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Why leadership matters on corruption

By Joseph Bossa

Abraham Lincoln and the goings on in Uganda and possibly, Russia

Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States of America in November, 1860 and took office in March, 1861. Soon after, the American Civil War broke out over the question of slavery when some Southern States decided to secede from the United States to form a separate independent nation.

First, as was the custom, Congress (the USA Parliament) appropriated a $20,000 White House budget to refurbish the Executive Mansion, the official residence of the President. Mrs. Mary Lincoln, the President’s wife, was to manage the fund.

She went on to buy the furnishings but ended up overspending the allocated fund by $6,000. When that information reached Lincoln, he was stunned and refused to approve the over-expenditure declaring, “It can never have my approval. I will pay it out of my pocket. It would stink in the nostrils of the American people to have it said the President of the United States  had approved a bill overrunning an appropriation of $20,000 for flub dubs for this damned old house, when the soldiers cannot have blankets”.It was not that the furnishings had not been actually bought and installed. They had. Lincoln’s objection and the source of his displeasure and decision to meet the over-expenditure out of his own pocket was that the congressional allocation had been exceeded without authority. And by his own and only wife!

Then came Simon Cameron, Lincoln’s Secretary of War. When complaints of certain irregularities in War Department spending reached Congress a special committee on contracts decided to investigate. The findings in the committee’s report almost read like a Ugandan Parliamentary Committee would read.Listen. What follows is not made up. It is extracted from “With Malice Toward None; The Life of Abraham Lincoln”, a book by Stephen B. Oates published by Harper & Row, Publishers. Inc. of New York, USA.

The inquiry found that the Secretary of War and his maze of agents – some unscrupulous, others inept – had ignored competitive bidding and brought exclusively from favorite middle-men and suppliers, many of them “unprincipled and dishonest”. The War Department had purchased huge quantities of rotten blankets, tainted pork, uniforms that fell apart, hundreds of diseased and dying horses, all at exorbitant prices. In addition, one Cummings, an agent of the Secretary of War, had contracted for 75,000 pairs of overpriced shoes from a firm that occasionally loaned him money.

The House committee bemoaned the “prostitution of public confidence” and castigated Cameron’s department for treating congressional law as “almost a dead letter” for awarding contracts “universally injurious to the government” and for promoting favoritism  and “colossal graft”.

The loyal press cried, “Public good requires another man in his place.” “Mr. Lincoln should rise to the dignity of his position, and remove him.”

Does that sound familiar?  And now mark this. The committee found no evidence that Cameron had enriched himself in the contracts scandals.

What did Lincoln do?  He asked for Cameron’s resignation and appointed him United States Minister (Ambassador) to Russia. That is what Lincoln did in 1862, which is 140 years ago.

Fast forward to 2012. How do Ugandan’s NRM leaders in government (the reader will be spared their names or titles) react in face of palpable culpability? The underlying principle of the NRM government is that corruption is not wrong in itself, so long as the ill-gotten money is invested in Uganda. It is claimed to help build the necessary middleclass so essential to kick-start development. That is the starting point.

Now some samples on how this government behaves.

State House exceeding its budget in no time?  Go back to Parliament and ask for the approval of a supplementary State House budget again. And again. And again. Simple.

Someone found and confessing to have received a bribe in the purchase of helicopters that did not fly? Brother, this should not worry you. Just donate the bribe money to anybody or anyone, including yourself. Maneno yamekwisha. Problem solved. But in future deals you will have to be a little more careful. For what if you had made this confession to somebody other than me? The country is not yet used to paying out public monies at this scale of self-enrichment. But soon it will get used. Oh yes, it will. We are preparing it for even bigger things.

Tell us about the report on Temangalo.

Forget that report. You see, the Parliamentary Committee which made that report was illegally set up. We must follow the law. Nothing legal can come from something illegal. The law must be observed.What about the probe into GAVI funds?

That was useless. Ask first: where was the chair of that commission when the guns of liberation were blazing? He was probably hiding under a bed somewhere.

Has a businessman been overcompensated for breach of contract?  First assert that your signature on the letter authorizing payment was forged. Then claim that you were not aware of what you were signing; that your assistants duped and stampeded you into signing. Then say that you only approved payment in principle but mentioned no amounts because you were not a valuer. Finally, when you have suddenly become a valuer, tell the world that after receiving new information you have confirmed that the amounts paid were accurate.

Are you thinking of prosecuting me for recommending payment of exaggerated claims?  Perish the thought. We are in this thing together, boss. I know what I know. Think of what I might reveal in my defence – our modus operandi – if I were prosecuted. Please lead me not into temptation.

Watching them fiddle and wriggle, how the lead spins!

They came with a whole new language, these NRM leaders, when with guns they stormed town from the bush to capture power in this country. They introduced to us new, big words. Words like obscurantism and sectarianism. At first we thought they were only using these words like juvenile show-offs to impress us. Late in the day we realized that these were committed obscurantists determined to impose obscurantism upon us and call it a new form of government. They will define it as “the government of the obscurantists by the obscurantists for the obscurantists”.

We cannot deny that there is some corruption in almost all countries. Only in Uganda can people pretending to be leaders get away with so much for so long. Our contention is it is not the number of anti-corruption laws on the books and institutions established to fight corruption that matter. It is the attitude and conduct of the top leadership, if they are themselves not corrupt, that make a difference. Our rulers should do the right thing about what stinks in the nostrils of Ugandans.

Russia remains an ideal posting for those tainted with scandal.

Joseph Bossa is the vice president of the Uganda Peoples Congress

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