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.