Sometime in the late 1980s, a civil servant in one of the government ministries faced a dilemma: The Financial Year was closing before some much-needed goods had been bought.
The money provided for the goods would be returned to the Treasury if it wasn’t spent and the procurement cycle would have to start from scratch. The civil servant, so the story goes, decided to pay the supplier in advance, in order for the goods to be delivered just after the end of the Financial Year.
Bad mistake. When the transaction was uncovered, the civil servant was ‘retired in the public interest’. The NRM government, only in power for a few years at that point, would play by the rules. All errors, even honest ones by well-intentioned civil servants, would be swiftly punished.
Fast-forward 20 years on to 2012. In the very same building where the civil servant was arbitrarily sacked, several officials in the Office of the Prime Minister have been running a sophisticated operation to steal money from donors and taxpayers.
This is not a case of honest, if foolish, mistakes. These are clear, transparent, open-and-shut cases of theft. It is theft at a grand scale. It is theft from the poorest among us. It is theft that is visible in the obscene wealth accumulated by its masterminds. And it is theft that can be proven by anyone with a pea-sized brain.
Yet there has been an attempt to defend and protect some of its key perpetrators. Very senior people in the government have attempted to cover up and defend some indefensible actions.
It is no isolated incident. The pensions scandal, for one, is actually worth much more in terms of how much money was stolen.
Credit, where due, must be given. The attempt to fight some of this graft, even belatedly and half-heartedly, needs to be acknowledged. And the Auditor General, John Muwanga, continues to soldier on, often a lone-ranger in a mutinous army of rampaging robbers.
Call me pessimistic but it is a losing battle, a pathetic spectacle played out to an empty gallery.
President Museveni, who is actively involved in many of the behind-the-scenes efforts to fight some of the corrupt civil servants, has benefitted from the corruption in Uganda.
Corruption has provided the patronage that has allowed Museveni to entrench himself and his government in power.
The political-economic transition from a Socialist-Marxist model to ultra liberal capitalism in the early 90s also saw an unwritten social contract; the corrupt would be tolerated as long as they did not threaten Museveni politically or militarily.
That strategy offered short-term gains, including some redistribution of wealth and the creation of a new petty bourgeoisie but it was always going to crumble in the long-term.
The problem with corruption is that it is a very inefficient way of allocating public resources. Those who have access tend to become greedy and take more than they need, and those without access become desperate and try to get what they can, wherever they can find it.
That contestation has neither rules nor arbitration. If an engineer can steal half a road then a doctor can sell off drugs and watch his patients die.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world. So when Cabinet ministers and senior army officers stole money and were forgiven, it was not lost on the civil servants.
They, after all, run the government and sign the contracts. So throughout the late 90s and the whole of the 2000s, civil servants concentrated on stealing public resources while the politicians concentrated on stealing elections.