Why we must condemn, fight corruption in public entities

Sunday July 14 2019

Strategy. President Museveni (in hat) talks to

Strategy. President Museveni (in hat) talks to staff of the State House Anti-corruption Unit recently. PHOTO BY ALEX ESAGALA 

By Nandala Mafabi

Fighting corrupting is increasingly becoming a big issue of debate in most of our countries. Yet, detecting corruption has also become an extremely difficult job because of its common occurrence, sophistication and how it has been normalised in some societies.
Public officials are accused, both with merit and without, of diverting public funds for personal gain in form of misappropriation, embezzlement, unwarranted fees for public services, commissions paid for illicit services, string pulling by those with positions of power, and a host of other forms of corruption.
Some of these are well captured and explained in the edited volume, Everyday corruption and the state: citizens and public officials in Africa. The context of corruption no doubt varies even within developing countries, but there are also important areas of commonality.
For a long time now, Transparency International has done tremendous work around measuring perception of corruption in countries. Important as this work is, it rarely translates into countries responding with commitment to ensure they do better in subsequent years. As such, a number of countries remain stagnant. The 2018 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) shows that Uganda is still under 30 per cent.
The Corruption Perceptions Index ranks countries and territories based on perception of how corrupt their public sector is seen to be, on a scale of zero (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Thirty per cent is a very low perception, implying levels of corruption are a record high.

The cost of corruption
It is not clear the actual cost of corruption in socio-economic development. Much work remains to be done to establish what is exactly lost to development in aggregate terms due to corruption. Direct linkages need to be found between the nature of corruption and the loss in development outcome rather than the indirect costs to say poverty reduction or improved health service delivery.
The case of education delivery within the context of Universal Primary Education (UPE) has been among many of examples where citizens perceive corruption to be endemic. Yet, the cost to quality of learning remains speculative. In some sectors, for example, where the construction of a road is either delayed or frustrated as a result of corruption, the cost is enormous, from the interest rate to be paid up on the loans acquired to build such roads to delayed return on investment.
It is for such costs that corruption must be condemned and fought. What is clear is that citizens, and even some public officials are tired of corruption and are beginning to make demands on their governments to do something concrete about the vice. Many stories appear on media highlighting various cases of corruption to which the public respond with despair sometimes.
The common story in Uganda today is that when a few hundred million shillings are lost, it is nothing to really debate, in the face of billions lost to individuals and sometimes companies. Various Auditor General reports, a government entity whose role also includes fighting corruption, highlight gross cases of financial haemorrhage in government, some of which have been debated in relevant committees of Parliament such as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Committee on Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises (Cosase).

Challenges of fighting corruption in Uganda
Despite increasing evidence that many Ugandans and indeed citizens in developing countries are tired of corruption and condemn it, the challenge remains huge. Whereas governments, including the Ugandan government has put a lot of effort in fighting graft, the profits to write home about remains minimal. Consequently, there is increasing frustration both within the leadership and the public that little is being done to fight graft, little to celebrate in doing so.
In Uganda, a lot of effort has gone into institutionalising the fight against corruption. Besides the Auditor General, several institutions have been created to fight graft. The Inspectorate of Government headed by Inspector General of Government, a High Court judge; Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP), headed by another judge; an Anti-Corruption Court, Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA); the police and its Directorate of Criminal Investigations; Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA); and more recently, the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) at State House.
Billions of shillings are spent in budgetary terms to ensure these institutions run and do their work of curbing corruption. Some of the institutions, like the Inspectorate of Government, claim that their funding is limited to enable them do more according to expectation.
Given the extensive and various mechanisms in institutional terms, why is success so limited to write home about? Why is the State so frustrated that President Museveni has voiced his frustration with existing establishments like the IGG in public? Why is it widely believed that corruption was even transferred on grand scale from the centre to local governments, leaving no safe space? Why is fighting graft becoming an even bigger challenge than the vice itself?
The answers are many, but two general ones need to be talked about. One has to do with the nature of democratic institutions in these countries. This is well captured by Delia Ferreira Rubio, the chair of Transparency International, that “corruption is much more likely to flourish where democratic foundations are weak’ and ‘where undemocratic and populist politicians can use it to their advantage”.
Experiences from Uganda demonstrate this perhaps more than in many developing countries. As already indicated, there is no shortage of institutions and even political will to handle, but a strong democratic foundation is lacking.
In a country where institutions are themselves too weak to act independently, partly because they are also beholden to the powers that be, it is extremely difficult to act on those found guilty as some may be cadres and important elements in the regime.
People with responsibility in either the ruling party or regime who find themselves in trouble then find refuge in particular loopholes. In the last few years, many high profile cases have been investigated, few were satisfactorily concluded.
The other is that the system of patronage created to sustain ruling parties, itself survives on sophisticated forms of corruption with complicity from people within the system, including accounting officers.
This is evident in the face of several institutions doing the same job, where coordination and competition becomes diversionary rather than complementing their work. In the Ugandan context, creation of parallel institutions has sometimes been the undoing of existing effort to address public problems by institutions with constitutional mandates that cannot just be disbanded.
Consequently, both the weakness in democratic base and weak or dysfunctional institutions of government are important places to look for reform. If this is not urgently addressed, citizens will find it exhausting to put their lives at risk as corrupt people are also likely to be connected to real power and give up reporting cases.
And, it is pointless to try spending billions of money in anti-corruption measures such as running a court and commissions of inquiry if they do not amount to making savings on public expenditure.

Curbing corruption in developing countries
Many citizens wonder if we are losing the fight against corruption and if donors care when corrupt entities or countries continue to get funding from agencies. But we must remain optimistic. There are countries that have made progress. South Africa and Tanzania have shown that committed and decisive leadership can make a huge difference in perception and practice of corruption.
Much work needs to be done in order to cultivate cooperation between the public and the state. In fighting corruption, neither the state nor the public can win alone. There is need for deliberate effort to try and address the ever growing problem of corruption. This might require revisiting the roles of actors and specific institutional mandates.
There is need to invest in detecting and investigating corruption in both public and private spaces. Civil Society Organisations, the academia and media have critical roles to play in providing relevant information. This is very crucial in political climates where the state can use political pawns to tarnish the reputation of critical and credible opposition politicians and non-complicit public officials.
The benefits would be enormous in terms of meaningful reform, rethinking the role of actors such as Parliament, restoring faith in institutions that play both implementing and oversight roles, and repairing broken trust in government by citizens. These are critical for deepening democracy.