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Best way to fight corruption

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Focus on the civil service where graft is most lethal rather than in politics where it is most politically attractive

Over the last three weeks, government of Uganda has done what was previously unthinkable. First, police rearrested the ringleaders in the scam in the ministry of Public Service that saw our country lose close to Shs 500 billion paid to ghost pensioners. Second, it subjected them to rigorous interrogations, which led to the recovery of 256 titles of properties they had accumulated. These properties have an expected value of over Shs 800 billion. Third, it froze their bank accounts and placed caveats on their assets. Fourth, police is initiating the process of recovering the money by confiscating the properties and handing them to government for auction.

The problem, however, is that there has been so little effort to fight corruption that even an optimist would most likely say that this is just one small victory in an already lost war. It is inconceivable, given the Uganda we know, that such a thoroughgoing effort to combat official corruption can be sustained across a broad frontline with resoluteness over a prolonged period. There is a lot of inertia, apathy, indifference, defeatism, false (or even subversive) compliance and foot dragging in the Ugandan public sector. How then can we hope that a poorly paid, poorly facilitated and poorly motivated police can take on corruption? Most police officers would do better taking bribes from the thieves than helping the state to rein them in. Then there is politics; entrenched corrupt interests will lobby the powerful for protection.

 

There is also little evidence that our democratic process can fight corruption as effectively as the public mood would demand. This is because politicians, even when elected, possess interests different from those of their constituents. In most corruption fights, politicians seek their personal benefit first (if someone can bribe them too) and the public interest later. And when they do, as they often pretend in our parliament, it is to use corruption as a platform to score political points against the ruling party (as in when opposition is fighting the NRM) or for intra party struggles for power (as when NRM fight among themselves). In fact it is this political posturing on corruption that has made it difficult to fight the more cancerous form of this malaise in our country.

To combat corruption in today’s Uganda, one would have first to give less priority to political corruption (by this I mean the corruption of powerful NRM politicians and their immediate cronies) and focus on that corruption that is purely criminal. Political corruption helps NRM maintain its electoral coalition. So there is little incentive on the ruling party to cut the hand that feeds its electoral machine. However, not every corrupt act is politically sanctioned or functional. Most corruption is by civil servants, high and low. And this is the most lethal as it makes public goods and services difficult to deliver. NRM can have a vested interest in fighting this form of corruption – and one reason the struggle against the thieves in the pension scam seems to be working.

Although civil service (or nonpolitical) corruption may constitute 90 percent of all theft of public resources, it is politically unappealing to fight it. This is because the public thinks, quite wrongly, that the biggest theft is by the powerful politicians like ministers. Yet experience shows that most money is stolen not even by top civil servants – permanent secretaries, under secretaries, directors and commissioners – but by “small people”; accountants, nurses, head teachers, clerks, auditors, district administrators, procurement officers etc. But their names don’t excite public passions and don’t make good news headlines.

Take the case of the “Temangalo scandal” that dominated news headlines, parliament, the presidency and public discourse for four months in 2008. It involved Shs 11 billion. NSSF bought 100 acres of Prime Minister (then security minister) Amama Mbabazi’s land at Shs 24 million per acre against an evaluation of Shs 18m. Even the worst critic of Mbabazi would say if he cheated NSSF at all (and I insist he did not), his theft would have been a meager Shs 600m. The civil servants in the ministry of public service stole almost Shs 500 billion and we hear only a whisper but never a shout at it in the press or parliament.

The confluence of politics with fighting corruption has made the debate on the problem lively and heated. It has also made it seem fairer as the targets are the powerful. But it has also made it less effective in generating the results our country needs. First, because it tends to target regime cronies, it induces the president and the other arms of the state to come to the defense of the accused – hence generating more noise and less action. Second, it diverts attention from the more insidious form of corruption that is widespread among many civil servants where NRM and the president can be mobilized to support the effort.

I suspect the struggle to recover stolen billions by confiscating the properties of the thieves in the pension scam is on track to success because there are no powerful politicians involved. So the NRM has little political interest to defend in protecting them and everything to gain in pursuing the case. If NRM can be persuaded to focus on fighting this form of corruption (the non political one) it can realise some measure of success. Yet this strategy cannot win public support. This is because the masses are driven, as Karl Popper said, by the sentiment for justice rather than the articulation of factual truths.

Handcuffing a powerful minister, especially one related to the President, and sending them to jail, even if he has stolen only Shs 1 million, seems a more just thing to do than arresting an accounts clerk in a ministry who has stolen Shs 100 billion. This is because punishing an accounts clerk, even when he has stolen billions instead of a powerful minister who has stolen millions, seems like catching the little flies and letting the big bugs escape. The public desires to see action against the powerful, not those considered weak. Here we see the contradiction between what public sentiment may demand and what better public policy would achieve. Until we overcome this bias, the fight against corruption will not peak.

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Comments (54)Add Comment
False equivalence
written by Omeros, November 25, 2012
'when [politicians purport to fight corruption], it is to use corruption as a platform to score political points against the ruling party (as in when opposition is fighting the NRM) or for intra party struggles for power (as when NRM fight among themselves). In fact it is this political posturing on corruption that has made it difficult to fight the more cancerous form of this malaise in our country.' This quote exemplifies the skew at the heart of the coverage of political events in Uganda in this column. It is a skew that seeks to attribute an equal portion of blame for Uganda's corrupt public service to the parties of the opposition for a practice that is both instigated and effected by and whose principal beneficiaries are members of the ruling party.
...
written by Omeros, November 25, 2012
The anxious effort to spread the blame speaks of a ruling party that recognises how truly feeble is its record on service delivery in spite of the nearly three decades of unchallenged power it has enjoyed. The NRM now acknowledges that government itself has been incapacitated by the very corruption the NRM has nurtured and that therefore the NRM's own raison d'etre is undermined. The regime's top brass appear to have noticed that the party has eaten itself. That recognition explains the cynical and self-serving call for the big league corruption of regime insiders to be excused of their crimes while a hard line on infractions committed by those outside the circle (who are now painted as the practitioners of the most pernicious forms of corruption) is at the same time encouraged.
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written by Omeros, November 25, 2012
Finger-pointing at the opposition while simultaneously plea-bargaining is an endgame strategy. Regime politicians do not wish to be solely identified with the rot in government should that rot bring about reprisals (whether by way of the ballot box - as if they would leave quietly were they defeated at the polls - or, as they fear, otherwise). So they hope to discredit the opposition with the example of their own incompetence and to fend off any reckoning by claiming that the opposition are just as bad as they. They hope to blackmail the public into overlooking their crimes by signalling that they will not leave without a bloody fight ('I cannot be chased away like a chicken thief') and that the price for continuing peace is their quiet enjoyment of their stolen goods.
...
written by Omeros, November 25, 2012
These are the people who came to liberate us and this is the colour of their democracy. In this telling, to save Uganda is to preserve the NRM coalition no matter what that means for the wider public who struggle to survive through the political and social dysfunctions perpetuated by the continuation and maintenance of that coalition. Ugandans should consider very carefully whether they think that to be a bargain worth making.
Mixed up analysis
written by Tina, November 25, 2012
I agree with you that the hype and attention that is given to prominent people involved in corruption is too much n more eye catching and interesting however for me, theft is theft by punishing the powerful corrupt, sends a warning to others therefore saving the situation abit. however it appears that the money that is generated through taxation has more restrictions while its being disbursed than donor funded cash e.g da OPM scandal.what i dont understand is that was the donor fund some kind of charity coz it appears that the money was meant for northern rehabilitation but there was no work plan for it therefore making it easier for the cash to be stolen.
OBNOXIOUS
written by Rajab Kakyama, November 25, 2012
It is as though this article is a presentation to the Movement Caucus. What is "criminal corruption" and "civil corruption?" How do you fight corruption by allowing corruption? This sounds like Animal Farm's 'two legs bad, four legs good.' What happens when it comes to birds? Mwenda, we can not apply the Law selectively to appease a few individuals.
...
written by Immaculate Nambi, November 26, 2012
Firstly, this unprecedented corruption in every sector of the public and private spheres of Uganda is a deliberate and indirect result of the corrupt political leadership. The NRM has corruptly run government for 26 years. Now, the NRM led gov't is corrupt in its very nature and will continue to be corrupt regardless of any efforts to fight corruption. Andrew, the NRM in its current state is incapable of fighting corruption - be it in the civil service or otherwise. In these very dire circumstances, any solutions must start with first changing leadership. We need leadership that can manage to make corruption costly, truly. That should be the starting point. Then we can fight patronage, have effective civil service reforms etc.
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written by abdallah, November 26, 2012
Yes Bwana Mwenda you said it! Why aren't we seeing the same zeal in pursuing OPM as we see with the pensions scam?
To Nambi
written by winnie, November 26, 2012
Hi Nambi its Ugandans and only Ugandans who have to solve the problem of corruption it begins with all of us even if the govt is changed 50 times provided we r not honest with ourselves. e.g when u put fuel of 100k in a company car the pump attendant will ask you how much you want written on the receipt for reasons best know to him, then go n buy tomatoes or mangoes the lady selling them will deliberately put the rotten ones for you ,take your car for repair old spare parts will fixed the list goes on n on.
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written by Gen Adam kifaliso, November 26, 2012
Where is Winnie ? still serving samosa in Munyonyo ?
Great anti corruption tips
written by Chris Gaza, November 27, 2012
If politicians in africa embrace your anti-corruption strategies africa will move forward
civil corruption is not isolated from political corruption
written by j.businge, November 27, 2012
Mr Mwenda, you might want to laud the current efforts of government but dont make the miatake of thinking that politicla and civil corruption are far wide apart. Remember president m7 has always argued that corruption by ugandans is good as long as the stolen wealth is usde in the ugandan economy! Now you think these smart and 'patriotic' ugandan civil servants have been stealing for foreingers or for uganda's socio-political-economy's good? And do you think their socio-political-economy's interests precludes the ruling party's interests? Dont be surprised at any one time to find that any smart investigation into these civil servants' misdeeds could end up putting regime's security at risk or serious embarrasment at the least.
Sham democratic process
written by Ocheto, November 27, 2012
This is same recycled, simplified, narrow and shallow prescriptive no-sense that as usual only serves to shield the real cause, and perpetrators, of corruption, namely the political leadership. Which clerk has stolen 100B while his boss the minister stole a paltry 100 million? It beggars absurdity. The clergy can't, the judges can't and won't and the politicians who are deep in it with their eyeballs they are the initiators, the cause, can't or won't. If they can't and won't the only legitimate solution left is the genuine democratic process, certainly not the current sham, sorry political process that relies on corruption itself to survive. It's like asking hyenas tend the goats or fox to guard the chicken coop.
Atleast clerks don't have swiss accounts
written by Ocheto, November 27, 2012
At the least the clerk will invest his money in the local economy: build mansions, hire lawyers (not all lawyers can find work in government) to get off the hook -- since unlike his boss the minister who is shielded and protected by the state, he needs an army of lawyers to buy his freedom if caught: risk analysis. The clerks have to steal more because they need more to survive while ministers who are super-renumerated with huge parks don't need to steal that much. Moreover the political leaders steal money, bank and invest it in foreign countries, consume goods produced in foreign countries. Now tell which corruption is more pernicious or deleterious?
But the sh*t catches up with all
written by Ocheto, November 27, 2012
But the good thing there is more and more genuine democracy and the real perpetrators will and do enventually pay for their shameless impunity of plunder and pillage.
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Engineer
written by Hannington Batensaki, December 01, 2012
I hope all those who swindled public funds whether in OPM of Public Service are jailed without court hearing and all their properties are recaptured, sold to recover the money. We were shocked when we read the story published in independent magazine.

If thieves are put on firing squode without court hearing then that would scare people from stealing.
Engineer
written by Hannington Batensaki, December 01, 2012
Fight hard so that our Country is saved from thieves. How does one man own over 200 land titles of land? Is he the only person bone lucky or he was produced by Mariam the mother of Jesus? I didn't know Kampala is owned by 3 or 4 people. Wonders!!!
The fight should be holistic and complete
written by Denis Musinguzi, December 02, 2012
Andrew, your argument makes academic sense, but lacks in practice and motivation. It is the big and influencial who attract the small and less influencial to corruption. Fighting a big name would scare the small name from the act. However, the fight should be holistic and professional; the big should be fought as well as the small ones. Politicizing the fight, I agree, has disoriented its focus and weakened its effectiveness. We applaud the media for keeping us informed, and very soon we'll mobilize public anger against the corrupt and lynch them through mob justice. I propose execution of the culprits by public stonning to assuage the public anger and instil a sense of direction.
@Denis- Lynch and chew them
written by Musinguzi, December 02, 2012
On a normal day, I have no cannibalistic tendencies but given the impunity the corrupt have been greeted with, Ugandans I am ready to chew Bigirimana's cheeks so they are not able to eat any more funds meant to help Ugandans. So, Denis, we will not only lynch them, some of us are ready to eat their body parts in anger and to ensure that they are digested and gone- and gone forever.. So Bigirimana keep away from me
Now, instead of opposition positioning themselves, they are busy fighting themselves- the usual myopic Mafabi fighting Alaso. Kyoka Uganda.. Tukyakaaba nyo....
Independent Researcher Local Food and Fuel Systems
written by Borje Melin, December 02, 2012
Kudos on a thoughtful and pragmatic piece by Mr. Mwenda on the anatomy of public corruption that provides a helpful and substantial target for uprooting the theft of government funds. It also explains, for example, why there are missing funds for almost 90 per cent of local HIV programs that has catapulted Uganda from its benchmark reputation for effective anti-HIV strategy to Africa’s current worst performer in combating this scourge.
Patronage
written by pacol, December 04, 2012
Andrew you have always, in detail, described Uganda's number one problem..i.e Patronage. To me this is the most criminal form of corruption and indeed this is the political kind. Its where the whole problem starts. M7 has given Ugandans the incentive to steal by him buying political capital through bribery, nepotism, cronyism (yes this country has died) because of him. Now erroneously you give us "academic solutions" instead of advocating for real revolution, while still extalling the civil servants who work in an environment with no systems? Come on!
Corruption
written by essayswriters.org/paper-writing, April 28, 2013
Corruption is now so much an integral part of the economic, administrative and political life of Uganda that it is almost certainly impossible to control or curb. The best to hope for is the ruling clique puts its rivals in prison or executes them. The elite are totally above any law, because the laws are not respected or enforced against the rulers, but only against the ruled. There are such vast sums of money being generated that there is no genuine will to change.
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written by purest gren coffee today, July 10, 2013
Handcuffing a powerful minister, especially one related to the President, and sending them to jail, even if he has stolen only Shs 1 million, seems a more just thing to do than arresting an accounts clerk in a ministry who has stolen Shs 100 billion. This is because punishing an accounts clerk, even when he has stolen billions instead of a powerful minister who has stolen millions, seems like catching the little flies and letting the big bugs escape.
Super foods
written by Super foods, July 10, 2013
The clergy can't, the judges can't and won't and the politicians who are deep in it with their eyeballs they are the initiators, the cause, can't or won't. If they can't and won't the only legitimate solution left is the genuine democratic process, certainly not the current sham, sorry political process that relies on corruption itself to survive. It's like asking hyenas tend the goats or fox to guard the chicken coop.
Pure Green Coffee Bean Extract
written by Pure Green Coffee Bean Extract, July 30, 2013
These properties have an expected value of over Shs 800 billion. Third, it froze their bank accounts and placed caveats on their assets. Fourth, police is initiating the process of recovering the money by confiscating the properties and handing them to government for auction.
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poorly motivated police can take on corruption? Most police officers would do better taking bribes from the thieves than helping the state to rein them in. Then there is politics; entrenched corrupt interests will lobby the powerful for protection.

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