Ministry of Trade PS Geraldine Ssali in Anti-Corruption court dock Ministry of Trade PS Geraldine Ssali in dock at the Anti-Corruption

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Stealing taxpayer money; Day 40 is nigh

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Benjamin Rukwengye

In the village where I grew up, there was a young man nicknamed Chuzi, who had a very likable character. He was affable and had the street smarts and the kind of silky tongue to get himself out of sticky situations that many of us couldn’t extricate ourselves from.

However, Chuzi was also a petty thief who often got away with it because he was likable. But when vices are not nipped in the bud, they grow. At some point, it must have dawned on him that he could make a better living as a career thief than bothering with the option of whatever work he would have had to apply himself to. So, he chose the road travelled.

As we grew and fate directed us to whatever destination it had for us, he too found his place and made his way up the ladder of crime. Every so often, you would hear how he was involved with this or that gang. Once in a while, there would be a break-in and a witness would swear how they had seen him or heard his distinct voice among the perpetrators.

Yet even when everyone knew he was involved in criminal activity, they didn’t raise a finger. When others got arrested, he would somehow be the one that had miraculously slipped away. He was, to use President Roosevelt’s alleged description of Nicaragua’s brutal dictator, Anastasio Somoza, “a son of a ‘female dog’ but our son of a ‘female dog’”.

There had been a spike in the number of robberies and rumours were flying around, about how Chuzi was the mastermind. The police, as inexplicably happens in some of these instances, weren’t doing much to help the situation. People started to get jittery and then angry.

They say every thief has 40 days. Chuzi’s 40th came one rainy Thursday night, when he and two of his acolytes broke into a local shop and made off with money and merchandise. But this time was different because nobody was willing to extend any grace and aid his escape. They had had enough. Residents mounted a hot pursuit that lasted all day, till Chuzi and one of his accomplices were nabbed. It has been about 20 years since that harrowing incident, and it should have faded from memory. But how can it, when, every day, there a story of this or that government official who has stolen taxpayer money?

They all start like Chuzi – small time crime – taking fat allowances, forging requisitions and receipts. Then they realise they can get more without needing to put in the actual work. So, they inflate budgets, allocate themselves allowances and benefits, intimidate and blackmail contractors, or simply appropriate themselves whatever they want.

The ones with the power to rein them in, coddle them instead or stay silent because to rephrase Roosevelt, “They are thieves but they are our thieves.” But you also notice that with every scandal, the tide changes. The public gets jittery and frustrated. People stop whispering allegations and start to make loud accusations.

They get angrier too, because they notice that every money taken off the table means less food to eat, no access to healthcare, fewer opportunities for work, and a shrinking economy in which they have no stake. And that is what happened to Chuzi and his friend. They were returned to the crime scene where swift village mob ‘justice’ was administered. I watched from a distance as the angry crowd hit boiling point. I saw the first stone make blunt contact with Chuzi’s head. In what seemed to be just a minute, he and his colleague were dead.

Their bodies were abandoned there overnight and only picked by the police in the middle of the next day. Nobody owned up to the crime or came forward to help the police. Mostly, because there were no sympathies from those who had seen Chuzi grow and probably failed him with their silence as he slid into the abyss of crime. They too had become disgusted by his ways and wished him away.

It is a scene that will live with me forever. The unanimity of it all. The silent and very public agreement that this was what needed to be done because everything else had failed. Because nothing and nobody else could be trusted to work. A sign that when leadership fails, there is no telling how people will react.

Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.

@Rukwengye