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A new look at corruption

Museveni, on the other hand, had a big coalition of southern/western Uganda monarchical, clerical, landed, militarist, sectarian elements that were, effectively, a clear majority relative to his enemies. Unlike Rwanda, each of these was a leader with the ability to deliver their tribes (I use this deliberately instead of “nationality” or ethnic group) to Museveni. By gifting each of them individually, Museveni could get the support of their tribe. It was like a buy one, get 10,000 free deals. Museveni therefore did not need to build an impersonal mass delivery system like Rwanda has.

There is a historical element here. From Obote 1, to Obote II, to Museveni I,II,III, IV, V, defections have been very important in Ugandan politics. That is why, to this day, if a group of village UPC, FDC, or DP supporters defected to the NRM, Museveni himself at a big rally would receive them with pomp and fanfare. The same is true, of course, when a big NRM fish defects to FDC (as Tom Butiime for example) once did.

This construction of politics around individuals who deliver their ethnic constituencies to State House was evident again in the last critical months of Museveni’s bush war. The NRM brought Prince (now King) Ronald Mutebi to the war zones controlled by the rebels, to bolster Buganda support for the last decisive push to Kampala.

According to the mechanics of one-big-man-will-deliver-his-tribe politics, Museveni promised to restore “kings” (which are personal to holder) and kingdoms (which can be ceremonial), but NOT the monarchy (which is a system in which kings and queens rule). When Museveni says he did not promise the return of a political kingdom, but of kings (as vehicle for delivering support), he probably knows what he is talking about.

Museveni could have chosen Kagame’s route on corruption, but he would probably have taken a longer time to consolidate his rule and it perhaps could have resulted in an elite revolt against him. The corruption-condoning route gave him quicker results and more political success. It was simply much more efficient strategy of political consolidation than service delivery.

NRM chose this long-fingered path because it had the elite numbers and support to make it work. The best instrument by which these elite buy political support for the regime of the day is patronage.

It was an unprincipled road, but the point here is that corruption is the skeleton on which NRM politics, once it took power, was built.

Now, let us be clear. This is not to suggest that the choices that people like Kagame and Museveni make are deliberate at every stage. They are subject to a lot of forces, some of which they might not always be fully aware of.

For example, you would think that a president has a lot to gain by running a government that is clean. That corruption gives the opposition an easy weapon against the government. True. But corruption can also give the government some advantages that help it retain power in competitive politics, and its leaders are conscious of this somehow.

Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi and Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo during their time are very good examples of this. These men wreck their countries to raise the price of entry into politics (specifically government) for the opposition. To this day, what Mobutu did has made it difficult for any regime to stabilise in the DRC.

Closer home, if you see the shambles that Uganda is; the hurdles that anyone would encounter trying to rationalise local government; to reform education; or even just to return Mulago Hospital to its past glory–it is too enormous a task. And the very public distrust of politicians that these failures cause means when people think long and hard, they actually conclude that none of Museveni rivals can fix it.

It is like what children sometime do. If they are fighting over a juicy piece of cake with their siblings, the devilishly clever one will spit on it. That will discourage the others, so he will be left to eat the cake alone – instead of being punished for his unsporting behaviour of spitting on the cake, the little brat actually gets rewarded.

In some ways, Museveni has done to Uganda what the boy did to the cake. In countries like Uganda and Kenya, you often look around you and you wonder why so many young bright men and women who would help turn their countries around do not join politics. This is why. The corrupt and crooked discourage them, because they cannot play the dirty game needed to survive – and they fear they will fail, so they do not want to ruin their hard-worn reputations. This means that there are never enough good people challenging the Big Man and his government.

We shall end this with the story of the father of a friend of mine. The old man was given the challenge of fixing one of the most prestigious institutions in Eastern Uganda region. The place was broke. Its buildings uncompleted. Suppliers were unpaid. Its cars were stranded, and staff houses were falling to bits. In three years he had brought the institution back into surplus; paid its debts; fixed the cars, repaired staff houses. After many years, when he decided to leave, there were endless delegations asking him to stay, and the board refused to even acknowledge his resignation letter for months.

Thinking of my friend’s father, I began to develop some more nuanced ideas about corruption. My friend’s father’s successor was a local boy from the district. He run the place by, Museveni style, doling out patronage and handing out stuffed envelopes. This helped me appreciate the decision to pursue a patronage-based strategy actually needs a productive constituency for it. When my friend’s father’s successor did corrupt deals with his relatives and tribesmates, the pay-off was much higher. If my friend’s father, who was considered a “foreigner”, had taken the patronage route, he would mostly have bought respect. He would not have bought support, affection, or acceptance.

Honest government allows you a massive outreach, far more than you would get if you had all the natural factors that favoured your being corrupt. But the results take longer to come in, and it requires a bold political leader.

Where does this leave us?

In Uganda’s case, until we develop a system which reduces the centrality of elite elements in “delivering” the tribal vote from their areas, and importance of big tribes in elections, we shall be doomed to have corrupt governments – no matter who is president and what protestations they make during elections.

One way to do it is to push proportional representation, or South African-style “party lists”, for determining who gets power and who loses out.

The day a candidate comes up who is passionate about these kinds of structures that will allow the country to organise its politics differently, pay attention. That will be the man/woman who knows what it takes to end corruption.

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