By Joseph Bossa
Will Ugandans and donors wake up and fight corruption or tolerate it to the extent that it ceases to shock?
A little more than forty years ago, an observation was made that foreign aid was aid from the poor people of the rich countries to the rich people of the poor countries. The reported plunder of foreign aid in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) could not have confirmed the correctness of that observation more graphically. The poor tax payers of rich Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway made massive donations to the super-rich civil servants of poor Uganda.
Coming simultaneously with the disclosure in the plunder in the OPM was the loot of the pension funds in the Ministry of Public Service. Horrendous as those disclosures are, they are a mere tip of the ice-berg.
The reality is that every ministry and every government department is mired in grand corruption, the only difference being that the plunder and amounts involved elsewhere have not come to light yet. How did Uganda come to this?
When one regime and one president have been continuously in power for the last 27 out of the 50 years a nation has been independent, the temptation becomes great to attribute the corruption today to that regime and that president. But the matter is a little more complex. Right from the days when African chiefs sold their countrymen into slavery for trinkets and pieces of mirrors, many African governments have founded their rule on corruption and bribery.
Uganda is no exception. Buganda is the bedrock upon which Uganda was built. The formation of the nation known as Uganda today, therefore, began around 1894 with an agreement between Buganda and The East African Trading Company. Indeed, the name Uganda is a mispronunciation of the name Buganda by coastal Arabs which they passed to the incoming British.
For its participation with the British in the subjugation of Bunyoro, Buganda was rewarded with Bunyoro territory. It is true that Buganda and Bunyoro had often gone to war with each other to the extent that some historians erroneously considered the two nations traditional enemies. But this, which was the last war between them, was different; it was entirely foreign inspired. The counties Buganda thereby got came to known as the` lost counties’ which have afflicted Ugandan politics to this day. One can dare say that Uganda was founded on corruption.
Private ownership of land was entirely unknown in Buganda up till1900. But under the 190A0 Buganda Agreement 9003 square miles were divided among the royalty and chiefs to secure their compliance to colonisation of Buganda. It was the first exhibition of grand corruption in Uganda.
Political instability has greatly contributed to the growth of corruption in Uganda. Instability forces some people to go into exile or to ‘’the bush’’ to fight the government of the day. When they succeed in overthrowing that government, they form the new government and take up positions of power and influence. Very few of them would have done well financially or materially while in exile, and not at all while in ‘’the bush’’.
Two classes of Ugandans emerge– the ‘’stayees’’ and the ‘’returnees’’ meaning those who stayed in their positions and those who left but returned after the change of government. The ‘’returnees’’ begin to compare themselves with those that did not go away. They see themselves as heroes who fought and the ‘’stayees’’ as collaborators with the overthrown regime and who ‘’left them behind’’ materially. They begin to play catch up in the acquisition of wealth.
The result is cutting corners through corruption made easy because they are in powerful positions. The trouble is they don’t know how, where, when or why they should stop even long after they have “caught up” or even surpassed the “stayees” in material wealth. Their corruption is tolerated by their fellow travellers with whom they fought or “suffered” in exile.
It should also be remembered that some of those who had been in exile may have acquired tastes or envied from a distance life styles which cannot be supported by the ordinary salary or an ordinary public servant.
The very process of capturing or retaining power potentially plants seeds of corruption. While fighting the regime in power, the rebels follow the principle of the end justifying the means. So, in case of NRM, while in the bush, they robbed cash from banks, produce from cooperative union stores and drugs from government hospitals.
Since it is impossible to steal government funds without the corroboration of the stayees, the habit of stealing spreads. It becomes contagious. Gaining power through fraudulent elections is another major virus that causes corruption. One who wins an election through fraud, loses the moral authority to discipline the person who helped him to do so when he steals from his department.
Corruption and Uganda’s International Image
Someone told a story of going to an internet café in Kampala to access his account abroad. Unknown to him, the internet café owners recorded the particulars of bank and account number, including his password. A few days after transacting his business the café owners contacted his bank and instructed it to transfer some money from his account to a motor vehicle dealer in Japan.
Fortunately, the arrangement with his bank was that the bank had to telephone him to confirm any instructions it received. Obviously he had not issued this particular instruction. When he asked his bank whether he should report the matter to the Uganda police their answer was telling. He was told that given the level of corruption in Uganda it was not worth the trouble of reporting.
Ugandans have been charged in court with fleecing U.K. social security and health systems. A Ugandan born sportsman has staged being kidnapped abroad. One of Uganda’s top universities has acquired a reputation for issuing academic transcripts and giving degrees to some of its students that they have not earned. How will that affect our citizens seeking to pursue higher studies or employment here or abroad?
At the beginning of the 21st century Uganda has begun to assume, with regard to corruption and fraud, the same reputation some West African countries had at the close of the last one. Corruption has begun to define Uganda.
What Does the Future Hold?
The amounts of money stolen are getting bigger by the day. Ugandans’ and their development partners’ attitude may be changing. We seem to have reached a place where the road forks and a decision must be made which road to take. One of two things is likely to happen. Either Ugandans will wake up from their slumber and together with their developing partners (donors) begin to do something meaningful and effective about corruption or the sheer magnitude of the amounts stolen may raise the tolerance levels of the vice and blur their vision of its various manifestations, guises and effects.
They may begin to think only theft of cash in billions constitutes corruption. Corruption may cease to shock. That would introduce a corrupted sense of corruption. Yet even tampering with a weighing scale is corruption as is issuing a forged medical certificate. The list is endless.
Language and Corruption
Uganda has no commonly understood language. Worse still, many Ugandan languages will struggle to find a single word for corruption which invokes the same feeling as the English word. This absence of a common language served well the colonialists and those who replaced them. But it is a double- edged blunt sword. No language can be used to galvanise support for a cause or to resist any policy so as to produce a definite impact. So, the people are segmented along tribe and language with no shared message as a result.
Poetry, drama and song have been known to cause political change throughout history. And THEY know it. That is why THEY panicked with the song Tuli Ku Bunkenke (We are on tender hooks) during the 2006 general elections. And that is why THEY tried to ban the drama, “State of the Nation”.
The runaway song by Mathias Walukagga which is popularly known as ‘’Abantu Bakoowu’’ has a deep political message. That phrase has three possible meanings. One is, ‘’the people are tired’’ and closely related to that is, ‘’the people are bored’’. The other meaning is, ‘’ the people are fed up’’. The song’s impact on Uganda’s politics would have depended on the meaning adopted.
If it were interpreted as being tired, which implies exhaustion or boredom that could result into lethargy and indifference. But if it were taken to mean being fed up, it would lead to anger and resistance. Unfortunately, the song is in Luganda, a language not universally understood outside the Buganda region. Its political impact is neutralised and it remains of infotainment value only for one language group. Lack of a shared language is at once Uganda’s tragedy and the corrupt’s relief.
Joseph Bossa is the Vice President of the opposition Uganda Peoples Congress party.