Corruption and lost conscience

Emilly C. Maractho (PhD)

What you need to know:

  • “Corruption was shameful. People acquired wealth at least in ways that seemed ‘normal’. It was not possible to see a person completely changed in a few years after taking on a certain office..."

A year or two ago, I stood in the que at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. As is often the case these days, we want to escape anything mundane and try to get things done rather than wait while watching. That is what the smart phone has done to us.

I had an urgent email to send. I stepped aside to allow our special passengers go ahead as I sent my email. I glanced up casually and saw someone familiar. When you are a teacher, everyone looks familiar some days. I was not sure I knew him. He looked like a very important person. Then I returned to my email.

 A couple of minutes later he walked to me and called me by name, very happy to see me. I could not place him immediately. Then he introduced himself. He had been my neighbour years before. I remarked that he had completely changed, I could not recognise him. Then he told me that he was now a Member of Parliament. It dawned on me, that this was what explained the transformation of the person before me.

There are many other people we could say, going to Parliament transformed into people we cannot recognise anymore at various levels. They undergo some sort of 360 degrees of change at a personal level. It is hard not to be amazed by it all.

I have been reflecting on many things since the exhibition of the Ugandan Parliament started. The truth is, we have over time created a system that puts us all in a difficult position. Those who should be condemning the corrupt end up speaking in their defence. The rest of the people have no idea how to respond. We are all amazed by it all.

You realise that you really do not know your country or its leaders. Even when new leaders are appointed and they pledge to fight corruption, it sounds like broken record. But you also feel for the people who stake their lives, trying to tell the stories that are begging them to be told.
I remember reading years ago a book by Giorgio Blundo titled Everyday corruption and the state documenting how daily life in Africa is governed by the corruption of public officials in services, including health, transport and the judicial system. 

The 2006 publication looked at three cases in Africa, investigating reasons for the extraordinary prevalence of corruption. Perhaps Blundo will one day write about corruption in the Ugandan Parliament, who knows what researchers are upto any day. It is a classic text. Even then, I did not imagine that we would be where we are as a country.

When we were growing up, we admired simple teachers, civil servants and nurses. They were people of integrity. They served well,  with little pay. Just so we are clear, I did not grow up in the 1960s. Yet, there was something special about public servants. They were not rich, but absolutely respectable in the community. They sent their children to the decent schools of those days and many of the people in government today are products of that generation.

Corruption was shameful. People acquired wealth at least the ways that seemed ‘normal’. There was nothing blatant. There was a conscience. It was not possible to see a person completely changed in a few years after taking on a certain office, in terms of gross accumulation of wealth at poor people’s expense. Those who were corrupt were despised.

The corrupt of today are different. They are bold and do things we may have only watched in movies. The problem with focus on the politics has also meant that where the real corruption happens, depriving citizens of badly needed services, go largely unchecked. The corrupt are now tired of hiding their wealth and putting it in the names of people who might not be easily linked to them. They actually flaunt their wealth and dare the Inspector General of Government to show up if she wishes. They are not bothered by the wagging of tongues among the public.

If you care to listen to people’s stories, you can be disturbed. Many of these stories that have found their way into the public domain, indicate just how much we have lost our conscience. 
What is unfortunate is that some people assume, because these allegations are online, they mean nothing. It is a bunch of ‘jealous gossipers’ wasting their time online. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The fact that some people are risking to share what they are sharing, should give us hope, that perhaps, there isn’t really a total loss of conscience. That contesting the facts of existing corruption by some leaders, does not necessarily mean it is not there.
Unless we address the systemic issues around why corruption is prevalent, institutions like  Parliament are dysfunctional, we will keep wasting time even talking about it. The cracks are widening by the day. Maybe the 40th day for our country is upon us.

Ms Maractho (PhD) is a senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.                       [email protected]