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When best option is to ignore rules

By Andrew M. Mwenda

A common joke about our roads in Uganda goes like this: If you see someone driving zigzag, then you know he is sober; and if you see someone driving straight, they must be drunk. Why is the logic of driving inverted? Because we have too many potholes on our roads, you drive zigzag to avoid them. But a person high on alcohol would not recognise this problem.

This inversion of logic applies to our political system and the accountability in our institutions as well. Take government procurement for example. If a tender was given out by following all the rules and procedures, then you know it involved a lot of corruption. But if those awarding the tender violated all the procedures, it means there was little corruption.

The deal with no corruption will attract media scrutiny yet the one with high levels of kickbacks will not. Why?

Reporters and editors in Uganda assume, quite wrongly, that a protracted process of competitive bidding where all rules and procedures are respected means the deal was clean. Yet it only shows that the Ugandan political and bureaucratic class has learnt how to circumvent the myriad procedural rules donors have imposed on our procurement system. Journalists and the general public take this naive view because our understanding of our political system is not informed by our reality. Rather it is informed by analogies from Western democracies.

For example, competitive bidding in the developed world is meant to ensure that the tendering process produces the most optimal outcome financially and technically. The system works well because Western institutions are built on merit and they offer long term career rewards to employees. One’s material advancement is a result of pursuit of collective goals. These incentives work because they are rooted in traditions these societies developed over many years.

The Ugandan political system, on the other hand, is built around a neo-patrimonial logic. The term neo-patrimonial is drawn from Max Weber’s concept of ‘patrimonial rule.’ Weber was referring to governance in small principalities in pre-industrial Europe where rule was highly personalised and arbitrary. Political scientists working on Africa coined the term neo-patrimonial to explain the combination of formal structures of a modern bureaucratic state and the highly personalised rule we see: a presidential statement carries more weight than official policy.

Thus recruitment into most of the public sector is not based on merit but on political or ethnic connection. Consequently, the reward system is not based on performance but personal or ethnic loyalty. One’s career (for prestige) and salary (material reward) are not determined by how best they do their job. If this exists, it is the exception, not the rule. Lacking a performance-based reward system, most public servants in Uganda realise that the best they can get from their jobs is money, hence corruption.

Now let us introduce a competitive bidding process into this system. Let us also add the myriad institutions created to check corruption: Public Procurement and Disposable of Assets Authority (PPDA), Inspector General of Government (IGG) and parliament. Rather than check corruption, they are the instruments for accentuating it. How?

Whenever there is a lucrative tender in a ministry, tendering companies hire as front men people with close contacts at State House and who can leverage the president’s name. Some are the president’s relatives and or immediate family. The contract committee members know that their jobs would be jeopardised if they do not cooperate; that is the stick. The carrot is that by siding with the company fronted by the ‘president’s men’, they can get a kickback in return and a possible promotion.

The second stage is PPDA. The top people there were appointed politically and so are many members of staff. Like the contracts committee in the ministry, PPDA is unlikely to act independently. Threats are not enough to get a deal; a disgruntled staff can leak the details to the press. The investor will also oil the pockets of key people at PPDA.

So everyone in the food chain will have ‘eaten’ as it were and therefore sworn to silence. The press will not get the exclusive. It is when the one awarding the tender eats alone (which may mean there were not enough bribes to bring everyone on board) that the ‘scandal’ gets exposed and battles begin. Yet in financial terms, it is the scandals that get exposed that are actually better for the citizen.

But let us assume that the bidder who lost out goes to the Inspector General of Government (IGG) to complain. This will only shift the contest and with it the resources to that office. Bidders will spend heavily to influence the IGG decision. These battles take a lot of time and money out of the investors and therefore increase the contract price. To break the impasse, sometimes people appeal directly to President Yoweri Museveni who acts as the final arbiter in such squabbles.

Given the distribution of power in Uganda, those who lose fairly or unfairly in a tendering process can petition parliament. Our parliamentarians, fresh from the campaign trail; broke and indebted will be looking for ways to re-coup their investment. They will take up the issue not so much to enforce accountability but rather to leverage their constitutional power to extort resources from the squabbling bidders.

When a tendering process gets here, all sides will seek to influence public opinion by exposing the scandal in the press. Reporters and editors in Uganda get recruited into these fights not so much because of bribery (even though that may play a role) but largely because they misunderstand the nature of the contest. Journalists address the problem as if the institutions in Uganda work like those in Sweden.

Just assume the government of Uganda put prime lands like Shimoni, Nakasero and Kitante Courts up for competitive bidding! The resulting fights would easily paralyse the state or even break up the First Family.

In such circumstances, the personalised way in which Museveni awarded them was the most efficient, however morally repugnant it was. It has high long term costs on Uganda’s institutional growth. But the inverted logic ‘ like the drunkard who drives straight ‘ holds.

amwenda@independent.co.ug

www.andrewmwendasblog.blogspot.com

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