Uganda must get serious on corruption
Posted Tuesday, October 22 2013 at 01:00
Government officials have made endless and strongly-worded promises to eradicate Uganda’s endemic corruption. But the question remains: When will those commitments translate into concrete action, meaningful prosecutions of elites – such as political appointees and cabinet ministers – and jail time for those found guilty?
Human Rights Watch and Yale Law School’s Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic published research this week detailing how the highest-ranking members of Uganda’s government have eluded prosecution for corruption, despite scandal after scandal.
We interviewed knowledgeable people fighting corruption on the front lines and examined over 100 judgments from the Anti-Corruption Court. We found that, since its founding in 2009, the court has predominantly heard cases of “small fish” involving relatively small amounts of money, while the “big fish” have gone free. Out of several hundred cases, the court secured the conviction of just one high-level official, later overturned on appeal after President Museveni commented on the case.
Lamenting the impunity of so-called “untouchables,” one prosecutor told us: “Come rain, come shine, they’re never going to court, not while there’s somebody close to them in power. That’s because of the politics involved.” We heard over and over again about political interference in cases involving elites. Politicians directed prosecutors to pursue certain cases and drop others. When instructions or bribes didn’t work, they used threats to get lawyers and witnesses to see it their way.
Over the past decade, international donors have pumped billions of dollars of aid into Uganda. Aid has slowed or halted because of high-profile corruption scandals, but resumes after largely cosmetic reforms. If the diverted money is returned to donor nations, that leaves Ugandans, particularly the poorest, without support to improve their lives and have access to essential services.
After each scandal, international donors push the government to prosecute offenders, make reforms, and strengthen anti-corruption institutions. The government sometimes takes action – such as appointing the second deputy inspector general of government. But if Uganda’s commitment to eradicating corruption is serious, anti-corruption institutions should be strong because it matters to Ugandans, not donors. Vacancies in key positions shouldn’t require pressure from the West to be filled. And what reassurance is there that such vacancies won’t cripple prosecutions in the future?
Activists working to expose corruption and educate citizens about theft and diversion of state funds need public support. This year, 28 “Black Monday” activists have been arrested, some charged with inciting violence or unlawful assembly. This clampdown on information that should be publicly available calls into serious question the government’s commitment to fighting corruption.
Given Uganda’s political patronage system and President Museveni’s long stay in power, it has become highly unlikely that anything other than the prosecution of the high-ranking officials will fundamentally alter the deep-rooted patterns of graft and wealth accumulation by elites. Without substantial changes and follow-through on promises made, the injustices of Uganda’s corruption problem will endure.
Institutions are in place to combat corruption, but meaningful change can’t happen without a sustained commitment from Ugandans themselves. Ugandans need to push both the government and donors to get serious about holding elites, including high ranking members of the government, accountable.
Julia Brower, Sheng Li, Tiffany Ng, Jessica So, Yale Law School