The day the news was published of dozens of opposition Members of Parliament having taken the Shs20 million from the government, a new Kampala radio station, Radio City, during its evening drive show, asked listeners to call in and state whether they would have taken the money or not.
According to a co-host of the show, one Hakim, 95 per cent of the callers said they would have taken it.
Given that Radio City, like Sanyu FM and Hot 100 FM, is targeted at an urban youth audience, that rough call-in poll indicating 95 per cent of the callers would have taken the Shs20 million is a reflection of the national attitude in Uganda.
These young urban listeners, if they are not already at the workplace, are at present students and will soon join the Ugandan labour force. The 95 per cent margin that approved the decision by opposition MPs to take the Shs20 million means these young people will expect to bribe their way around obstacles, bribe their way to opportunity, and so be it.
The Ugandan public is now calmly resigned to the reality of corruption, in about the same way most women tend to be resigned that their boyfriends or husbands will cheat on them at some point in their relationship.
Fact of the matter
However, before we rise up and condemn this matter-of-fact attitude toward corruption in Uganda, it makes sense to understand rather than make an obvious moral argument against it.
During the 1960s and 1970s under Presidents Milton Obote and Idi Amin, there was almost no such word as corruption in Uganda. A corrupt person was more likely to be termed a “thief”. It is not that Ugandans were more moral then than now.
To a large extent, it was not necessary to be corrupt, at least on a massive and habitual scale. Government hospitals in all parts of Uganda were fully stocked with drugs and treatment was free of charge for all Ugandans.
During the 1970s at the then fairly elite primary school, Lake Victoria School in Entebbe, our school fees for a term was Shs150. In the 1970s under Amin, the official exchange rate of the Shilling to the dollar was 7.50.
That meant our parents paid $20 a term at an elite school. In today’s money, $20 would be about Shs51,900 only. Imagine paying Shs51,900 at, say, Kampala Parents School or Aga Khan Primary School per term today, and we have an idea of why a civil servant had no reason to be corrupt during the Amin years.
The black market exchange rate was Shs16 to the dollar in the 1970s and even if we went by that black market rate, we would at most have school fees at the top government schools in Uganda in the 1970s at just over Shs100,000 in today’s money.
Furthermore, civil servants in almost all parts of Uganda lived in government pool houses, built by the colonial government. When the NRM government, perhaps under the advice of the International Monetary Fund, started to sell off these government houses, civil servants had to start renting houses at market rates.
Is it any wonder, then, that corruption tends to be almost higher among civil servants today than among most other public officials? And, anyway, what do most Ugandan public officials who are corrupt use that ill-gotten money for?
Apart from the large cars and lavish homes they build, most of it actually goes to paying elderly parents’ medical bills, school fees, helping out dependants and relatives, contributing to wedding fundraising.
It is worth noting that to a large degree most of this money by corrupt officials is used for well-meaning and even noble causes, even if the money was acquired by illegal, corrupt means. This alone is an indicator that corruption, in Uganda at least, is not the result of evil women and men at work, but desperate women and men, loaded with crushing family responsibilities, with few options and resources to solve these many problems.
And so civil servants and other public officials are forced to turn to their offices as an illegal, but to some extent, partly understandable avenue to address these family burdens that one did not need to carry when Uganda still had hospitals with drugs, affordable school fees, and free education for all students at Makerere University.
What alternative did the MPs have?
Some MPs, like Hussein Kyanjo and Beatrice Anywar, made a statement against the NRM government’s corruption and returned the money, an act that was widely reported in the media and won these MPs wide public admiration.
At the same time, it was no less noble for the 48 opposition MPs to take it. In other words, both those who took the money and those who returned it have a point.
To understand those who did not return the money requires an understanding of the state of decay into which Uganda has sunk. Practically every state institution in Uganda has collapsed save for the elite units of the army and the headquarters, perhaps, of the Internal Security Organisation.
Members of Parliament have become the government in their respective constituencies. Real unemployment in Uganda is, at a minimum, something over 50 per cent. The MPs are constantly inundated with requests for financial help from their constituents, which is why they always make their salaries the first order of business as soon as a new Parliament begins business.
It would be interesting to find out what happened to the money that Mr Kyanjo, Ms Anywar and others returned. Did a grateful government then plough it back into the Consolidated Fund and use it to buy medicine for hospitals?
Wherever that money ended up after it was returned, it almost certainly was embezzled or misused. With that in mind, even an opposition MP might have reasoned, with some justification, that it would be better to take it and use it to directly help these poor and desperate Ugandans who constantly knock at their doors.
Therefore, while the debate over corruption since the mid 1990s has centred around the moral, illegal, greedy side to the problem, making it a moral crusade, little attention has been paid to the breakdown of the national public infrastructure like hospitals and schools and the monetisation of every facet of Ugandan life since the privatisation of the early 1990s and what that has done to a poor and economically struggling country like Uganda.
Viewed from the moral, political and emotional point of view, the opposition and government MPs who took the Shs20 million “bribe” were double-faced, unprincipled politicians. The opposition MPs who returned the money are heroic, noble public officials.
Right or wrong?
But viewed from the facts that confront most Ugandans today of a dysfunctional society and economy, it was right for the opposition MPs who returned the money to make the important statement that political bribery is a vice that should be fought.
However, it was at the same time not necessarily wrong, with these difficult economic and societal problems that MPs face daily from their constituents, for those who took the money to have taken it. Corruption in Uganda today has become what a black market is during times of runaway inflation and economic breakdown: those who stand resolutely against black market practices are to be greatly admired.
But those who engage in it, too, are just as patriotic, only that in the latter case, those who engage in “magendo” and corruption are a less idealistic, more bluntly realistic lot, who are faced with difficult alternatives and decide to take the path less principled - but for the same well-intentioned reasons as the morally upright.
The best way to deal with corruption, as we now see it, is to address the economic and infrastructural problems that since the mid 1990s have dislocated millions of Ugandans from the economic arteries of the country.
A black economy: When salaries no longer matter
- One way to understand the economic and social pressures that fuel the rampant corruption in Uganda is to examine closely the cost of living and how wages no longer meet these costs and expenses.
- By last week, the price of a kilogramme of sugar in most parts of Kampala, Entebbe and other towns had soared to Shs6,000, giving Ugandans the first glimpse into the hardships they are going to face for the rest of the year.
For most white-collar civil servants and other corporate professionals, their salaries have become only a token payment, one among many sources of income, the only exception being that salaries come regularly at or near the end of the month.
- Estimates put the average salary of the white-collar, desk-bound, computer-using, in most cases university-educated civil servant and corporate employee in Uganda today at about Shs500,000 a month.
Most of this Shs0.5m is eaten away by rent, living expenses and attending to the needs of elderly parents, siblings’ school fees and one’s own immediate family.
- Viewed this way, the actual inflation rate in Uganda might not be the 18 per cent or other figures published by the Uganda Bureau of Standards, but the large bills that most must meet, like electricity, fuel, school fees, rent and medical costs.
- By the first 10 days of the new month, most well-educated professionals have exhausted their salaries and must spend the remaining three weeks of the month hassling for bits and pieces of extra income from various places.
Most formally employed workers must turn increasingly to deals, side jobs, moonlighting - and corruption to make ends meet.
- When the salary ceases to be the primary source of monthly income for most white-collar employees, then the conditions of a failed economy have fallen into place.
Compiled by Timothy Kalyegira