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Not all Ugandan public servants are corrupt

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Mr Muniini K. Mulera

Dear Tingasiga:

The fight against corruption in Uganda reminds me of the way Abakiga respond to eshata (a tornado). For those who have never seen this terrifying weather phenomenon, a tornado is a violent column of air, attached to the base of a thunderstorm and extending to the ground, rotating at a very high speed, up to 500 kilometres per hour, leaving devastation in its path within a few seconds. Though at times invisible, it is usually visible because of dust, debris or precipitation within its body.

The first time I saw one, I was too young to realise how dangerous the phenomenon was. However, I remember, as though yesterday, the communal shouting in the hills and valleys as the people’s way of fighting against the tornado. “Eshata! Eshata! Eshata!”, the voices of thousands pushed against the tornado which, if memory serves me well, had descended upon Shooko Valley, on the south side of Mparo, Rukiga, Kigyezi. My brother and I joined in, contributing our feeble voices to the collective war against one of the most dangerous threats to our community. Presently, the terror abated, leaving great damage in its wake, but was soon forgotten as we continued our daily lives.  Naturally, my brother and I congratulated ourselves for participating in the triumphant fight against the heavenly terror.

That has been the story of President Yoweri Museveni’s fight against corruption since 1986. His speeches against corruption and other abuses of power were a breath of fresh air. However, his actions against corruption have been as dramatic as our valiant shouts of “eshata! eshata!” and equally effective. Episodic excitement about corruption has been highlighted by more shouts of “eshata! eshata! eshata!”, totally ineffective in the wake of escalating levels of the scourge that have brought the country to its knees.

The latest drama, symbolised by the arrest of three Members of Parliament on allegations of soliciting bribes to shepherd an inflated budget through the legislature, will almost certainly be as effective as our loud noises that the great tornado ignored as it swept through the valley. The MPs will be taken to court and, if found guilty, will do time in prison. The noisemakers will congratulate themselves, and we shall move on to other things. The big players in the corruption scandals will be left untouched.

The inefficacy of the shouts against corruption has nurtured a pandemic that appears to have afflicted the entire country. News reports about the corrupt, and stories upon stories from friends and relatives, tempt one to agree with Mr Green in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer at Ease in which the colonial Englishman claims that the African is corrupt through and through. “They are all corrupt,” repeats Mr Green in reaction to the arrest of Obi Okonkwo, a promising pre-independence Nigerian civil servant, recently returned from England, who has taken a bribe.

The mega-corruption scandals of the last 37 years in Uganda lend credence to the fictional Mr Green’s generalisation. A national orgy of corruption has spawned a class system of commoners, aristocrats and royals in their shared pursuit of easy money and property acquisitions. The royals – that small group at the top that takes billions of shillings or square miles of land, or huge contracts without fair competition – works with the lower classes in the criminal enterprise.

The aristocrats, who populate the largest segment of the white-collar class, take large amounts, usually from public transactions, and are perfectly happy with the status quo, even as they tell us that they are concerned about the lack of democracy, and human rights abuses by state operatives. When caught in the act of corruption, their cases habitually disappear into the dark hole of justice that has been coopted into the industry.

The commoners – strugglers at the bottom of the pole – pick up what they can, from whoever they can, whenever an opportunity presents itself. The fuel station attendant who fixes the pump to dispense less than the motorist pays for; the school principal who collects kitu kidogo (something small) to offer an unqualified student a place in school; a healthcare worker who charges a fee to provide free services to a desperately ill citizen; a police officer who collects a fee from a motorist at a checkpoint, in lieu of enforcing the law that has been broken; and the builder who inflates the costs of a contract to deliver substandard work. These and so many other corrupt acts are enough to honour Chinua Achebe’s Mr Green for his accurate diagnosis of the African condition.

However, that too would be an over-reaction. The truth is that Uganda has very many hardworking, honest people who are horrified by the corruption around them. I have had many interactions with businessmen, contractors, and government service providers that have done their jobs without the remotest hint of corruption. For example, my wife and I bear witness to the honest and hassle-free service rendered by officers at the Directorate of Citizenship and Immigration Control (DCIC) in 2023. Every officer that interviewed us and shepherded us through the process of renewing our passports and getting the updated dual citizenship certificates did their work with impressive efficiency and honesty. We felt very proud of the positive changes that had occurred in that department. Maj Gen Apollo Kasiita-Gowa, the director general of the DCIC, and his staff have very good reason to be proud of their department.

The folks that served us at the DCIC are not alone in the category of the honest. Uganda has a rainbow of morals that includes millions of upright men and women who are also victims of people who are driven by insatiable greed. We have heard very positive stories about honest operations by some of the motor vehicle driver licensing offices. Our relatives and friends have shared stories of honest health care providers and other public servants. We know some tour guides who take pride in their work and engage in very honest dealings with their clients. Space does not allow a full list of professions that have some very honest members.  Not every African is corrupt, Mr Green.

Even as our journalists continue to report about the corrupt in the land, we need to hear stories about the honest people who have faithfully discharged their duties and their contractual obligations to others. Their stories would be uplifting. They would give us hope that all is not lost.

Muniini K. Mulera is Ugandan-Canadian social and political observer