What you need to know:
- Corruption, as we all know, is never a one-person act. It is a transactional relationship between at least two individuals...
Corruption. Inexhaustible subject of conversation and scholarly publications. The heart of darkness that engulfs humanity. The fall of man, described in the Judeo-Christian scripture, was an act of corruption that turned on a fire that still burns hot in every corner of Planet Earth. Just different degrees. Different impacts, depending on socio-economic development. Different national responses, depending on the character of the ruler or leader, the society’s democratic culture, and respect for the rule of law.
Corruption invites repeated interrogation, for it is at the heart of Uganda’s unending crisis. But who is the chief culprit? The fish rots from the head, we are told. The rulers and their courtiers, together with nearly everyone with an office key, are on the take, milking the national cow without feeding it. Such criminal behaviour was part of the justification for the military coups d’état and armed rebellions that turned Africa into multiple rivers of blood in the early years of flag independence.
In a paper titled “The privatisation of the post-colonial state: Black Africa between Shaka and Shylock”, Ali A. Mazrui summarized the phenomenon at the Third Mawazo Workshop at Makerere University in October 1984: “The resources of the nation were to all intents and purposes, deemed to be the private hunting ground of those in power and of those who supported them. Lucrative contracts for trade or construction were handed out on the basis of private consideration. Foreign exchange was privately distributed. Millions of dollars disappeared into private holdings and accounts abroad.”
Among Uganda’s many ills in its first 25 years of independence was corruption that had been entrenched by what the young Commander Yoweri Museveni called buffoon regimes. Writing in the Winter 1986/87 edition of Ufahamu, a journal of African Studies published at the University of California at Los Angeles, Apolo Nsibambi explained that the first and foremost reason for corruption in Uganda had been “an absence of exemplary leadership”. However, since the NRM came into power on January 26, 1986,” Nsibambi continued, “we have witnessed exemplary leadership. For example, extravagant expenditure has been curbed and the state has restored law and order.”
Nearly four decades later, Mazrui’s presentation, except for privatization of foreign exchange, remains a fresh description of contemporary Uganda. Nsibambi’s optimism, a genuine sentiment of one desperately hopeful for redemption of his motherland, died in the infancy of Museveni’s presidency. Indeed, the corruption and extravagance that these and other scholars described decades ago was tame compared to the malignant version that afflicts the land today.
No day passes without news and condemnation of corruption among the custodians of the country’s treasury and those with the power to suck the juice out of it. However, this condemnation of public servants creates the impression that the rest of us are innocent victims of the grand thievery that has left our basic social services in shambles. Accessing most things that were once a right of citizenship, even during the time of the “buffoon regimes,” has become harder than extracting a jigger from its palace between the toes. But we are not innocent victims.
Millions of Ugandans are partners in their own exploitation. Over time, a marriage of the public’s need and officialdom’s greed has been consummated to produce a culture of dependency and entitlement, disabled creativity, failed democratization, public officers’ impunity to abuse Ugandans, and incapacitated socio-economic development.
To those who focus on the multimillion-dollar thefts of public funds in their examination of corruption, things like presidential gifts of cars to Anglican bishops and other religious leaders, small gifts to public servants, mutual bribery and favours between public servants and service recipients, nepotism, and cash-for-votes, do not warrant much attention.
However, these are an important part of our self-inflicted misery. The behaviour of the Wretched of the Earth supports the kleptocratic network that sustains the supreme ruler in power. Petty corruption and presidential gifts are investments with negative public dividends. It is a pyramid scheme, with people in rags feeding off the lot that is slightly better off, the latter doing likewise, an upward hierarchy of crime, sanitized with language that makes the entire thing appear benign.
Yes, this collaborative corruption is rendered respectable with terms like facilitation, presidential gifts, brown envelopes, okukora (working), and the rather tired old term chai (tea), which is shared with other East African countries.
The origin and application of the language of corruption in Africa would be a worthwhile subject for scholarly inquiry and academic certification. The linguistic creativity alone speaks of the African’s brilliance and sense of humour. It also masks the malignant disease that corruption is, softening it, even normalizing it. The similarity of some terms across the borders suggests shared attitudes and traditions.
For example, Abakiga/Banyankore say: Ogu okora nigwe oryaho, meaning “man eateth where man worketh.” To express the same idea, the Lingala speakers in the Congo Free State say “ku usadilanga ku udilanga.” The Congolese have interesting words for “bribe.” They call it “co-op” (short for cooperation), madesu ya bana (children’s beans) or mbuengi (a type of bean.)
Tanzanians call it “kula” (to eat), with a variety of situation-specific phrases like “kula uliwe” (to eat you must let others eat from you.) An overconfident or reckless Rwandan may ask: “Ubwo se nta kantu umpa?” (aren’t you giving me something?) or “ndeber’akantu di” (look for something for me, my dear). A more circumspect term in Kinyarwanda is “umuti w’ikaramu” (the ink of a pen), presumably to facilitate completion of forms and signatures.
The Shona of Zimbabwe call a bribe “chiokomuhomwe” (knife in the pocket) or, simply, “chemuhomwe” (pockets). Others ask for “yedrink” (the drink) or they say “kutonyora” (not writing.) Over in West Africa, the Nigerians use terms like “egunje” (involuntary giving), “gworo or kola nut”, “public relations”, and “welfare package” to denote bribes. The Ga of Ghana ask for “nokofio” (something small), equivalent to our “kitu kidogo’ in Kiswahili.
Corruption, as we all know, is never a one-person act. It is a transactional relationship between at least two individuals, a symbiotic collaboration whose social acceptability empowers grand corruption, poor governance, underdevelopment, and the vicious cycle that includes intermittent explosions of public anger and bloodletting. The exploited and underserved majority are partners with their exploiters in an inexorable slide towards the abyss. We need to focus more on the public’s role and strategies for minimising that mutually destructive partnership.
Mulera is a medical doctor.