By Independent Team
New report names those failing Uganda’s anti-corruption war
A new report by the international rights group Human Rights Watch has sparked new debate on the monster of corruption, a vice that has sent Uganda on its knees in recent years by indentifying the entities responsible for failing the fight against the vice. The key message in the no-holds-barred report, released on Oct.21, is one: the government in general and the “long-staying” President Yoweri Museveni in particular – as well as his “political shrewdness” – have contributed directly to the failure in the fight against the vice.
The group points to what it describes as “the government’s deep-rooted lack of political will to address corruption at the highest levels and importantly, to set an example—starting from the top—that graft will not be tolerated.”
Human Rights Watch says the report is based on research by itself and Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic from May to September 2013, including interviews with 48 people with substantive knowledge of anti-corruption efforts in Uganda. Analysts and anti-corruption activists told The Independent that they strongly agree with the findings. But as usual, the report titled, “Letting the Big Fish Swim:”
Failures to Prosecute High-Level Corruption in Uganda,” has rubbed the government the wrong way and expectedly so. In the past, the rights body has concentrated on civil and fundamental human rights violations such as torture, extra-judicial killings among others and not corruption.
However, in the understanding of the rights group, what it describes as the “grand scale theft of public money” deprives some of Uganda’s poorest citizens of better access to fundamental services such as health and education. That makes it a human rights issue, according to Maria Burnett, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch.
Not surprisingly, the report shines a torch on the $12.7 million in donor funds that was embezzled from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) – money that was earmarked as support for rebuilding northern Uganda, ravaged by a 20-year war, and Karamoja, Uganda’s poorest region. But previous corruption scandals have also had a direct impact on human rights, according to HRW, citing the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria in which millions of dollars went missing.
“Despite investigations, none of the high-ranking government officials who managed the implicated offices have faced criminal sanction,” the report notes in part, adding that most often they have remained in office, untouched, while individuals working at the technical level have faced prosecution and, in some cases, jail time.
Even when ministers have been forced to resign from office, it adds, such resignations have been temporary; they were eventually reappointed to key positions in government, in what one diplomatic representative calls a “game of musical chairs.” “Years of evidence indicate that Uganda’s current political system is built on patronage and that ultimately high-level corruption is rewarded rather than punished.”
Such corruption, HRW says, undermines the human rights of Ugandans. As a direct defiance of the rule of law and accountability, it indicates that the law and its institutions cannot be relied on to protect against violations of fundamental human rights or deliver justice.
By unlawfully interfering with resources that should be available to realize fundamental rights such as the rights to health, water, food, and education—either through illegally appropriating public funds for personal wealth or rendering access to services subject to bribes, which are illegal—corruption leads to violations of human rights that may have disastrous consequences.
The rights group appears to lay the blame for the escalation of corruption on the door of President Museveni, whose “public rhetoric regarding rooting out corruption is frequently belied by his public statements on specific cases.” These comments are often seen as tacit signals to witnesses, prosecutors, and in some cases, judges, the report notes.
The report, which documents why Uganda has failed to hold the highest members of its government accountable for theft of public funds, criticizes government’s failure to close legal loopholes and ensure that laws are not written or interpreted to insulate political appointees from accountability. It also takes a swipe at donors/development partners, whose attempts to fight corruption in Uganda, it says have been weakened by “their own vested interests, poor coordination, and fluctuating institutional memory.”
Also not spared are the government’s anti-corruption institutions such as the Anti-Corruption Court, the IGG), the Auditor General; and the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, which it says have succeeded in prosecuting low-level corruption culprits but “largely ineffective in curbing grand scale corruption.”
Citing institutional, political, and legislative reasons for Uganda’s failure to prosecute grand corruption, the report highlights the fact President Museveni and Parliament, which is heavily dominated by ruling party members, have failed to empower key institutions, either by failing to fill key vacancies or by failing to establish institutions such as the Leadership Tribunal, which could challenge inaccurate financial asset declarations.
For instance, the report cites the position of the Deputy Inspector General of Government, a constitutional office, which remained vacant for 18 years and was only filled in mid-2013 when donors pressured President Museveni to fill the post. “The fact that this occurred only after donors made it a condition for resuming aid shows that a powerful inspector general’s office was far from a priority for President Museveni’s governance agenda,” the report notes. Other vacancies also remain unfilled at the various levels in the court system for no sound reason.
Another important reason is that actors within the anti-corruption institutions are inadequately protected and shielded from political influence by an “entrenched patronage network” that ensures loyalty thanks to the president’s long stay in office, now over 27 years. “In order to maintain itself, President Museveni’s government has rewarded devotion with financial enrichment. One lawyer noted that, “Corruption is a tool of management in this country. This country runs on a web of patronage,” the report quotes one informant as saying.
Legislative reforms would be a welcome boost to the anti-corruption efforts. For instance, “lack of continuity and consistency” in the leadership of the Inspectorate of Government was cited as one of the challenges affecting the effectiveness of that institution. A former investigator at the Inspectorate of Government told the researchers that he got this contradiction that “I can’t keep working with a government that protects top officials against prosecution while I go prosecuting teachers and accountants.”
Indeed, an analysis of cases at the the Anti-Corruption Court found that of the 88 first instance cases, the Court convicted defendants 68% of the time, but these convictions were concentrated among low-level, local government workers. Local government workers made up the majority of defendants (65 out of 106 defendants, or 61%), and the amounts of money that they were alleged to have illegally acquired in their cases were low (the average was $1,300 [Shs 3 million]), quite low considering that high level corruption involves billions of shillings.
Only one central government leader, former State Minister for Health Mike Mukula, was convicted—and yet his conviction was overturned and he walked free on appeal. Only seven ministers have ever been charged with crimes for corruption-related behavior and all were eventually acquitted. Also, investigators told the researchers that they would shy away from investigating high profile corruption suspects because of the “risks involved.”
Also, the harassment of anti-corruption activists and obstructing access to public information is said to be an indication that the government is not willing to support the crucial role civil society plays in upholding human rights and anti-corruption efforts.
The report also takes a swipe at the donor community, whose “own weaknesses—self-interest, inconsistencies, and poor coordination—it says have contributed to a failure to protect donor aid from graft in Uganda.” It calls on donors to massively increase the focus on accountability at the highest levels of government and ensure that any reengagement is based on substantive, not cosmetic, changes to Uganda’s anti-corruption structures, and serious, not token, government commitments to eradicate corruption.
It says the donors are apparently cornered by President Museveni’s shrewdness as he has consolidated Uganda’s strategic importance as a counterterrorism ally, peacemaker, and negotiator in East Africa. Because of his commitments to provide (or threats to withdraw) peacekeeping and military presence in Somalia and for counter-terrorism operations in the region, the rights group claims some donors admit that their governments are reluctant to challenge Museveni assertively on corruption, preferring to maintain ties, “thereby insulating him from some criticism.”
According to one European donor official who was interviewed for the report, there is an “unstated nervousness” among European donors that being too outspoken in demanding conditions and anti-corruption protections could damage their own commercial interests to the extent that the “[donors] need Museveni more than his government needs them,” as one diplomat put it. Donor interests in trade and investment opportunities have only been amplified since the discovery of oil in Uganda in as far as securing their own oil investment opportunities are concerned.
Uganda is currently one of the most notorious countries in the region when it comes to corruption. It topped the five countries in the East African Community (EAC) as the most corrupt in a 2012 assessment that examines frequency with which citizens reported being asked to pay bribes. The country is also fared badly on the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which ranks countries based on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be.
The recent discovery of oil in the Albertine Region and the development of Uganda’s nascent petroleum sector have renewed concern about the pervasive levels of corruption, as it could potentially translate it the oil resource into the dreaded ‘resource curse.’ The high level of impunity is what appears to bother human rights activists and more so as the specter increases the risk that corruption at the top leadership levels could make oil revenues a reserve of a few well-connected individuals at the expense of the majority of Ugandans.
Who is responsible for the failure to fight corruption in Uganda?
Bishop Zac Niringiye, good governance activist
The form corruption is reflected in is political; it continues because it serves political ends and because there is no political action being taken. The President is failing us because he is not taking any political action. A lot of deals are cut in State House yet there is no accountability. That is why we as the Black Monday Movement are telling citizens to rise up and say enough is enough, we can no longer keep company with those who have mismanaged the State. Citizens must shun the corrupt and their businesses. The only way to fight corruption is by citizens taking that action.
Joshua Kisawuzi, PRO Judiciary
It is not a question of apportioning blame. We as the Judiciary do our part. We cannot convict basing on political will or to appease the donors. There is need to appreciate the administration of justice and the public also has a role to play. If you cannot come to court to report a crime or stand as a witness, how do you expect us to convict the corrupt? The courts are doing their part because they use the evidence that has been tendered. More often you find the appeal cannot be sustained if you assemble poor evidence or insufficient evidence, what can the courts do? You need to appreciate the deficiencies within the system such as lack of equipment and expertise, and the deficiencies in the investigations bodies. The judges adjudicate and convict and also sometimes acquit. The only solution is that let all the other actors do their part right and we see where the courts will go wrong.
Prof. George Kanyeihamba, retired Supreme Court Judge
It is the government to blame of course. It failed to implement our recommendations. Corruption has increased because the powers that be have not implemented them and it is sad that it has instead promoted those who were implicated. Journalists and civil society should stop just talking about corruption and such reports and pressure the politicians especially those in Parliament to account. Journalists must follow up on some of our petitions to Parliament because the government is asleep.
Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba: professor, Makerere University
The political will to fight corruption is lacking and the system that fights the vice in Uganda is dead. We just need to sit and watch them steal and eat our money; there is nothing much we can do at the moment. Institutions like Police, CID, IGG, media, activists, parliament and even me have talked, written but the system has let us down. What else can we do? We just need to learn from countries like Rwanda, South Korea who are tough when it comes to fighting corruption and then emulate them. But I repeat without a good political leadership that is keen on fighting corruption, there is nothing much we shall do.
Cissy Kagaba: ED, Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda
The government itself is failing the fight against corruption. The same government that has put in place institutions like DPP, IGG, Public Accounts Committee, Police, Anti-corruption Court etc to fight corruption is the same government interfering with the activities of these institutions. Once you have the Executive giving orders on how corruption cases should be handled, then these institutions will cease to be independent. The appointed officials in these institutions cannot stand the heat from the Executive a reason why they have to bend on the orders of the Executive. Anticorruption activists would have done a lot to help in the fight against corruption but, they are being seen as ‘enemies of the State.’ They are being arrested and tortured. Government cannot fight corruption alone it needs a hand from the public, institutions, NGOs among others. Our laws against corruption are weak. I appeal to our donors/development partners to style up. Donors need to balance their interests and also balance the interest of our country.
John Simbwa: MP Makindye East (NRM)
If you look at the figures, the corruption situation in Uganda can be described as alarming. To me I think the person who is failing the fight against corruption in Uganda today is the system right from the top political office up to the lowest political office. The institutions responsible for fighting the vice are not doing their job. If we want to fight corruption in Uganda, then we will have to overhaul the system that fights criminality (the legal system). For now the big fish will continue to swim and the small ones will continue to be arrested. We need to get serious. Let us see the president dropping ministers, judges and other officials implicated. Our Anticorruption (Amendment) bill which I tabled in Parliament is being scrutinized by the legal committee of Parliament and when it is ready, they will give us a go ahead. We hope to make steps forward against the fight against corruption once the bill is passed into law.
Morrison Rwakakamba, Special Presidential Assistant, Information and Research
The Human Rights Watch Report talks of ‘political influence’ in exacerbating corruption tendencies without clearly defining this ‘political influence.’ By focusing on legalistic options, the report accentuates our weaknesses in the fight against corruption. We have focused more on putting in place and refining hardware administrative, legislative and judicial systems while relegating software incentives that entrench powerful value systems and social sanctions in our country. The NRM government has worked to strengthen investigative organs that deal with corruption. As a Country- we need new approaches, renewal and a return to our ancestral values that define us a people that lived by the code of respect, fairness, community and honesty.
Gerald Karuhanga, Youth MP Western (FDC):
The Executive has made it more or less a policy to condone corruption because despite numerous PAC (Public Accounts Committee) and media reports [on corruption], you hardly see the Executive taking action. Parliament is frustrated but we do our job and they fail to do theirs. The current government cannot fight corruption because political will is lacking and if they have not done it in the last 28 years; we cannot expect them to do so in the next 3-5 years. So, we can only hope that Ugandans vote for leaders who have the interests of this country at heart.”
Ssebagala Abdul Latif, MP Kawempe North (DP:
The fight on corruption has failed because political will is lacking and this is because many government officials have been implicated. When Hon. John Simbwa (Makindye East MP) introduced a tough private member’s Anti-corruption (Amendment) bill, he was questioned by his own party (NRM) and was asked to tone down some of the tougher clauses, which made the bill toothless. We shall therefore continue lamenting; [and] PAC will continue exposing the corrupt with little success. There is no way corruption will end without the political will from the government. For a start, everybody implicated in corruption should not be appointed or re-appointed into a government office or transferred from one ministry to another because this escalates corruption; it is like exporting corruption from one ministry to another.
Evelyn Anite, Youth MP Northern Region (NRM) and spokesperson, NRM Caucus:
“I wouldn’t say there is no political will [to fight corruption] given the fact that there are several [anti-corruption] laws in place and [government] agencies such as the DPP, the Police and the Judiciary are well constituted..What else can government do? The only challenge is the individuals in government who deliberately refuse to adhere to the government plea to fight corruption. It is the moral decay which has worsened in our society…People don’t care anymore; they steal with impunity. We should consistently preach morality telling these people that what they are involved in is theft and not corruption…that once they have stolen, it is punishable by death.”