There are people who can’t chew gum and walk. They either walk, or chew gum. Not both at the same time. The advice to such people is usually simple: either chew gum, or walk. It need not be necessarily in that order, mind; they have a birth right to walk, then chew the gum.
Similarly, this government’s recent attempt to tackle its twin challenges, of being corrupt and incompetent, cannot be achieved at the same time. It can try to rid itself of corruption, or try to get some work done competently. It can’t do both.
This isn’t to say that honesty and competence are mutually exclusive. In most situations one leads to, and is necessary for the other. But after three years of declaring kisanja hakuna mchezo (a no-joke term of office) perhaps it is time to stop trying to walk while chewing gum.
The Cabinet reshuffle announced at the weekend is instructive. State House insiders say the changes reflect a “renewed commitment to fighting corruption” but the facts do not support the argument.
Many suspected of corruption remained in their positions or were merely punished by being sent to ministries with smaller budgets. None of those removed, if indeed they were removed over allegations of corruption, is facing investigations, as would be expected.
Parties broke out across the country and went on late into the night by those who survived the cull and fresh appointees. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has been seen praying quietly for the strength and fortitude to continue carrying the thankless cross of public service.
As noble as it is, the “fight against corruption” is the wrong fight. First, corruption is the jet fuel that powers the regime and, increasingly, many aspects of everyday life. Whether it is hiring a police lead car to escort your wedding entourage, or getting a land title processed successfully, there are few problems that the right amount of money can’t solve.
This is primarily a signalling problem. The government’s mantra – wealth creation – reaffirms the primary role of money, or wealth, as the solution to every problem, regardless of how that money is made. Thus a new list of Cabinet positions is assessed, not on which competencies ministers bring to their dockets, but on who has been given which cash-rich budget.
The problem here is that private wealth in the absence of common wealth creates more problems than it solves. Apart from the inequality that is now pulling Ugandan society apart at the seams, this inherently unstable social structure always implodes on itself. This is the kind of flawed thinking that celebrates traffic gridlock as a sign of economic growth when development should be measured in how quickly people move from one place to another.
So, instead of playing to the gallery over corruption, the government should focus on being more competent. People who are well known and very close to the highest levels of government took large bribes over the construction of Isimba and Karuma Dams, the Kampala-Entebbe Expressway, the Kampala Northern Bypass and a myriad other projects that we need not list here.
The problem is not that they ate off the projects; the real problem is that we have more electricity than we can use because it is too expensive and there are no lines to take it where it is needed. We also have one expensive road that was finished quickly albeit poorly that only a handful of people use, and one that is very busy but remains unfinished more than 15 years after construction began.
Ideally we would want projects to be delivered on time and within budget. But I strongly suspect that if you ask a woman on the street to choose between a project that works from which some people “ate” and one that doesn’t work but from which no one “ate,” they would choose the former.
While this might appear like surrender, it is merely seeing the government the way it is, rather than the way we would want it to be. By making threatening noises about delivering working projects from which no one eats the government is attempting to chew gum while it walks.
After almost four decades of vomiting on our shoes it should have the decency not to chew while walking; there’ll be plenty of time for that when and if the projects are done.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter