Corruption in Uganda is too big to fail. Discuss

Author, Charles Onyango Obbo. PHOTO/FILE

Over the last fortnight two remarkably succinct statements were made about the state of Uganda.

The first was attributed to Ibrahim Ssemujju, the Member of Parliament for Kira Municipality, who, commenting on what he saw as corruption in the distribution of the money to vulnerable groups to help them through the economic difficulties brought on by the recent lockdown, reportedly said that these days in Uganda you “need connections to be [considered] a vulnerable poor”.

The other was by researcher and journalist Timothy Kalyegira. On  his Twitter page, he compared President Yoweri Museveni in his current term, and former president Milton Obote between 1981 and 1985, when he was ousted a second time in a military coup.

“Obote was in control of the government but not the army, while M7 is in charge of the army but not the government.

“Things are now getting beyond M7’s control. Even if you steal a ministry’s entire budget, he can’t do anything about it”.

They are saying the same thing; that corruption has reached such absurd levels, you need a corrupt process to consider you poor and eligible for state financial support, and that corruption in Uganda has also become too big to fail.

If corruption is so developed that it has made the cost of entry into poverty so high, perhaps it takes us back to the Kalyegira comparison of today’s Museveni with early 1980s Obote; could it cost Museveni his job as it did Obote?

Corruption in the NRM era has had an instrumentalist function. As Museveni used to say, it is cheaper to allow fellows to steal and not go to the bush, than to be hard on them and force them to go and wage war for their turn to eat. It is a deeply problematic view, but one can see its limited merit too.

If in the initial years of Museveni and the NRM’s rule corruption was seen as a tactical necessity to keep the peace, it seems that it has long since become a strategic goal. Corruption became important for the consolidation of the NRM’s power, and one of the most important levers of Museveni’s political control, perhaps even more than the army – until it becomes too big.  It presents two sources of risk. We were reminded of one of the risks a few days ago in Haiti, when 26 hired guns (most of them mercenaries) on July 7 attacked the private residence of Haitian president Jovenel Moïse on the outskirts of the capital Port-au-Prince and riddled him with bullets. 

On the weekend the London newspaper The Times reported that;  “Rumours as to who might have masterminded the plot to kill Moïse have focused on shadowy oligarchs and criminals who still make fortunes in Haiti. They may have felt that he was not a man they could deal with. ‘He was not a team player,’ one businessman in Port-au-Prince conceded.

“Whoever stands to lose or gain from the assassination, nothing much will change in Haiti, a country…ruled by a tiny elite, with democracy little more than a veneer. ‘The system that Moise sat atop of was bigger than him. It predated and will outlast him’”.

When a corrupt system becomes so big, it outgrows the president or prime minister. It reaches a point when the leader cannot be its patron, or if he remains in that role, the system will not see him as distributing the spoils fairly. The risk of a Haiti grows.

But perhaps more disruptive, is the long-term effect it could have on the army, where Kalyegira notes Museveni has firm control.

Corruption in politics, eventually ends in corruption in the army and other security services. Because it is anti-meritocratic, inevitably – and indeed by necessity – appointments in the army begin to elevate not the most talented, but the people who the leader and the system would like to reward through the riches of corruption. Also, people who can protect corruption.

The quality of the army begins to deteriorate, and what we see in parts of southern African and in countries like Nigeria, becomes the norm – armies that are hollowed out and can’t beat back even a bunch of jaywalking rag tag rebels. The hollowing out comes from the fact that as corruption rewards its cadres, partisan politics enters the army, with those outside the eating circle becoming alienated into a silent institutional opposition, no longer willing to put their necks on the line for the State.

Just like corruption raises the bar for you to qualify as vulnerable poor, it does the same for one to be loyal to country. You need connections to be in a position where you can act out your loyalty to the motherland.

The road from the Graft Republic portrayed by Ssemujju is a straight one to Obote 1985.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. 

Twitter: @cobbo3