Corruption scandals: Is Museveni digging a political grave for NRM?

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Preparing to hand over power after a decade in office, China’s President Hu Jintao warned that corruption could ruin China and called for harsher methods to combat graft. Although China is not Uganda, President Jintao’s fear that corruption could prove “fatal” to the Communist Party coincides with analysts’ warning that by protecting the corrupt President Museveni is could be digging a political grave for the ruling National Resistance Movement.


In a speech that marked the beginning of the end of Hu Jintao’s era and formally ushered in new leaders for the coming decade, the Chinese president singled out the suspected [ruling] party members, asking them to be ethical and to rein in their greedy family members, whose trading on their connections for money and lavish displays of wealth have amplified public cynicism about the party.

Unlike the case in Uganda and other countries, in China, corruption is a crime that draws capital punishment or the death penalty. President Jintao has relinquished his role at the top of the Communist party for Xi Jinping to take over as the country’s paramount leader.

While China is not Uganda, President Jintao’s fear that corruption could prove “fatal” to the Communist Party and bring down the state if not tackled coincides with the analysts’ warning that by protecting the Permanent Secretary in the Office of the Prime Minister, Mr Pius Bigirimana, who was named in the loss of donor funds, President Museveni is trying to dig his political grave and that of the ruling National Resistance Movement.

Because of widespread corruption, Prof William Muhumuza from Makerere University’s Political Science cited key challenges Uganda faces today — a rich-poor gap, putrefying public institutions because of patronage — highlighting the imbalanced development between the wealthy politicians and a struggling countryside.
Combatting corruption and promoting political integrity, Prof Muhumuza told Sunday Monitor, is a major political issue. However, his analysis is that it is unlikely to lead to the government being voted out because “corruption is mainly a concern of elites”.

Ignorance of layman
“The patronage dispensed through various avenues, the populist government programmes, though of poor quality (e.g. UPE, free healthcare, SACCOs etc) and the influence of the beneficiaries of corruption may instead win more support from unsuspecting ordinary person,” Prof Muhumuza said. “The majority ordinary people are yet to link corruption at the national level with the poor quality of service delivery. This consciousness is still lacking at the moment.”

According to Prof Muhumuza the case of Mr Bigirimana being protected by President Museveni needs to be understood in the context of neo-patrimonial nature of African politics, where regime survival is insured using state resources that are irregularly acquired.

That patronage-driven politics thrives on corruption. And public resources are ordinarily stolen to reward “cadres” and regime sycophants. “The patrons and their clients are rewarded and sustained through political appointment (e.g. as presidential advisers, chairpersons and members of commissions, ministers, RDCs etc). These privileges serve as a reward and political investment for the next round of electors.

“The point here is that regime supporters or “cadres” in this case, are placed in strategic positions - usually the ones with a lot of resources, so that they can help to syphon them for purposes of building a political base for the regime. This is typical of almost all African regimes. The NRM is not an exception,” Prof Muhumuza said.

In a “damage control” statement to the donors who have already suspended aid over theft of aid at the OPM, President Museveni took time off to respond to what he called: “politically motivated red-herrings”, targeting people he said were trying to give the impression that the problem of corruption in Uganda is because of lack of “political will” to fight that corruption.

“Who? Me, Yoweri Museveni, lacking “political will” to fight corruption and criminality when I am stronger now than I was in 1971, when, together with my colleagues, we took the regime of Idi Amin head on, or when in 1981, with 27 guns, we attacked Kabamba? Those who peddle those falsehoods should be treated with the contempt they deserve,” Mr Museveni said.

While President Museveni brags of putting in place the numerous anti-corruption laws and institutions, by protecting suspects, some of whom are his ministers and close allies, the Executive Director, Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, Ms Cissy Kagaba, says has killed the impetus in the fight against corruption and promoted impunity in the process.

The infamous 2010 Temangalo land scandal involving Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi was the first case that possibly exposed the lack of political will to fight corruption. At the height of this scandal, a caucus meeting was called at State House, Entebbe, where a decision was taken to defeat the Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises report implicating the ministers involved. Again, the ministers who were implicated in the 2007 Chogm scandals survived through the party caucusing and others who, with tainted images, have since been re-appointed in key Cabinet positions.

“Even if NRM uses corruption to entrench itself in power, this is unsustainable,” Ms Kagaba said. “With time, Ugandans will get tired of those who steal their money and in the end they will get angry and remove their leaders from power. This is what caused the Arab spring. Take the example of OPM scandal; do you expect the people in northern Uganda to be happy when a certain group of people decided to steal their money?”

On several occasions, President Museveni has promised to stamp out corruption but no tangible solution to the crisis has been witnessed by the country today. The President is now accused of offering lip-service to the fight against the vice. But in trying to explain what has become of his promises to wipe out corruption in his government, Mr Museveni told the donors that key institutions like the IGG, seem to have been infiltrated by questionable characters.

Looking forward, former IGG Augustine Ruzindana said: “Everyone, voters, civil society, religious organisations, business community, international community, political parties and politicians, including those in NRM etc...must appreciate and accept the imperative of regime change and work for its realisation.”
From the political succession debate viewpoint, Mr Nicholas Opio, an independent analyst said, endless corruption scandals will give President Museveni more arsenals to realign his political cards and purge his numbers of historically connected and ambitious folks viewed as possible power points.

More praise-singers coming up
According to Mr Opio, corruption will also be nectar for attracting political optimists who will be involved in a rat race to be the loudest political praise singers of the President, his family and corrupt ministers. However, Mr Opio said that will not entrench the Museveni rule. In any event, he said, the NRM government’s credibility is being undermined by the increasing cases of corruption. “The regime’s smoke screen showmanship in fighting graft is increasingly becoming evident. Little wonder donors are now reacting by cutting aid,” he said.

With hindsight, Mr Opio thinks, Ugandans are to blame for the corruption we see in government today. “We have not been able to channel a collective outrage for the theft we have seen across government departments and ministries, either because we are beneficiaries of the same (by way of pecks and benefits) or because the people involved in the fight against corruption themselves do not have the moral authority and public support to be able to mobilise a critical mass,” Mr Opio said.

But on whether corruption will be the vice that would dislodge the President’s 26 years of uninterrupted rule, the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, Mr Nandala Mafabi, said regime’s “cronyism” and “corruption” have a corrosive effect, disadvantaging innocent Ugandan traders and entrenching a regime. “The money for service delivery is always siphoned by corrupt public servants and ministers. President Museveni’s government has been turned into a hunting ground and this is the problem,” Mr Mafabi said.

“Corruption continues to obstruct any kind of reform whether in the political or economic spheres. The poor are poor and the rich are growing fatter. They are buying votes because they have impoverished our people. But the good news is that as poverty comes closer, the people are beginning to see the reality. In the end, people will eat their money and vote out those who steal from the poor.”

Dr Paul Omach, a senior lecturer at the Department of Political Science, Makerere University, is of the view that the corruption the country is witnessing today cannot be reduced to the actions or roles of individuals, be it Mr Bigirimana or someone else. “These are servants at the service of an establishment that benefits from looting to further its stay in power as well as personal enrichment or primitive accumulation,” Dr Omach said.

He added: “Looting of public resources is used by the political establishment to finance political activities such as patronage, political financing, (and other not so noble oppressive activities against perceived opponents). Individuals who are used to execute looting of resources from the State, therefore, benefit from some protection from their political bosses. Any punishment meted to them tends to be symbolic (e.g. one may be relieved of duties but will continue to enjoy privileges of office).”

In trying to explain why the government is protecting Mr Bigirimana, Lwemiyaga MP Theodore Ssekikubo said: “What’s the magic behind Bigirimana who is costing us billions of shillings for our brothers and sisters in northern Uganda and Karamoja?” “By refusing to interdict the PS, it’s now clear that this man, Bigirimana, is just a middleman in the scam. It’s without any doubt that the biggest office is behind the scam. Bigirimana is just a whipping boy and the big people are hiding behind him.”

On the proposal to refund the stolen money on behalf of the people they called “thieves”, Mr Ssekikubo said: “Let President Museveni sell his cows to cover Bigirimana if he wants and let Mbabazi also sell his mansion in Kanungu and China to cover up Bigirimana.”

But MP Gerald Karuhanga (Independent Youth Western), one of the anti-corruption crusaders, believes that if President Museveni continues to protect the corrupt, with time Ugandans would get tired and vote his government out. “If the President continues to fight corruption Bigirimana style, Ugandans will eat his money for campaign and vote the opposition. When you critically analyse what is going on today, you will conclude that by failing to stamp out corruption in his government, President Museveni is blindly digging his political grave and that of his party.”

Presidential Press Secretary Tamale Mirundi has described calls for Mr Bigirimana’s removal as act of mob action in the fight against corruption. He said: “President Museveni is the one championing the fight against corruption in the country and not Members of Parliament.” Mr Mirundi said the audit report on OPM scam was instituted by the government not donors.

Prof Muhumuza said being one of the few privileged “big men” (patrons) from Kisoro District where the NRM regime wins by over 95 per cent, there are all reasons for the President to protect Mr Bigirimana in order “not to annoy his clients.” He also said that there could be fear that if he is sacrificed he could spill beans that may expose “more than we currently know”. “It is tactical that he be given time to erase evidence that may expose some powerful individuals in the system and limit the blame to the civil servants.”

The other reason is the fear of embarrassment to the government before donors and the public, given that the OPM is headed by powerful national figures. “If the truth is allowed to come out, it could be detrimental to the regime. Any skillful politician must always try to do damage control,” Prof Muhumuza added.

But Kibanda MP Sam Otada, who described Ugandans as “chicks” whose “mother-hen” had been eaten by “vultures”, asked citizens to rise up and demand accountability from leaders. “The arrogance of our leaders must stop. The notion that you can succeed by not working hard must be defeated,” Mr Otada said, adding: “A situation like this is a national disaster and people must take responsibility. This is why President Museveni should stop behaving as if there is nothing happening.”

The NRM government, according to Dr Omach, has presided over massive inflow of resources from donors, especially since 1992. The economy also registered remarkable growth. And the regime used the liberalisation programme to reward supporters and turned a blind eye to outright pillage of public resources and allowed corruption to flourish. For this, Dr Omach said, it enjoyed “tacit” and “explicit” support and nearly unquestionable loyalty from people who amassed wealth.

Elite beneficiaries
To answer the question on how corruption will affect Mr Museveni, Dr Omach said: “This is a very corrupt society, and many people, especially the elite have benefited from corruption. The problem now is the shrinking resources from which to loot, and still sustain basic public services that can mollify the general public.”

Dr Omach sees President Museveni as a leader in a dilemma; if he genuinely tackles corruption, he must change the politics he practices, while at the same time alienating those who have benefited from patronage and lack of accountability to enrich themselves.

“Those who were used to execute corrupt activities for the political establishment may end up ‘talking’ and embarrassing the political establishment. If he ignores it, public service will deteriorate to unsustainable levels (if they have not yet already), donors will further reduce support and the public will be alienated,” he added.

A special audit report of the Auditor General found that more than Shs50 billion was stolen by officials at the OPM. The money was meant for the Peace, Recovery & Development Plan (PRDP) in northern Uganda and Karamoja sub-region. But Mr Museveni has defended Mr Bigirimana as a “whistleblower”, in a scandal that has rocked his government and rattled his relationship with the development partners.


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