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Behind Museveni’s cash handouts

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why the president openly bribes voters at public functions and gets away with it and what can be done about it

When we had just started The Independent, a particular problem confronted me. Each time a member of staff fell ill at office and was rushed to hospital, other staff members would call me. As owner of the company, staff members consider me rich. And as managing director, I am the boss. In their subconscious mind, I am expected to assist in such cases of emergency because of my presumed wealth and also my position as their leader. By subconscious I mean those things we take for granted as “the normal way of doing things.”


Each time they called and told me what had happened, I knew instinctively what they expected of me – to contribute money. They did not need to explain the details because I am born and bred in Uganda and understand our culture and attitudes. How I helped did not matter. I could, for example, get money from my pocket (which I always did) and contribute to the emergency. Or I could have directed the accountant to get money from the company. However, I also knew “intellectually” that this was technically not my responsibility.

If such an emergency happened in a European country, I would not have been called so save the situation. As their leader, I am not supposed to pay the private medical bills of my members of staff. My responsibility would be to pay their salary, which the company does promptly every month. Neither is the company supposed to pay for their health costs – we are not required to do so under Ugandan labor laws. From a Western perspective, there is a mutually agreed employment contract and the company always met its part of the bargain.

Yet, if as MD I had ordered the accountant to use company funds to solve this emergency, no one at the company would have seen me as acting wrongly – as abusing my power. They would have seen me as acting correctly. And all our members of staff, except two, are university graduates. To resolve this dilemma, I decided to put all staff and up to four members of their family (a wife and up to three children) on medical insurance to avoid these cultural burdens.

But this has not ended the dilemma a “modernized” Ugandan like me faces. Each time a member of staff loses a loved one or is getting married, I am expected to financially contribute to funeral expenses or the wedding. Indeed, I am expected to contribute a higher sum than everyone else. Not doing so would lead to negative gossip that I am a mean and an insensitive boss. I don’t want to have such a reputation.

I bend to these expectations clearly recognizing that I live in a society with values, which give my staff specific expectations of me as their leader and as an owner of the business. Yet, I am not a politician seeking to ingratiate myself to an electorate.

This experience provides important insights into how politics in Africa, especially competitive democratic politics, creates incentives for corruption because it plays in the context of the aforementioned expectations. Politicians seeking votes become prey to the electorate.

I have interviewed and discussed such issues with elected presidents and legislators in Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Cameroon, Malawi, Kenya, etc and the experience is the same. Citizens flock to the president and constituents to the home of their MP looking for all forms of assistance. Those with access to public funds can meet such private expectations at public expense (corruption). Those without power (back benchers and opposition MPs) pay for them from their private incomes.

Of course such burdens can be socialized through the State. By creating functional public health and education institutions, as Rwanda is doing, politicians can ensure that such personal burdens are handled by the government. But it takes generations to build such institutions; and voters cannot wait for such a long time. Besides, voters come with other needs – funeral and wedding expenses, building of churches and other personal needs, which cannot be socialized through State spending.

I have argued before that most of the problems we encounter in Uganda (and indeed most of Africa) are locally generated. Even demands to solve them are largely local. However, debate on the solution tends to focus on an imported solution. Often, it is a textbook theory, which was developed out of the experience of the West. I believe the major source of failure in Africa is the mismatch between demands and solutions.

For example, if a UK prime minister dished out public funds to favored voters at a rally, there would be unanimity of opinion among the British public that he has acted wrongly and he would be forced to resign. However, I suspect that the majority of the electorate in Uganda does not think that President Yoweri Museveni is acting wrongly when he indulges in similar behavior.

Ordinary citizens do not have a conception of the difference between the public funds of the State and the private finances of the President. Although this conception is growing, most of our citizens (even the educated) don’t see it as wrong for a President to use public funds to solve the personal or collective problems of certain individuals and groups in our country.

It would be wrong to assume that Museveni behaves this way because voters cannot hold him to account. Although seemingly all-powerful, there are limits to his power. This is especially so if he exercised it in opposition to our cherished beliefs. Some of these limits are imposed by societal norms. For example, the majority of Ugandans believe that homosexuality is inhuman, immoral and alien to our culture. Assuming Museveni held a progressive view that gay marriages should be legalized in Uganda. He would be reluctant to push such an agenda recognizing that the people he leads would not agree with him.

Many of the rules that govern the behavior of our public officials were transplanted to Africa through colonial conquest and/or through imitation as “best practice.” They lack organic links to our society. To make matters worse, there are hardly effective penalties for violating them; instead we see rewards for doing so. Debate in Africa needs to focus on how to design public institutions to respond to the specificity of our reality as already outlined above.

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