Last week’s presidential walk against corruption was a cynical manipulation of its victims – the citizens. It was a deceitful dance of the insatiable gourmand before digging deeper into the national cake. It was the futile effort of the sorcerer’s apprentice long after defeat by floods triggered by his own actions.
By sheer coincidence, I had just finished reading two excellent books by people who know President Yoweri Museveni better than the vast majority of his supporters. The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Betrayed, Miria Matembe’s memoirs of her years as an insider in Museveni’s government, is an indispensable account of the grand corruption that has strangled the land.
Matembe, who served as minister of Ethics and Integrity, does not equivocate in her description of how the ruler aids and abets corruption. Her first-hand account of the terror that the Museveni regime has used to maintain its hold on a captured State places grand corruption in the broader context of the political corruption that undergirds the ruler’s long-term agenda for dominating Uganda.
The Bell Is Ringing, Martin Aliker’s very engaging autobiography, has a chapter on his years as Museveni’s cabinet minister, in which he describes the grand theft that went on at the high table of the land.
Aliker writes: “We classified government ministries according to their potential to make money. (a) Wet: Education, Health, Agriculture, Energy. (b) Semi-arid: Local Government, Public Service. (c) Desert: Foreign Affairs.” Aliker describes how people stole public money even in the desert Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
I salute Gen Museveni because of his capacity for pretence. Like the swindlers who claim to be Christian “pastors,” “apostles” and “prophets”, the President appeals to high morals even as he oversees a regime that is irredeemably chained to corruption as its central mode of conduct.
Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. It adds that “political corruption is a manipulation of policies, institutions and rules of procedure in the allocation of resources and financing by political decision makers, who abuse their position to sustain their power, status and wealth.”
Lest it be forgotten, Museveni is a beneficiary of the worst act of political corruption – the theft of political power that has kept him in the palace longer than the majority of the kings in the Great Lakes Region during the last millennium.
Through use of violence, intimidation, bribery and manipulation of electoral results, Museveni’s regime has repeatedly subverted the will of Ugandan citizens in order to keep him on the throne. Through distorted policies and practices, he has rewarded favoured communities of political supporters with publicly funded infrastructure and services, punished others by denying them the above rights, and manipulated yet others with a view to gaining their support at the next pseudo-elections.
Besides this political corruption, the President has used financial bribery for so long that the citizens have probably become inured to its malignant effects on the society. The cash-filled envelopes that Museveni hands out like vitamins serve to blind the recipients and to whet the appetites of others who long for opportunities to exchange their votes for shillings.
The brand-new vehicles for religious leaders and the millions of shillings donated to complete church buildings are not from a philanthropic ruler, but from a crafty strategist who expects a political return on his investment. Museveni’s use of public money to buy support from organisations, groups and individuals is the ultimate manifestation of the transactional politics that he has entrenched in the Ugandan culture.
To his credit, he funds it with the aid of a Parliament that approves scandalous allocations of billions of shillings to the presidency in annual budgets and supplementary budgets. I call it honest corruption, for he does it in the open and on the record.
The catalogue of grand corruption scandals over the last thirty years, some involving members of his family and close courtiers, the beneficiaries of which have mostly gone unpunished, is too long to list here. President Museveni has had numerous opportunities to deal a blow to the scourge. He has not done so for one simple reason: He does not want to.
We know that he is a man who spares nothing once he has set his mind on a goal. As far back as the late 1960s, Museveni set his sights on capturing power and becoming the undisputed ruler of Uganda, a monarch in the mold of Rwanda’s great warrior kings like Ruganzu II Ndori, Kigeri II Nyamuheshera and Kigeri IV Rwabugiri.
When an early opening presented itself with the advent of Gen Idi Amin’s military regime in 1971, Museveni began his quest in earnest. He took up arms against Amin and his successors, and triumphed in January 1986, much earlier than he had expected. He succeeded because he was very deeply committed to a very clear objective, to which he applied a singular focus in its prosecution.
In the years since his ascension to the throne, he has accomplished many goals, not by leading walks against his enemies or in pursuit of objectives like lifting presidential term and age limits, but by acting decisively and with great precision.
Had Museveni wanted to, he would have successfully wrestled grand corruption to the ground many years ago. In the absence of the will to fight corruption, Museveni has watched as the cancer has spread and consumed the land. Upon discovering that corruption was an excellent tool for control of the State, the President aided and abetted the practice with zeal, sabotaged the efforts of anti-corruption agencies that he had created, all the while giving lip-service to a fight that he did not believe in.
Nothing has changed. The presidential walk against corruption was good for the cardiac health of the participants. Other than that, it was a mockery of the Constitution and the Independence that are commemorated by the Constitution Square, where Museveni began his walk, and the Kololo Independence Grounds, where he ended it with a cynical speech whose content has already been forgotten.
Defeating corruption in Uganda is a dream that must await a new and transformative leadership. Fingers crossed.