So corruption is front page news again. Over the years we have had junk helicopters, ghost soldiers, ghost pensioners, supply of air, fake tenders and so many others.
The latest round of looting has broken out in the infrastructure sector, which should not be a surprise. Looters migrate to where the public money is being disbursed. When the money was being spent on Universal Primary Education, we had ghost teachers, ghost students and briefcase companies getting tenders to build substandard or even ghost schools. Now the money is being spent on roads, bridges, hydro-electric dams and railway lines, the looting has gone there.
We know we have corruption but many of us fail to appreciate its true extent. The French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson accurately observed that “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” Most human beings are incurable optimists. Our minds naturally downplay negative thoughts and are not programmed to comprehend massive doses of negativity. Whatever situation we are in, our first instinct is to downplay the negativity and to look for ways of accentuating the positive.
This is not a bad thing, if only because it keeps us away from depression and the tendency towards suicide. But it has caused us to live with and become generally accustomed to and, in many ways, acquiescent in corruption.
If you open your mind and look around you will observe that corruption is no longer an anomaly. Corruption is now the norm from which the honest few deviate. It has grown into a massive industry – what Chinweizu called “the Steal Industry”. It exists to prey upon public funds and resources so that they may be diverted from being for the benefit of the many to being for the benefit of the very few. The Steal Industry engages thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people across its value chain. These include, both local and foreign: politicians; technocrats; corporations; businessmen; consultants; and financial and legal services professionals.
Huge networks operating in the Steal Industry regularly derail, delay and eat up legitimate and well justified projects. If there are no projects, then the Steal Industry will take some legitimate public needs and cause public projects to be initiated just so that the public coffers may be opened up and public money “eaten”.
The gravitational pull of the massive Steal Industry has warped the legitimate systems and turned them upside down. So instead of being people who, out of moral compunction, expose misconduct, illegal or dishonest activity within an organisation, in Uganda’s Steal Industry, “whistle blowers” are usually looters who report other players because they have been left out of the deal or to divert attention away from themselves.
The institutions that are supposed to fight corruption are also as often misused by “whistle blowers” to punish and harass those who dare to eat alone or to share with the wrong players and no big looters (master looters, if you like) ever get seriously entangled in their nets.
The exposure of the Steal Industry has become ritualised. With each scandal, we hear about the large sum that has been looted and the mechanics of the looting. We are outraged. The press maximise their sales by feeding us headlines of the scandal for a couple of weeks. Players are called in to the police to make statements. Others go before Parliament, so that MPs may show off their dramatic but ineffective methods of inquisition. Blame aggregates to the lowest possible level. Trials, if they commence at all, drag along, if not completely stall. A few are convicted but most get acquitted. We move on and our minds rationalise the situation. We assure ourselves that all is well.
But the Steal Industry never sleeps. Day and night, unimaginable amounts of public money are being looted. What they can’t loot they waste. The scandals we get to hear about are just the tip of the iceberg.