By Andrew M. Mwenda
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.