When Uganda Revenue Authority was set up in 1991, it was the first such stand-alone tax body in sub-Saharan Africa built around two ideas: Relative independence from the Finance Ministry and other political actors in the discharge of its duties; and employees recruited outside the civil service structure with its restrictive salaries, and paid top dollar in order not to be corrupt.
A third idea, introduced quietly soon after, was to staff URA with young “born-again” Christians with the understanding that their upright morals were stiff enough to keep them from bending over to dip their hands in the cookie jar.
It ended in premium tears. By 2002 corruption had become so rampant in URA, a judicial commission of inquiry had to be set up to investigate the matter. What had happened? In the absence of a national database of “born-again” Ugandans or an updated inventory of non-sinners, many of the URA staff were selected via patronage, not merit. This was fertile ground for lack of accountability, leading to widespread impunity. Rather than satisfy them, the big salaries teased tastebuds and sharpened appetites for the finer things in life. The lack of opportunity had been mistaken for abstemiousness; even Balokole, it turned out, could wear balaclavas and hit the till. Because they were beneficiaries of patronage, many were expected to pay it backwards by supporting relatives and in-laws, putting them under even more pressure to steal to meet these demands. Instead of changing course, this mistake was replicated over the next decade: create more authorities, stuff them with ‘mwana waani’, pay better than civil servants, leading to run-away corruption.
While this was happening, regime cronies were gifted national assets at throw-away prices, allowed to evade taxes, pile up square miles of land, profiteer from bloated public procurements, or eat the alphabet soup of corruption: Danze, Gavi, Global Fund, Chogm, OPM, et cetera.
Plans to fight corruption by appointing children of the rich is a brazen attempt to replay the ‘Balokole’ trick at URA. The argument for it has more holes than a pair of crocs. For starters, it discriminates against children of poor Ugandans. How much money should your parents have to be considered for employment? Does the provenance of the money matter? And what happens if the family loses its fortune? And are there rebates for poor parents whose children are knocked out of contention for jobs on account of income thresholds?
Then, as we saw with URA, it just does not work. Rich people are not any more ethical than the poor and are, in fact, often greedier. Many beneficiaries of primitive accumulation of wealth go to fancy schools but they can’t buy class. Grit, humility, a good work ethic and honesty are not sold over-the-counter. The argument is also diversionary but revealing. Diversionary, because fighting corruption is not rocket science; it requires lowering the black tax and raising the risk of being corrupt. There was a time, not too long ago, when one could get decent services in public schools and hospitals, and could even ride public transport. Today almost everyone needs a car, has to take their kids to expensive private schools, and is one medical emergency away from bankruptcy. As long as this pressure remains people will continue to feather their nets, whether out of greed or just contingency planning.
This needs to be matched with making corruption expensive. Yet for many years from 1995 the office of the Inspector General of Government – a key anti-corruption organ – was not fully constituted, and in none of the scandals mentioned above was the political authority held fully accountable. In fact, many well-known perpetrators of graft have been promoted and even decorated with national medals!
This, therefore, has nothing to do with fighting corruption. The recruitment of ‘Balokole’ in the early days was part of a wider plan to create wealth for a select few. This plan also included off-balance-sheet arrangements such as a secret scholarship scheme in State House, and reverse-qualifying job holders through the private students scheme at Makerere and then other universities.
The current proposal is revealing because it reflects an attempt to preserve wealth across generations. Many wealthy people tend to bring their children into the family business so that they can protect and grow their wealth. This proposal tells you that our nouveau riche have made their money from plundering the state. Recruiting them into government is merely an attempt to allow them take over the family business.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and poor man’s freedom fighter.