We ask a mid-level civil servant for his thoughts on President Museveni’s recently declared war on corruption, which will kick off with a walk on Wednesday.
The civil servant considers the question for a while, seemingly in deep thought. He then seems to ignore the question as he rummaged through the papers on his desk. A few moments later, he springs to life, the veins on his forehead enlarging with frightening suddenness.
Leaning forward, he draws this reporter’s attention to the paper he is holding. “Look, this is a requisition for a car battery. My car needs its battery changed and the people in procurement here have raised this paper to acquire the battery at Shs780,000. My driver told me that on the open market, the same battery costs Shs400,000.”
The civil servant says for as long as he has occupied that office, he has seen the prices of virtually whatever has been bought doubled. At the beginning, he said, he would raise the issue, arguing that prices were inflated and the government was losing money.
Whenever he raised the issue, he said, the officers in the procurement department would tell him that they could only buy from prequalified suppliers, and that the supplier they had picked on that occasion was the one who offered the lowest price. With time, he gave up.
Returning to our question, the civil servant says: “Museveni cannot defeat corruption in Uganda. No one can. It is so entrenched and most of it is carried out by civil servants; the politicians only take tokens.”
That is one view. We then turned to a former chief executive of a public body, whose tenure was riddled with fights with the governing board until he was forced out of the job. He was accused of engaging in corruption, a charge he ferociously denies.
We asked the source what went wrong during his tenure. He says: “You know, when you are in charge of a big organisation like (name withheld), everyone believes that you are swimming in money and you are under obligation to share. The board members would be paid their stipends but would regularly raid my office asking for money. When I was in no position to provide, they said I was a bad employee who did not know who my bosses were. They vowed to fight me, and they indeed did it.”
On his experience running the organisation, the former chief executive officer recounts his frustrations, saying in his observation, activities out of which officers would steal money were performed enthusiastically and done on time, and those which presented no opportunities for corruption remained largely undone, with officers coming up with different excuses.
Politicians versus civil servants
None of the two gentlemen we refer to above has ever stood for political office, they have both been bureaucrats serving politicians. But they share the view that more public money is stolen by civil servants than by politicians. They argue that civil servants have more opportunities to steal at multiple levels.
One of them shared a line he said he has heard said numerous times during his time in the civil service. “The more times one dips their hand in water, the wetter it becomes.” This, he said, means in their lingua that the more opportunities one gets to skim a little sum off public funds, the more money he will collect in the end.
‘Walking out’ corruption
President Museveni has repeatedly complained about corruption in public office, often vowing to stamp it out. When he leads the “walk against corruption” in the event themed “a corruption free Uganda starts with me” on Wednesday, it will be in the pursuit of similar goals he has outlined before.
Examples from the past more than three decades of his rule over Uganda paint a grim picture on the prospects of any success on kicking out, let alone reducing the rampant cases of corruption.
Already, trillions of shillings have been lost, just going by a compilation of the major corruption scandals that have riddled the country in recent years, but this does not factor in the widespread bureaucratic and administrative forms of corruption, or the widely discussed political patronage and favouritism, forms of corruption that are rarely frowned upon but often treated as the norm rather than the exception.
Allegations and confirmed cases of bribery, nepotism, misuse of official positions and resources, rent seeking, among other forms of corruption, have been widely reported with little action.
Commissions of inquiry have been instituted, agencies formed, pronouncements made against corruption, yet the vice remains one of the most glaring in President Museveni’s government.
Some of the anti-corruption agencies include the Anti-Corruption Court, a specialised tribunal in the Judiciary, the State House Anti-Corruption Unit, the Inspectorate of Government (IGG), The Directorate of Ethics and Integrity (DEI), The Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA), the Office of the Auditor General (OAG), the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP), among others.
On Thursday, November 21, Chief Justice Bart Katureebe accused these agencies, among others, of habouring the corrupt in the name of investigators.
In 2018, IGG Justice Irene Mulyagonja said most corrupt government officials were “hiding behind” the back of President Museveni and use their connection to the Head of State to defeat or escape justice.
Some studies, such as the Global Integrity report, have over the years estimated that more than half of the government’s annual budget is lost to corruption each year.
Uganda is the 149th least corrupt nation out of 175 countries, according to the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International. Uganda’s best ranking on corruption was in 1996, when the country ranked 43, reaching an all-time high of 151 in 2016.
Walking alongside the President will be the heads of the other two arms of government, Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga and outgoing Chief Justice Bart Katureebe. The arms of government which both officials lead, have not been spared of corruption. In August, for example, Mr Katureebe set up a six-member taskforce to investigate the rampant allegations of corruption in the Judiciary.
The Judiciary, the public procurement sector and the police are some of the sectors with the highest levels of corruption over the years. Other areas are public services, land, tax and customs administration and the fledgling natural resources sector.
High level corruption
A 2013 report by Human Rights Watch, “Letting the Big Fish Swim: Failures to Prosecute High-Level Corruption in Uganda,” castigated President Museveni and other officials and the media for what they called not paying attention to what they termed as ‘high level corruption’.
The report authors observed: “Since President Museveni took office in 1986, despite recurrent corruption scandals, only one minister has ever been convicted of a corruption-related offence, a verdict that was overturned on appeal just after the President publicly offered to pay the defendant’s legal costs”.
The idea that the ant-corruption bodies only pursue lower cadre suspects is commonplace, and Mr John Bosco Katutsi, a former head of the Anti-Corruption Court, while convicting a suspect in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) scandal on June 29, 2010, said: “This court is tired of trying tilapias when crocodiles are left swimming.”
Former Vice President Gilbert Bukenya would a year later, in 2011, be unsuccessfully prosecuted in the Anti-Corruption Court for his alleged role in corrupt procurements during preparations for Chogm, which Uganda hosted in 2007.
Then in October 2011, Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa, then Government Chief Whip John Nasasira, and then Minister of State for Labour Mwesigwa Rukutana, who is now Deputy Attorney General, stepped down from their offices ahead of court appearance over corruption-related charges.
The trio announced their decision to take leave from office in a joint statement, in which they said they had decided to step down as prudence would dictate.
They were accused of abuse of office and causing financial loss in the Shs14b tender for fixing Speke Resort Munyonyo, ahead of the 2007 Chogm.
Six months later, in April 2012, the Constitutional Court quashed the charges that had been brought against the three ministers on a technicality.
A panel of three Justices led by the then deputy Chief Justice Alice Mpagi Behigeine ruled that the IGG was, by getting the ministers to be arraigned before court, executing work outside his mandate. The ministers resumed their positions in Cabinet.
The only former minister the “Letting the Big Fish Swim: Failures to Prosecute High-Level Corruption in Uganda” report refers to is former Soroti Municipality MP Mike Mukula, who as State minister of Health, was accused of embezzling Shs210m of the Global Alliance Vaccine (GAVI) funds, for which the Anti-Corruption Court found him guilty and sentenced him to four years in prison. This was in 2013.
President Museveni later offered Shs100m to hire lawyers who ensured that Mr Mukula’s conviction by the Chief Magistrate’s Court of the Ant-Corruption Court was overturned by the High Court.
One minister is currently in trouble, however. Junior minister for Labour, Mr Herbert Kabafunzaki, is waiting the conclusion of his case before the Anti-Corruption Court, where he is accused of soliciting and receiving a bribe of Shs5m from a businessman.
President Museveni, who declared this five-year-term “Kisanja hakuna mchezo” and vowed to renew the fight against corruption when he took oath in May 2016, ordered Mr Kabafunzaki to step aside from Cabinet as his case is being heard.
But there has been criticism directed right at the President himself, which has recently been led by Mr Museveni’s principal nemesis, Dr Kizza Besigye. Dr Besigye often waves papers from the authorities in the United States of America that detail the now famous Patrick Ho case.
Mr Ho is a Chinese businessman who is currently serving a jail term in the US over what American authorities say is bribing foreign officials on American soil. The officials named include Foreign Affairs Minister Kutesa, who American officials say obtained $500,000 (Shs1.8b) from Mr Ho, for himself, and another $500,000 for President Museveni.
Mr Kutesa has denied that the money he obtained from Mr Ho was a bribe, saying it was a donation Mr Ho made to a charity that Mr Kutesa runs in his constituency in Sembabule District. The American authorities insist that it was a bribe, since Mr Ho declared intentions of doing business in Uganda and Mr Kutesa assured him of securing him access to the President.
President Museveni has in the past only commented on the allegations against Mr Kutesa, saying his minister had informed him that it was a donation, but has not come out to clarify whether he received the $500,000 the American authorities claim was sent to him.
Now that Mr Museveni will lead a walk against corruption on Wednesday, Dr Besigye and his allies have jumped on it, saying they, too, will walk on the same day, from their offices at Katonga Road in Kampala to the Constitution Square. Mr Museveni’s walk is slated to start from the Constitution Square to the Independence Grounds in Kololo.
As President Museveni walks, the focus will be on turning on the heat to ensure that those who handle the public’s money, whether bureaucrats or politicians, don’t steal it.
While commissioning the SIMI mobile phone factory in Namanve Industrial park on November 22, President Museveni asked Ugandans to give him only weeks to stem corruption from the country.
“Our problem was electricity and transport. We have electricity and we are building a railway line to solve the transport problem. Our problem now is corruption of public servants. You will hear how many casualties I will get. God is going to give them to me,” the President said.
On the other hand, Dr Besigye and his allies will be looking to link President Museveni to corruption.
The President, though, openly talks about thieves in government, even on occasions in foreign countries. He has once again vowed to solve the problem. In that aspect, it is like he would concede, his has been a bad government.
If that is the case, then as the President works to reignite the fight against corruption, he will perhaps be alive to the warning offered by the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859): “The most dangerous time for a bad government is when it starts to reform itself.”
Since coming to power, President Museveni and other senior members of his government have over the years made pronouncements against corruption, which have not yielded much.
On Friday, November 21, President Museveni asked for a few weeks to deal with corruption among civil servants
While delivering this year’s State of the Nation Address, Mr Museveni said the level of corruption in the government was the remaining obstacle to Uganda’s development. He promised decisive action on the vice.
On December 10, 2018, while officiating at the Anti-Corruption week at Kololo Independence Grounds in Kampala, Mr Museveni said his new plan was to confiscate property of public servants who steal public money.
“All property belonging to corrupt officials will be confiscated. But I will first get first-hand information before confiscation of the property and I will order organisations fighting corruption to avail me with more details of stolen money,” Mr Museveni said.
In his 2013 New Year message, President Museveni vowed that he would deal with the political saboteurs and corrupt officials, whom he said were frustrating economic growth.
“In this coming year, the patriots of Uganda will have to confront these two saboteurs: the myopic political, administrative group and the corrupt officials, who delay our industrialisation vision…” he said.
In 2006, President Museveni announced a policy of zero-tolerance for corruption.
A quick search on the Internet reveals a litany of the President’s vows on the subject spread out over the years.