Why do Ugandans tolerate corruption?

Mr Museveni (wearing hat) tours the State House Anti-Corruption Unit offices in 2018. PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • Corruption in Uganda that is, at heart, mostly an economic problem, is treated as a moral problem by the media, the church, civil society groups, and the political class.

Last Sunday, I explained why Ugandans are frustrated with corruption, urge the government to clamp down on it, President Museveni pays lip service to the fight against corruption, but most of the time turns a blind eye to it.

Sunday Monitor columnist Harold Acemah asked me to write a sequel, this time examining another intriguing angle: Why do Ugandans tolerate those who condone corruption?

Or, to put it differently, why do Ugandans, just as President Museveni, tolerate corruption while appearing to hate and denounce it?

In 2004 while he was station manager of 93.3 KFM, the journalist Andrew Mwenda made an important observation to me as we conversed one afternoon in his office two floors above Daily Monitor newsrooms.

Mwenda said Ugandans and Museveni have arrived at an equilibrium.

Museveni reads the mood and attitude of Ugandan society and responds accordingly, as I explained last week, and he responds accordingly.

So, for example, when a prominent public official from Rukungiri is arrested, a delegation of prominent politicians, religious leaders, and elders from Rukungiri visits Museveni at State House and pleads for clemency for their son.

On one hand, we demand accountability in public office but want exceptions for our tribesmen when they embezzle public funds.

This equilibrium keeps Uganda relatively stable.

A lot of this is now structural and built into the reality of Uganda over the last 30 years.

From the 1950s to early 1990s, civil servants and other government officials lived in government-owned houses in the various towns around the country.

This was crucial, because the one headache they did not have to worry about was rent. They could focus on their jobs and generally be honest at it.

Fees at the leading government schools was also quite affordable.

In 1975, the leading government-owned primary schools in Kampala, Mbale, Jinja, and Entebbe was Shs150 a term.

Shs150 of 1975 in today’s monetary value adjusted for inflation is about Shs106,000 or Shs107,000.

Fees in secondary schools was Shs250 per term.

Just think about this for a moment. Imagine the leading primary schools today charging Shs106,000 a term.

Why would any civil servant be corrupt when he or she lived rent-free in a government house in the Boma residential area of town and if they had five young children, the total school fees in a term would be about Shs550,000 in 2023 money.

Today, the average primary school fees are around Shs700,000 a term.

All this demonstrates why corruption is so rife in Uganda and also why news stories of corruption in government were few and far in between in the 1960s and 1970s, but explode in the 1990s.

It’s not so much that society has suddenly turned immoral and dishonest as it is that Ugandans are struggling with an incredibly high cost of living.

About 50 years ago in the 1970s, you really had to be a crook to be corrupt; today, you really have to be a near-saint to not be corrupt.

But even in the 1970s and 1980s, the severe shortage of basic consumer goods and high inflation eroded the value of civil servants’ salaries and wages, resulting in a black market (magendo) in both goods and foreign exchange to emerge.

Letters to the editor of the government-owned Uganda Times newspaper in the early 1980s have readers complaining about applying for a telephone connection and deliberately being delayed by post office technicians soliciting a bribe, or nurses at Jinja Hospital also asking for a bribe to attend to outpatients.

In the 1970s during the Idi Amin period right through the Yusuf Lule and Godfrey Binaisa UNLF period, and the Obote II period, to get such items as beer and soda for one’s wedding or at Christmas and Easter, people who knew Cabinet ministers or top army officers took written chits from them to bottling plants and were allocated a crate or two.

Scarcity was at the root of all this.

Today we no longer read letters in newspapers complaining about a failure to get a phone line, not because technicians have become honest but because the digital revolution has so changed telecommunications that supply now far exceeds demand.

Wherever demand is much  greater than supply (passport office, government jobs, government contracts, private sector jobs, etc.), we see the pattern of nepotism, bribery, and frustrating delays.

The high cost of living in rent, school fees, and medical bills has eroded Ugandans’ disposable income and this is reflected in the mostly empty hotel rooms, restaurant tables, and low traffic to shops and supermarkets.

And yet the Uganda Revenue Authority is increasingly aggressive in extracting taxes from the business community.

The result is that it is very difficult to break even in business in the present Ugandan economy if one pays one’s taxes in full.

In 2021 when I asked a businessman in Gulu what the biggest challenge was that he faced, he said to succeed at business in Uganda today “You either evade taxes or you must have a political godfather.”

This honestly-stated view by the Gulu businessman takes us back to why Museveni and other powerful political leaders are so powerful, why Museveni tolerates public corruption and why prominent Ugandans condemn it but live with it.

That’s why South African supermarket chains like Shoprite and Game that adhere to best practices such as paying their taxes and NSSF employee contributions leave the Ugandan market but many Ugandan supermarkets remain in business.

Without tax evasion, without corruption in other words, at least 95 percent of present Ugandan businesses will fold.

Corruption in Uganda that is, at heart, mostly an economic problem, is treated as a moral problem by the media, the church, civil society groups, and the political class.

Museveni, for his part, recognises this and his patronage system and turning a blind eye to tax evasion and bribery is his way of preventing society from getting to the brink of all-out crisis if he were to be tough on corruption.

That’s the equilibrium Mwenda probably meant.