A plethora of institutions (laws, policies, structures, practices) supplemented by political rhetoric of policy actors have been put in place to limit corrupt practices in Uganda. To highlight the extent of the practice within our society, on December 4, 2019, President Museveni like many helpless Ugandans, embraced activism as a strategy to highlight it. Although its causes are implicitly known, the failure to reduce it to minimal levels shows that it is still not well-understood.
This has simultaneously ensued into a flawed understanding of the problem, leading to a blanket application of international solutions that are diametrically irrelevant to the domestic context. This limits deciphering the extent to which it is embedded in society, making policies that are meant to address the problem mere diktats.
This is exacerbated by political statements by Museveni who at one time classified thieves as ‘good and bad ones.’ Such statements have justified the ignorance about the practice by those meant to spearhead the anti-corruption drive. The justifications have institutionalized the practice in some form by making some gullible Ugandans to think that it is the right thing.
Defined as ‘misuse of public office for private gain and characteristically involving bribery’, the fight against corruption is influenced by corruption’s negative impact on economies and societies. Corruption inhibits economic growth, impinges on business operations and employment and reduces tax revenues. Broadly, it lowers the trust of the people in public institutions, education and reduces the quality of life through poor health care and infrastructure.
As we begin the year 2020, many of us are hopeful that corruption will one day be contained within societal acceptable levels. However, we are still asking questions of why corruption persisted despite numerous efforts and adoption of the most widely recognized measures.
The fight against corruption in Uganda relies heavily on a set of ideas provided by the international community following the logic of one-size-fits-all that negates the impact of domestic variables.
These policies focus on ‘reducing discretion of public officials through privatization, deregulation and meritocratic recruitment; reducing monopoly by promoting political and economic competition; increasing political accountability by supporting democratization and increased public awareness and administrative accountability in the bureaucracy; improving salaries of public officials, improving the rule of law to punish and prosecute corrupt bureaucrats and politicians and encouraging transparency in government decision-making by deepening decentralization, improved public oversight through parliament, an independent media, together with the creation and encouragement of civil society watchdogs.’
These approaches are not effective when the problem of corruption is systemic. They work in cases where corruption is coincidental or decentralized with uncorrupt officials to implement them.
Although Uganda under NRM has adopted the strongest anti-corruption laws and policies, the reality tells a gloomy story. Corruption is on the increase with scandals such as the Global Fund, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), the bicycles scandal and many others.
It has become a way of life, a systemic problem such that the anti-corruption policies and laws above will never have an impact. The success of the policies and laws as mentioned above is dependent on the principal-agent framework in which the principals are responsible for their enforcement. In opposition to the assumptions laid down by the principal-agent framework, there is nobody in Uganda to punish those who are corrupt.
It is a thorough corrupt system that can be described as one in which ‘fish rots from the head down.’ In cases where they have tried to apply laws, it has been a selective exercise as seen in the Global Fund and CHOGM cases. Instead of reporting and punishing corrupt behaviour, our political leaders and citizens seem to passively maintain the corrupt system because of its benefits.
It is a systemic problem in which everyone seems involved, which has made it a collective action problem. Although a good number of Ugandans realize its negative effect and see it as a morally wrong practice, a collective stand seems impossible as they stand to lose from it.
Corruption under NRM should not be viewed as a decentralized and coincidental occurrence, but as a systematic and deliberate system. It is cleverly designed as an efficient predatory behaviour to extract as many resources as possible from gullible Ugandans. This favours NRM politicians, especially ministers who extract resources with the purpose of keeping the voters poor so that they maintain their offices.
For NRM to maintain its 34-year hegemony, corruption is just another political strategy cleverly calibrated to keep those who have no access to stealing poor. That is why the government has kept recycling anticorruption policies, which it has seen with no success for the last 20 years.
Despite being a security and stability issue leading to state fragility, corruption remains NRM’s most favoured mode of governance. It is part and parcel of the political system as agents engaging in corrupt practices are passively watched by the principal. These practices are tolerated to satisfy the NRM leadership in creating loyalty through patronage networks.
At the same time, corrupt practices by agents are a means to selectively distribute resources through networks. This limits the number of people with a financial muscle to politically challenge the system. By maintaining resources within a selected circle of individuals, NRM leadership is able to lock out the majority of Ugandans from the political trajectory of the country.
The author is executive director of Great Lakes Centre for Strategic and Global Policy.