b (£4m) aid to Uganda and setting up an independent audit into the alleged fraud, despite none of its money having been reported as taken, and who can blame her?

In the same newspapers which have been reporting these events over the last few weeks, we have also been reading about the pensions scam in the mis-named Ministry for Public Service, an area of Sherwood Forest which has become quite familiar to us over the last few weeks through innumerable newspaper reports. Apparently, the Ministry paid about Shs169b to ghost pensioners over the last three years, with another Shs10b still being paid even as the investigation was going on. The Merry Men stole the photos of real people and attached then to the names of completely different people - themselves. So far officials from the Ministry of Public Service, Ministry of Finance, Cairo International Bank and the East Africa Community Beneficiaries Association have been arrested and released on police bond. Not for them the dungeons of Nottingham Castle.

And is stealing from pension funds a victim-less crime? Alas, no. For the last few days, poor and elderly retired civil servants, teachers and policemen have been queuing up to ask why they have never received their pensions and why other people are using their photos and IDs. Robin Hood had struck again. More than 63,000 other innocent pensioners have had their pensions discontinued while investigations are carried out, a situation not of their making.

Any other ghosts currently in the news?

Yes, as it happens, surprisingly enough, and in various different parts of Sherwood Forest. It turns out that 67% of aviation authority staff are ghosts - 600 of them receiving Shs1.2b in salaries between them. The aviation authority is supposed to have 991 staff but actually only has 287. In a separate case, the Treasury has paid out Shs400b to ghost firms. The Ministry of Education is in permanent trouble for the number of ghost teachers, ghost civil servants, ghost textbooks and ghost schools in its corner of the Forest.

What kind of rewards do the Merry Men reap from their nefarious activities? Well, the Red Pepper, a Ugandan English language tabloid, has had a merry time itself taking pictures of the fabulous mansions owned by civil servants. Amazing how far a monthly salary of Shs1.5m (£360) goes when you're looking for real estate in Sherwood Forest.

And how does all this affect us personally? Now I have to be very careful how and what I write.

In a country of corrupt ministries, the Ministry of Education is generally considered to be rotten. The Commission of Enquiry into the misuse of funds for universal primary and secondary education is still rumbling on and periodically releases to the press juicy titbits for our titillation.

However, Stuart and I work in the Directorate of Education Standards (DES), part of the Ministry but separate both physically and in the nature of its work. It sits right on the edge of Sherwood Forest, several kilometres from the epicentre of Robin Hood's activities. Our people, the 50 inspectors in regional offices across the country, are good decent education professionals whose work focuses on improving the educational experiences of Uganda's children. DES inspectors are the more morally upright part of the Ministry. And that causes DES trouble in a number of ways.

Firstly, the work of DES may be ignored, sidelined or - as with the annual report on the quality of Ugandan education last week - censored and dismissed by civil servants on 'the other side' of the Forest. The result? Children suffer. The conditions under which they pursue their education - or not - remain unreported and nothing concrete is done to improve them.

Secondly, DES depends on 'the other side' of the Education Ministry and on the Ministry of Finance for its inspection funds. These are, by the sound of it, regularly ambushed, syphoned off, skimmed or otherwise tampered with before they get anywhere near DES. The result? Our people cannot go out on inspection, reports are not written and then the rest of the Ministry has the gall to announce that DES has not met its targets.

Can anything be done about this? Ah yes, but this is where things get murky and I have to be even more careful what I write. From what we have observed, it is possible for DES to come to an accommodation with particular senior gang members on 'the other side' of the Forest, which provides a 'pay off' for them, while allowing DES to do some inspection, albeit with significantly reduced funds. You could liken it to under-the-counter payments made to members of the Mafia  I'll say no more, except to say that activities like these need a 'fixer'. We think we know who the fixer is.

How do we feel about all this?

Well, the two lowest points in our more than two years here have related to corruption on 'the other side' of Sherwood Forest. One was the dismissal of the annual 'state-of-the-nation' report last week, which I wrote about in the post before last. No one wanted a detailed audit of the miserable schooling and inadequate education management typical of villages and towns right across Nottinghamshire.

The other low point was last year, when we ourselves were inadvertently involved in setting up a scam, the money from which seems to have gone straight into the pockets of senior gang members on 'the other side' of the Forest. If we understand rightly - and we may not - the reason we were given was that these payments (facilitation for work not done) were to compensate for their 'low salaries'. It took us months to work out what had happened and when we did, we were absolutely appalled that our work had been used to set up a ghost activity. We also felt betrayed, betrayed by people we had been working closely with. We are, after all, volunteers. We are giving our time and effort in difficult circumstances to help the children of Uganda. When R Hood and his jovial companions get to work, it undermines everything we and others like us are trying to do.

We have talked a lot to a couple of our Ugandan friends about matters such as these, for they are permanent residents of the Forest. We ask questions like, 'But how can people like this steal from their own people, from the children of Uganda, from the weakest and poorest?'

It seems that this is a very significant question, one that cannot be answered very easily. When people here walk through Sherwood Forest, they keep their heads down and their eyes on their feet. They can't afford to stumble over anything, fall into a trap or drown in a swamp. There are things which they just don't want to see, or daren't see. If there's daylight robbery going on on the other side of the clearing - the day-to-day pittance of older residents being clobbered, children's future lives being strangled - they just don't want to know. They can't afford to know. They have lives to live and families to feed. Extra-judicial punishment can be severe and life-changing. That is one of the corrupting aspects of corruption: the good people don't look for fear of what they will see.

One of our friends said, raising her hands to act as shutters on each side of her head, 'I walk like this and I never look to right or left. I have taught myself not to feel anything.'

The 'not feeling' is some thing we have increasingly been aware of since we arrived. At times it seems as if nobody seems to care about the poor, weak and less fortunate, apart from a few NGOs and donor agencies. Nor do people convicted of corruption appear to feel any shame or even embarrassment. Corrupt district officials who have been 'interdicted' reappear in their previous jobs as if they'd just popped out for a samosa. Corrupt MPs wave cheerfully to the press despite the most shocking stories of theft and fraud.

We received part of an answer to the question about stealing from children during the last training session we did for our people in August. We had talked at some length about the need for inspection to focus on the needs of every single child - a revolutionary idea in a country with a selective education system and an elite ruling class. One of the inspectors came up to me quietly at the end and said, quite kindly, 'You know, Elisabeth, Ugandans only really care about their biological children.'

That got me thinking. Coincidentally, I was reading books by Wangari Maathai at the time: Unbowed: My Autobiography and The Challenge for Africa. Maathai writes about the identification of individual Africans and their families with their 'micro-nation' (or tribe). She avoids using the word 'tribe' because the issues she describes are as relevant to the different ethnic and religious groups of the Balkans and many western and eastern countries as to Africa. She explains that at the time the European powers carved up Africa, drawing boundaries right across geographical regions and language areas, as well as through micro-nations, most Africans related mainly to their clan, an extension of the concept of 'family'. Beyond that they related to their 'tribe' and its leader. When things got bad, they protected each other. When their micro-nation got the upper hand, it was their 'time to eat'. Michela Wrong writes very well about this in It's Our Turn to Eat, an account of corruption in Kenya as the leadership of the country moved between Kikuyu and Kalenjin. In modern countries, the leader has become the 'big man', a familiar figure across the continent.

The idea of allegiance to the vague concept of a 'country' has been a difficulty for many citizens of African countries. In Uganda it is particularly hard, with scores of tribes, five kingdoms falling within the Bantu language group (Buganda, Bunyoro, Toro, Busoga and the now defunct Ankole); a large territory to the east where people speak Nilotic languages and share a culture and traditions with much of western Kenya, including the Turkana and Masai; and a huge area to the north - almost half the country - which was traditionally governed through local councils of elders and chiefs. Since Independence, much of the politics of Uganda has been based on tribe and religion - not so much Muslim/Christian as Protestant/Catholic.

Citizens of the centre and south of Uganda will often refer to the fact that the current regime has at least been successful in establishing peace which has lasted for more than 20 years. In so doing, they completely ignore the fact that throughout exactly the same period, conflict raged in the north, the Lord's Resistance Army burned villages and enslaved adults and children, and the national army (the National Resistance Army, later called the Uganda People's Defence Force) was responsible for massacring hundreds of the country's own citizens. The President publicly apologised for these massacres only this week. We are periodically shocked by the racist language sometimes used when alluding to people from the Acholi and Langi tribes, and those from West Nile. At the Education and Sports Sector Review last week I observed district officials from the north being 'slapped down' by the chairman and members of the audience sniggering at their accents.

A country which has seen as much bloodshed and suffering as Uganda takes a long time to recover. In times of social turmoil, people will tend to focus on their own survival and that of their families. And when things get better, it takes a long time for those attitudes and that behaviour to go through a corresponding change. The idea that 'these are our children', the country's children, is to many people an alien one. I would love to stage a performance of Arthur Miller's All our Sons, here in Uganda and adapted to a Ugandan context.

Many Ugandans support members of the extended family in the 'village' and pay the school fees of a dozen orphaned relatives. The idea that they should be concerned about the welfare and education of 17 million other children, half of Uganda's population of 34 million, is, maybe, unrealistic. Modestly paid civil servants will find it extremely difficult to meet the demands of their extended families. The temptation to 'make a bit more' must sometimes be overwhelming, even if it means 'stealing from the poor'.

And it is clearly also very easy.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men are onto a good thing.

You may also be interested in the following posts:

How the world is helping Uganda

Ghost bicycles, ghost schools and real children

Minister appears to advocate corruption

Is the word 'corruption' synonymous with the word 'Uganda'?

HIV/AIDS and Uganda's children (final sections)


  1. One day I will tell you about the most recent nonsenses from my part of the picture. Yes, the most dreadful thing is that the 'haves' steal without conscience from the 'have nots'. I don't think that this is just a question of caring for ones own. I certainly don't see how it fits into a country that calls itself Christian.


  2. Actually, I agree with you, Pauline. I seem to spend quite a lot of time finding 'excuses' for things which happen here which are just plain wrong. Christianity is about caring for the poor, the weak and the hungry. I don't think Uganda fulfills any of these criteria. The country reminds me more and more of mid-19th century Britain, with the rich exploiting the poor and the church providing justification for this.