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Uganda’s anti-corruption rituals

By Andrew M. Mwenda

To understand how theft of public resources flourishes, one has to observe how it is fought

Last week, court dismissed as “no case to answer” charges of abuse of office and causing financial loss against Maj. Gen. Jim Muhwezi in the Gavi trial. Muhwezi had been taken to court on flimsy evidence that even state witnesses – the Accountant General and the former Permanent Secretary in the ministry of health – said he had not authorised any payments. A similar situation attains to the charges brought against former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya and the current charges against ministers Sam Kutesa, Mwesigwa Rukutana and John Nasasira.


Uganda is almost collapsing under the weight of official corruption. Why then don’t our prosecutors investigate cases of corruption and take to court charges backed by credible evidence? Given that such cases take long in court and those working on them earn salaries and allowances; who is causing financial loss to the country: the accused ministers or the prosecutors from the office of the Inspector General of Government and the Director of Public Prosecutions? Why doesn’t the public through our democratic institutions ask these offices to account for their actions?

To understand how corruption survives and flourishes in Uganda, one has to observe how it is often fought. President Yoweri Museveni has successfully consolidated power using official corruption and patronage. He co-opts powerful elites from Uganda’s different religious and ethnic factions. By giving them positions of power, privilege and influence in government, he is able to create a bridge between himself and their followers. Often the exchange in this alliance is access to official privileges and unofficial opportunities to profit through corruption.

But this arrangement comes with certain costs. For example, it undermines the state’s ability to deliver public goods and services. Museveni has written before that whenever he travels around the country, he is accosted by complaints from voters about the poor delivery of public services. So he knows that corruption leads to some degree of domestic political discontent. It also displeases donors on whom his government depends for supplemental revenue to finance its public expenditure objectives. Therefore, he has to juggle these competing demands.

Museveni seems to possess a very good intuitive understanding of human nature most especially the psyche of Ugandan elites and Western attitudes. He knows that human beings are driven more by a sense of injustice (and the need to make them feel that justice is being done) rather than a sense of factual truths. He has thus been able to create a system in which disgruntled elites and donors are able to feel that something is being done to stop corruption while letting corruption proceed with little effort to curb it.

This became evident to me during the censure of Muhwezi, then state minister for education in 1998. Museveni was a behind-the-scenes player using Winnie Byanyima to mobilise MPs to support the censure. A meeting was held at Uganda House between then Army Commander, Mugisha Muntu, Salim Saleh and Henry Tumukunde. They told Muhwezi that NRM was facing a credibility crisis and needed someone to sacrifice to stave off public anger. It seems Saleh and Tumukunde had discussed the matter with Museveni. Muhwezi refused. I learnt then as a young journalist that this was not about fighting corruption but about creating a particular impression.

Meanwhile, Winnie and her allies deliberately over-stated Muhwezi’s wealth, lied and forged in order to create a particular impression in the parliament and cause him to be censured. I became an opponent of the censure process noting that one cannot fight corruption corruptly. I argued that the pursuit of truths cannot be sacrificed at the altar of securing victory. But donors and Uganda’s chattering classes in the media were hypnotised by the spectacle and Muhwezi fell.

In 1999, Museveni appointed a commission of inquiry into the police chaired by Justice Julia Sebutinde. She became a heroin with her rants and tantrums against the police officers who appeared before her commission.  She would shut down any police officer trying to defend themselves saying: “You are a liar,” or “You belong to Luzira.” There was no justice or fairness. It was a circus. I could not bring myself to accept this as a way to handle such an investigation. I felt strongly that the accused persons deserved to be heard. I decided to take on Sebutinde in The Monitor and on Radio One’s Spectrum program. But the hysteria her tantrums had generated among Uganda’s chattering classes was too strong for reason to prevail.

Therefore, the pattern of empty cases against particular individuals and groups suspected of corruption has continued. Whenever there are strong anti corruption feelings, someone is offered as a sacrificial lamb. Whether it was the URA investigation or Chogm expenditures, Gavi or Global Fund, our chattering classes and donors converge to support the process. The facts of the case do not matter to them. Their emotional desires do. This appeasement of the public through publically orchestrated rituals aimed at giving an appearance that there is a serious war on corruption have been the very mechanism that has allowed it to flourish.

This public spectacle was replayed with similar results during the oil debate in October 2011. Again I stood almost alone in arguing that an investigation must be rooted in a set of normative values and principles. Unless and until a section of the elite class in Uganda resists the temptation to be bribed with gimmicks and insist on a fair and just process backed by facts, it will not be possible to tame the monster of corruption that hangs over our nation like the proverbial sword of Damocles.

The fight against corruption is a war of values hence the need for a moral framework to guide it; a set of values, ethnics and principles which privilege fact over malice, evidence over hearsay, sobriety over emotions and justice over revenge. An accusation would have to be backed by credible evidence for it to stand. The accused would have a right of self defence. The accuser would have to substantiate their allegations. Key players – government investigators, analysts, journalists and opposition legislators – all would carry a responsibility to act with agreed ethical norms. Without such values, what you get are public rituals to appease political discontent, not a war against corruption.

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