By Timothy Kalyegira
National events at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala like Independence Day, Labour Day and others used to last about two hours. Since 2008, they have started taking on the feel of mammoth, all-day festivals.
The main reason is that as President Yoweri Museveni has gotten more insecure in power and in his mind, a whole movement has developed to reassure him that he is still loved by his people and his stay in power is not something that should worry him.
To demonstrate this (and, no doubt, to secure their jobs and gain favours), Resident District Commissioners and NRM party officials a few days before Independence Day made it their primary assignment to mobilise as many crowds, businesses, NGOs, government ministries, hospitals, schools, and paramilitary groups as possible to take part in the parade at Kololo Airstrip.
On October 9, 2010, this entered a new phase: for the first time in Uganda’s history, nursery school infants were drafted into the march-past parade at Kololo.
Like the rest of society, these marching groups at Kololo have grasped the essential nature of Museveni’s regime in its latter stages.
It is essentially the Feudal Republic of Uganda that is now in place. Under this Feudal Republic, there is no law, no order, no standard, there is no defining national ethos except that which flows from the person of Museveni.
If this feudal lord, who governs Uganda, decrees that your bank loan be forgiven or that you get millions of dollars from Bank of Uganda, you be appointed ambassador, your goods come in tax-free, you be given land to build a factory in a wetland or national park, or that your company is given the budget to promote Uganda’s image abroad, then that is it. His word becomes legal writ and law.
If Museveni looks favourably upon you today, your life can be instantaneously transformed like in the children’s fairly tales: today you are in rags; tomorrow you are a minister. Today you are selling maize at a street corner; tomorrow you are the Chief Mobiliser for the NRM in eastern Uganda.
The question, then, is how do you get Museveni’s attention? You can send your school to march at Kololo, or you can publicly declare your undying support for him.
As a struggling Ugandan singer, you can compose a song titled “Amelia” whose lyrics sound curiously like an anthem in praise of the former Principal Private Secretary to the President, Amelia Kyambadde or you can write a song in praise of Museveni.
Either way, you will be guaranteed, not sales, but that one of these two will buy your master copy for 5,000 dollars, or that small radio stations in the countryside will be forced by RDCs to play these songs, as a way to justify their jobs, or when you the singer gets into trouble next time after fighting in a bar, the police will let you go scot-free or the president will pay your medical bills.
The Ugandan singer Bobi Wine captured this new order of things best in his 2006 song Kiwani, in which he had the lyrics “Buli omu asiba kiwani” (“Everybody engages in fraud”).
A good illustration of how deep this state of national kiwani has penetrated every corner and area of life, came in the Miss Uganda beauty contest in September. Apparently, there were three leading contenders: the contestant who was favoured by the audience, the one who was the choice of the judges, and the one preferred by the organisers.
Like so many such events, from elections to Uganda’s football administration, to the Pearl of Africa Music Awards, to the Miss Makerere beauty contest, to simple things like the choice of a cover subject for a newspaper or news magazine, the Miss Uganda contest resulted in the kind of controversy that flows from corruption, bribery of judges and officials that is now the Ugandan national character.
There are fraudsters in Kampala nicknamed “Cubans” and also termed “mercenaries”. These are the young men and women who perform an important role in the economy. Their work is to sit exams or write academic theses on behalf of busy civil servants and corporate executives.
These ghost writers are the real brains behind most of the Bachelors, MBAs, and PhDs in Uganda that Uganda’s middle class boasts today.
At another level, there is a whole group of professionals who have also developed and flourished around this fraudulent society.
Gynecologists and other personal doctors, lawyers, auditors, accountants, personal physical fitness trainers, and others who are contracted by Uganda’s corrupt class are doing brisk business.
Whole industries, from airlines, travel agents, property brokers, chartered surveyors, architects, private schools, banks, hotels, telecom companies etc, have all risen to meet the needs and ride on the purchasing power of this wealthy, corrupt, embezzling class.
A world of NGOs to fight or report on corruption has become a permanent feature of Ugandan life. So too have the NGOs, local and foreign, that have come to fill in the gap in the provision of basic social services and relief aid that has been created by the erosion of the state under Museveni.
Newspapers and radio stations that champion or claim to champion the fight against corruption have done well with audiences and publishing adverts and tenders by NGOs claiming or actually fighting corruption.
The media in general has also gained much by way of advertising from the many companies, investors, and individuals who either should never have been allowed to enter Uganda, or should have been expelled by now, or who should be in jail.
Journalists who have reported on corruption have become national stars. Those who take bribes in order to suppress damaging stories on corruption have also done well, judging by the flashy cars and expensive property they own.
Certain Pentecostal churches whose pastors are close to State House or which are generally sympathetic to the NRM government have gained much in prestige, contributions by their parishioners and occasional moral support or political and legal cover from the state.
On average, the salaries of most people in the civil service, the corporate and NGO community is only about one third of their monthly incomes. The other two thirds is topped up in this climate of hustling, bribes, tax evasion, raising vouchers and allowance claim forms, inflating invoices and tenders and outright theft.
Last month, David Mukholi, the editor of the Sunday Vision newspaper, said on a Wednesday journalists’ show on Vision Voice that news and investigation stories on corruption no longer sell.
This might be partly because the public has grown weary of reports on corruption, since they know nothing will be done about them anyway; but also it might suggest that corruption is now a majority culture, in the same way Christianity is the majority religion in Uganda, and so few are interested in having it exposed.
The state of lawlessness that characterises Uganda today has been amazingly beneficial to hundreds of thousands of Ugandans, especially in Kampala. This is because, like all systems once entrenched, it has taken on a formal, organised, routine, checks and balances character of its own.
And like all systems, to disrupt it is destabilising and can be a source of national instability as disrupting a system founded on merit and the observance of law and order.
When UPC party president Olara Otunnu called for a boycott of the 2011 general election unless the current Electoral Commission is reformed or changed, his call was opposed by the main opposition party the FDC and by a surprising number of UPC members.
This was odd, since the FDC has been a victim of rigged elections for a decade and should know better than to have faith that the 2011 election will be different. Once again, what normally defies logic in Uganda is, surprisingly, logical in its own way.
Most Ugandans know that the forthcoming election will be rigged. The NRM party primaries alone were a foreshadow of what is to come. However, there is more than meets the eye. Whenever elections loom, with them comes a whole industry from which many thousands of Ugandans gain and it trickles down to the ordinary people.
It is not just the impoverished villagers who the media usually portrays as receiving a pathetic bribe of sugar and soap.
Campaign managers, touts who traverse the villages rallying support, the printers who get the jobs to produce campaign posters, treasurers of candidates, candidates themselves, boda boda cyclists who blow their horns and transport supporters, the bars that sell booze to crowds, those who cook food to sell at rallies, journalists who take bribes to write in praise of or interview certain candidates on radio, men who spend all day playing Ludo or arguing about Manchester United who are suddenly elected councillors or even MPs— all these gain in a major way from the elections, even though the occupant at State House might not change.
This election industry, with it characteristic bribes, unexplained money coming in from governments in the region trying to influence the outcome of the election in Uganda or political parties and trade unions in Europe, western embassies in Kampala, plays a vital role in the Ugandan economy and so there was no surprise that political parties that know for certain that 2011 will see, if anything, much more rigging than before, still felt they had to take part in it.
When Museveni finally leaves power some day, this is the legacy that will last the longest and take the longest and the greatest effort to uproot.
A generation of Ugandans will have been born that has no understanding whatsoever of what institutions mean, what merit is, what procedure and method are, and how to earn a living by the process of systematic, incremental work, followed by payment and personal savings.
They will not know or have the patience to queue up for anything, to wait for longer than a week for a tender or results of an interview to be made public.
The only thing they will have known and which works for them is the life of what in Kampala slang these days is termed “Okuyiya”, a term describing the gambling, scheming, lying, issuing bouncing cheques, acting the sycophant, bending or breaking laws and rules and evading taxes or doctoring academic certificates that is life in Uganda and how most people survive.
To every obstacle in their path, the solution is to call afande so-and-so, call somebody or State House, call up a cousin in intelligence, a brother in the army, a contact on the job interview panel, a friend in the Uganda Revenue Authority, or somebody at border immigration control.
Many Ugandans and foreigners lament the state of affairs in Uganda today, from the rundown infrastructure, roads, police stations, to the nepotism on corruption. In truth, this is largely a moralistic cry, usually characterised by crocodile tears.
The fact is, for the majority of Ugandans there is no system and way of life they can enjoy better than what they have grown used to in Uganda today.
In Uganda, you can toss a mineral water bottle out of a car window. You can drive on the left or the right, depending on what pleases you. You can zoom past pedestrians at a zebra crossing etc.
You can use three different names to transact business. A newspaper with a circulation of only 1,200 copies can get the same full-colour, full-page advert as a newspaper with a circulation of 35,000 copies, depending on who one bribes for the adverts.
At first one is tempted to feel sorry for doctors who work in government hospitals or police officers in their shabby offices, until one realises that they don’t seem to be that bothered.
This is because amid that confusion and broken down infrastructure are hefty benefits to be enjoyed. Families of arrested suspects and criminals can pay a CID officer or District Police Commander to release a relative.
Traffic policemen who stand on duty along roadsides are often not exactly suffering, when it is learnt how much they earn in bribes from offending drivers.
Teachers in miserable government schools or at Makerere University can either be paid to award marks to students for cash or sex.
Foreign businessmen and companies have also discovered this about Uganda and, while there is much lamentation by purists that Uganda is too corrupt to do business in, actually Uganda is just the right environment in which certain types of crafty companies and entrepreneurs can do business. It is a gangster’s paradise.
You import expired goods? No problem. Nobody will ask. You bring in unskilled labour from India. Kawa, life will go on. You evade taxes? Who pays taxes, anyway?
In this sense, Uganda has shaken off the last vestiges of the old colonial system of order, merit, method, standards, bureaucracy and moved on to a strange state of nature in which the country has one of the highest rates of social mobility on earth.
Office sweeper today, RDC tomorrow. Failure at school today, MBA holder tomorrow. Sergeant today, Brigadier tomorrow. Struggling small-time trader today, property mogul tomorrow. Teacher today, women’s MP tomorrow. Convicted thief today, presidential advisor tomorrow. Freelance reporter today, Managing Editor tomorrow. Wanted by police today for fraud, operations director at the Internal Security Organisation tomorrow.
This is why many Ugandans don’t seem as bothered by the potholes in Kampala as the media expects them to be. Not that they don’t see or suffer through them. It is just that there are so many benefits that have also come with operating in Uganda, benefits that more than compensate for the lack or order, accountability, merit, bureaucracy and the rule of law.
Cabinet ministers do not have any real powers and they know it. However, they also know something else: what apparently appears like offices without powers actually do have certain hidden powers.
A prospective investor flies into Uganda from China or France and at some stage he gets to meet the minister in charge of the investor’s area of interest. To obtain the minister’s signature, the investor pays handsomely in a bribe.
So in that sense, all of Uganda’s cabinet ministers, ministers of state, resident district commissioners, members of parliament, permanent secretaries, commissioners, and a whole host of other public and civil service officials, while appearing to have no real authority in a system that barely functions, actually have much greater power than they would have enjoyed had Uganda had institutions that work.
Because of this, an entire middle class has emerged since 1986 that is built on dishonesty and fraud. So entrenched is it that any attempt to reform Uganda and genuinely root out corruption would destabilise the country.
Museveni found Uganda a struggling military-dominated, post-colonial republic in 1986. He will leave it a feudal state similar to an African kingdom of the 19th century.