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A new look at corruption

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Inside the belly of the beast

President Museveni and President KagameI have just spent a few days in the countryside, and I noticed one change from just five or so years ago; everyone is talking about “how bad corruption is in Uganda”. Some refer to the various incidents of corruption involving people close to President Yoweri Museveni in very troubling tribal terms.

Perhaps no other news publication has attempted to examine the structure of and why corruption is such big time in Uganda, than The Independent. In various articles in both The Independent, and recently in Daily Monitor, The Independent’s Andrew Mwenda has argued that the very rot that corruption causes, is why corruption exists and thrives. In other words, corruption is such a strong evil force because it’s very good at giving birth to itself.

I think there is a range of other critical factors at play in the Corruption Inc. Uganda, which we need to examine if post-Museveni governments are to deal with this problem - because it is no longer possible to do it under the NRM.


To start, we need to examine further the whole issue of the reproduction of patronage that we have touched on above. Let us take a theoretical example. Assume the government was building a new road to Fort Portal.

If the road were; one, built on time and on budget and two, built to last 25 years without need of repair, what would happen? After eight years people will take good roads for granted. They become part of the furniture, and soon the government ceases to gain political capital from it.

However, if the same road that was supposed to be built for Shs 3 billion in two years, ends up being built five years late (like the road to the Jinja-Iganga-Tororo-Busia Road to the Kenya border) and costing Shs 36 billion, it means a corrupt contractor can continue to eat money for five years on a road, instead of two years. And the corrupt become vested in the continued stay in power of the government that is feeding them.

However, if a road were to last 25 years, that would be five election cycles without feeding your contractors as the president--and therefore they will not be beholden to you. Besides, if a constructor won a road construction contract on merit and delivered it at a cost effective price, government will not have done him any favours; and he will not feel beholden to the sitting president.

So the roads must not last long. Thus when the government announced recently that it would release Shs 90 billion for roads that are supposed to be finished by February, it was a big joke! We know that 25-40 percent of that money is going back as payments to fund state-favoured candidates in the campaigns for next year’s elections.

You could say that in Uganda’s case, the top state leaders have the kind of relationship a doctor has with disease. Doctors are healers and go to extra lengths to do it. However, they also do not want diseases to go away, because then they would have no business.

Therefore, if Uganda developed an efficient government, where roads are fixed and there are still no potholes in them after 10 years, it would lose the absorption capacity for patronage. And the NRM as we know it would have to transform its modus operandi or face the spectre of collapse.

One reason for this is that every political change sends out political signals; just the way a free market sends out various signals for investors. Some investors respond one way and make a fortune; others do the opposite and lose fortunes. So the key is in HOW and WHY leaders choose the signals that they do, and ignore others.

To understand this better, let us compare Rwanda and Uganda – or better still President Paul Kagame and our own Yoweri Museveni, on how they responded the signals.

When Kagame led the Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front to victory in Rwanda in 1994, he and his comrades faced a country in which an extremist Hutu and opportunistic Tutsi elite had led the masses into participating in the wholesale murder of nearly one million Tutsi and opposition Hutus.

The result is that Rwanda was a country in which the Hutu were bracing for Tutsi revenge. Now the Hutu elite, by their role in crafting the leadership, had made it impossible for the RPA to work with them. It was a stroke of evil genius, if you think of it, because it left the RPA the one obvious choice that would have ensured that they would be defeated in a short period – to go it alone, as a small isolated bunch of Tutsi victors lording it over a Hutu majority.

In other words, the only quick-win constituency for the RPA to work with was a tiny Tutsi, not the Hutu, elite. Yet the only mass constituency Kagame & Co. had was the Hutu. But they could not get to them through the Hutu elite, as we have shown. They had to reach over the heads of the Hutu tribal warlords.

Uganda’s worsening Corruption Perception Indices since 1998

Now, when you have to deal with millions of people, you cannot do it on a one-to-one basis. You can only do so through institutions that offer services on a mass scale. The only way to be effective in such a situation is to standardise. And if you standardise the delivery of services, it means that a Hutu and Tutsi will get equal treatment. And, most critically, if you standardise, you must get rid of corruption, because corruption is one way of differential allocation of public resources (i.e. it is the only way you can give Andrew a free bail out of loan from the Bank of Uganda, but deny it to Charles).

In short, a corrupt Kagame would not have been effective. Because he did not have a ready-made large constituency to shower with patronage, the pay-off from corruption would have been minimal.

Museveni, on the other hand, had a big coalition of southern/western Uganda monarchical, clerical, landed, militarist, sectarian elements that were, effectively, a clear majority relative to his enemies. Unlike Rwanda, each of these was a leader with the ability to deliver their tribes (I use this deliberately instead of “nationality” or ethnic group) to Museveni. By gifting each of them individually, Museveni could get the support of their tribe. It was like a buy one, get 10,000 free deals. Museveni therefore did not need to build an impersonal mass delivery system like Rwanda has.

There is a historical element here. From Obote 1, to Obote II, to Museveni I,II,III, IV, V, defections have been very important in Ugandan politics. That is why, to this day, if a group of village UPC, FDC, or DP supporters defected to the NRM, Museveni himself at a big rally would receive them with pomp and fanfare. The same is true, of course, when a big NRM fish defects to FDC (as Tom Butiime for example) once did.

This construction of politics around individuals who deliver their ethnic constituencies to State House was evident again in the last critical months of Museveni’s bush war. The NRM brought Prince (now King) Ronald Mutebi to the war zones controlled by the rebels, to bolster Buganda support for the last decisive push to Kampala.

According to the mechanics of one-big-man-will-deliver-his-tribe politics, Museveni promised to restore “kings” (which are personal to holder) and kingdoms (which can be ceremonial), but NOT the monarchy (which is a system in which kings and queens rule). When Museveni says he did not promise the return of a political kingdom, but of kings (as vehicle for delivering support), he probably knows what he is talking about.

Museveni could have chosen Kagame’s route on corruption, but he would probably have taken a longer time to consolidate his rule and it perhaps could have resulted in an elite revolt against him. The corruption-condoning route gave him quicker results and more political success. It was simply much more efficient strategy of political consolidation than service delivery.

NRM chose this long-fingered path because it had the elite numbers and support to make it work. The best instrument by which these elite buy political support for the regime of the day is patronage.

It was an unprincipled road, but the point here is that corruption is the skeleton on which NRM politics, once it took power, was built.

Now, let us be clear. This is not to suggest that the choices that people like Kagame and Museveni make are deliberate at every stage. They are subject to a lot of forces, some of which they might not always be fully aware of.

For example, you would think that a president has a lot to gain by running a government that is clean. That corruption gives the opposition an easy weapon against the government. True. But corruption can also give the government some advantages that help it retain power in competitive politics, and its leaders are conscious of this somehow.

Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi and Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo during their time are very good examples of this. These men wreck their countries to raise the price of entry into politics (specifically government) for the opposition. To this day, what Mobutu did has made it difficult for any regime to stabilise in the DRC.

Closer home, if you see the shambles that Uganda is; the hurdles that anyone would encounter trying to rationalise local government; to reform education; or even just to return Mulago Hospital to its past glory--it is too enormous a task. And the very public distrust of politicians that these failures cause means when people think long and hard, they actually conclude that none of Museveni rivals can fix it.

It is like what children sometime do. If they are fighting over a juicy piece of cake with their siblings, the devilishly clever one will spit on it. That will discourage the others, so he will be left to eat the cake alone – instead of being punished for his unsporting behaviour of spitting on the cake, the little brat actually gets rewarded.

In some ways, Museveni has done to Uganda what the boy did to the cake. In countries like Uganda and Kenya, you often look around you and you wonder why so many young bright men and women who would help turn their countries around do not join politics. This is why. The corrupt and crooked discourage them, because they cannot play the dirty game needed to survive – and they fear they will fail, so they do not want to ruin their hard-worn reputations. This means that there are never enough good people challenging the Big Man and his government.

We shall end this with the story of the father of a friend of mine. The old man was given the challenge of fixing one of the most prestigious institutions in Eastern Uganda region. The place was broke. Its buildings uncompleted. Suppliers were unpaid. Its cars were stranded, and staff houses were falling to bits. In three years he had brought the institution back into surplus; paid its debts; fixed the cars, repaired staff houses. After many years, when he decided to leave, there were endless delegations asking him to stay, and the board refused to even acknowledge his resignation letter for months.

Thinking of my friend’s father, I began to develop some more nuanced ideas about corruption. My friend’s father’s successor was a local boy from the district. He run the place by, Museveni style, doling out patronage and handing out stuffed envelopes. This helped me appreciate the decision to pursue a patronage-based strategy actually needs a productive constituency for it. When my friend’s father’s successor did corrupt deals with his relatives and tribesmates, the pay-off was much higher. If my friend’s father, who was considered a “foreigner”, had taken the patronage route, he would mostly have bought respect. He would not have bought support, affection, or acceptance.

Honest government allows you a massive outreach, far more than you would get if you had all the natural factors that favoured your being corrupt. But the results take longer to come in, and it requires a bold political leader.

Where does this leave us?

In Uganda’s case, until we develop a system which reduces the centrality of elite elements in “delivering” the tribal vote from their areas, and importance of big tribes in elections, we shall be doomed to have corrupt governments – no matter who is president and what protestations they make during elections.

One way to do it is to push proportional representation, or South African-style “party lists”, for determining who gets power and who loses out.

The day a candidate comes up who is passionate about these kinds of structures that will allow the country to organise its politics differently, pay attention. That will be the man/woman who knows what it takes to end corruption.

Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Stewart, January 17, 2011
I know Andrew admires Charles. i do too. I am yet to find a journalist more brilliant than Obbo. This article is testimony that Charles stands out. Although Andrew had tried to emulate Obbo during his formative stages at Daily Monitor, he lost it completely when he started the Independent. Charles is currently rocking Kenyans. He is simply marvelous. Keep it up!
written by Ray, January 18, 2011
What a load of crap
written by joan, January 19, 2011
i think if m7 was a ugandan he would not do the things he does for a coutry,he acts like a man in TRANSIT,destroying education instutions for hotels,and funny no roads to this hotels,but as they say,nothing lasts forever just remember,once there was a strong rich roman empire,now it is history
So Refreshingly Different!
written by Let Freedom Ring, January 19, 2011
I had to read (or guzzle) 2/3rds of the article to realise this is a familiarly old new kid on the block (de javu). God, Charles writes! And reading his article especially now with all the election craze around us feels like walking from the New (old) Taxi Park on a hot January day, through the Old Park and end up in an air-conditioned reception lounge complete with a water cooler and leather seats and a smiling receptionist!! It feels so refreshing (if you are used to living/working in uptown Kampala. Keep it Up Homeboy and always save your best for Home.
written by Margaret S. Maringa, January 19, 2011
FIRST -- African leaders do not practise corruption (bad word) but simple horse trading (ground reality).

SECOND -- Leaders of every cadre (not just African oliticians) dabble in one form of "horse trading" or other. This practice is quite normal even at the kindergarten level. What changes -- as we mature into public management -- is the description and volume of the horses being traded. When our horses are finally valued in millions and billions of shillings -- then our dealings gain a more sensational name (corruption).

THIRD -- Those who live in glass houses (not the humble nyakatsi) -- like Andrew Mwenda -- need to seriously refrain from throwing careless stones around the continent. Your horse-trading could be the subject of the next Wikileaks !!!!!
Great article
written by enoq, January 26, 2011
Agree, best articles ever read are written by charles Obbo.

With all due respect though Andrew mwenda as alluded too in the artircle above is a coherent respectable writer. he is made a living through the same just like Obbo.

The article though highlights major flaws and engines of corruption but doesnot touch on how in this regime we can try air out reforms. i dont just like Obbo see any success stories with fight against corruption in the current regime. corruption perpetuates corruption anddesire to hang on to power. corruption also funds elections and all.

written by gafabusa, February 01, 2011
Egypt has shown that harnessing peoples power to get rid of overstayed repressive corrupt regimes is not only possible but the most feasible.
written by Edgar, February 01, 2011
My fellow OB and citizen of uganda,Corruption was born before 1986 but it was that time when corruption was started being
breastfeeded by President Museveni that's why any corruption officer in Uganda,let him or her be the MP or a minister is seen as a searous people in office to the extent of saying is "a gentleman,smart".It just symbolises confindence in embrancing corruption and showing ugandans that Uganda is someone's property.We need what I can call a collective struggle to liberate our country uganda.Let us have street demonstrations in big numbers because corruption has been the headline in every news paper but no one is brought to book.But arrogantly we citizens we sing the tunes of pakalast to someone who doesn't care about his own blood.
written by Lakwena, February 04, 2011
Joan, I am with you. M7 hates Ugandans and Uganda. There are valid conspiracy theories that M7 wants to destroy Uganda to its tap root. Because Ugandans rejected him since the Dec 10th 1980 election, where he miserably lost to his current in-law, Hon Sam Kuteesa. Since then he hates anybody who opposes him. So in order to destroy Uganda "completely" as Amin used to say, destroy public trust and the moral fiber of the people. Like the devil, since 1986, he is making sure everybody becomes a sinner (corrupt), so that nobody will dare cast the proverbial first stone. For example if NRM internal critics like Hon Ssekikubo and Banyenzaki don't return the Shs.20 million deposited on their bank A/c, they are damned. It will be used to destroy them socially and politically.
Museveni is not corrupt, he only""FACILITATES" his cadres!
written by F .BALYAAWO, March 10, 2011
Indeed, if museveni was a patriotic Ugandan as his first party called its self-UPM,-UGANDA PATRIOTIC MOVEMENT, to fool and lure unsuspecting Ugandans, to support him, he would not kill our country, with his confusing term-" FACILITATING', .for DAY-LIGHT CORRUPTION.
PLEASE LET HIM FACILITATE NOT ONLY his Tutsi clansmen but all including the the clans of Labongo and Gipir in Nothern Uganda, then we shall know that INDEED he is a good facilitator AND NOT A CORRUPT RULER..

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