The US Ambassador, Mr Scott DeLisi, on Thursday, declared that “unchecked and pervasive” pilfering of public resources by bureaucrats is an outcome of the manner in which Uganda is governed.
In some of the strongest comments from the country’s development partners, the envoy said corruption was keeping many genuine potential investors out of Uganda and called for deeper reforms.
“I fear that remedial efforts to address the most immediate donor concerns, although important steps, will do little to tackle the underlying reality that this unchecked virus is inextricably linked to the framework of governance in Uganda today,” Mr DeLisi told an American Chamber of Commerce Investment Opportunities in Energy and Infrastructure summit in Kampala.
Forensic audits and police investigations have lately uncovered theft of at least Shs227b - almost half the Shs585b allocated to Agriculture in the 2012/13 budget – by a cabal of pension managers and civil servants in the Office of the Prime Minister, the Finance Ministry, and the Central Bank.
The graft stories forced European development partners to freeze aid, demanding, among other things, a refund of their stolen monies; reform in public finance management and punishment of culprits. Several officials have either been arrested or remanded in prison.
The US does not give direct budget support to government but is the largest bilateral donor to the country, spending $720m on education, health and military assistance last year, a spending Washington plans to keep in 2013.
At Thursday’s business summit, Amb. DeLisi said: “Over the next few months, the donor community will be watching carefully to see what steps Uganda takes to ensure that the [graft] perpetrators are punished regardless of their status...”
“The Ugandan government must, as a critical first step, be crystal clear in its message that it will not allow, will not tolerate, individuals seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the interests of the nation and its citizens.”
Because of what he described as “pervasive” corruption, DeLisi noted that Uganda government’s partnership with the donor community is “seriously threatened”.
Aid and investment may still come, he said, “but if real changes are not made, we risk the same results of unfulfilled expectations, misdirected and stolen funds, and a failure to advance the national agenda.”
Information Minister Mary Karooro Okurut yesterday said the envoy’s remarks were “unfortunate”, considering that it was government investigators, and not the US Mission in Kampala, that unearthed the latest grand scams.
“We have taken many [suspects] to jail; prosecution of others is on-going. There’s political will to fight corruption and action is being taken. So, what is the ambassador taking about?” she asked.
Government officials last month took $14m out of the Treasury in a supplementary budget that Parliament is expected to approve retrospectively, to pay up Norway, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland whose donations for rebuilding war-scarred northern Uganda were stolen by senior OPM staff. Anti-graft activists criticised the move, arguing that individuals culpable should have reimbursed the stolen monies, not the government using taxpayers’ money.
Unchecked graft in Uganda has scared business executives in the world’s largest economy from investing here, the envoy noted, before raising questions about government’s capacity to manage expected oil windfall without the temptation on the part of its officials to steal.
Amb. DeLisi threw his weight behind government’s plan to invest in road and energy infrastructure, but cautioned that a “vision, however lofty and commendable, will never be more than a dream” if not implemented.