The politics of corruption

Moses Khisa

What you need to know:

  • ...the revolutionary transformation to do away with a corrupted governing system will have to come from an entirely different set of players and circumstances.

Stories about corruption have become simply surreal. Last week, Daily Monitor ran a story from a report by a committee of Parliament and the details were as shocking as they were hardly unusual.  

If you have been around long enough and closely followed the trail of financial abuse and monetary criminality, it is a very familiar story, indeed, for a senior technocrat to have allegedly received payments most likely as bribes or kickbacks.  

The use of public office and position for private financial gain is now a central feature of Uganda’s system of rule, a systemic problem that runs from the top all the way to the lowest levels of authority and government. Decentralisation, a system meant to make governing better and more efficient ended up instead in decentralising corruption and inefficiency! 

Tragic and ironic as it may sound, we now have government and governing by corruption, a phenomenon that takes a rich variety that includes non-financial abuse and misuse of office. The extent of wrongdoing, cutting across the apparatus of government, is staggering with the common thread of impunity. 

You would think that once there are mechanisms and processes for sanctioning wrongdoing, where there are organisations and agencies in place for assuring accountability and probity, they necessarily eliminate or at a minimum limit the extent of corruption. Instead, the proliferation of agencies and organisations supposedly fighting corruption has gone along with more not less corruption. 

We have State House created agencies and teams. There is a litany of constitutional and statutory bodies including the Inspectorate of Government and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions. We have an anti-corruption division of the judiciary.  Yet the extent of graft and abuse of office has worsened in spite of the many institutions and individuals tasked with countering corruption precisely because these actors are not insulated from the vice; the entire body politic is afflicted by the corruption cancer.  

On the one hand, attempts to fight corruption are cosmetic because the system runs on it, but on the other hand, even the best-intentioned and rugged efforts will run up against the brick wall of capture and the layered web through which corruption thrives. 

The top ruling class purports to be serious about fighting corruption by setting up new agencies and teams to investigate and track down the streams of abuse at national and sub-national levels of government. Yet, the record of the past two decades or so indicates that there has been more fuel added to the corruption fire than there has been water to extinguish it.  While we get a few people arrested, prosecuted and some even condemned to time in prison, in the main the rot, decay and stench of corruption keeps running away and getting even more monstrous. 

Individuals playing in the anti-corruption league, including those in the judiciary, are themselves involved in extortion and extraction! Those sent to hunt down corruption turn on the same carcass. They feed from the same enticing sweetener, fighting it with one hand and embracing it with another. The cycle continues, and the culture persists. 

The average citizen most hurt by corruption is either unbothered or even blithely unaware that dysfunctional healthcare system and a broken road network are marked signs of runaway theft by cabals occupying public office and exercising state power. 

All societies have some form of corruption and abuse of power, one way or another. The issue is the degree and nature. Ours is endemic corruption, and happening in conditions of desperation, weak government and limited resources where efficiency is a must if we are to get decent public goods and services.

The crux of the corruption epidemic lies squarely with the rulers at the top who are the core beneficiaries of the system of kleptocracy. It is through corruption in its multiplicity that they buy the means to stay in power, and it is how they pay for the costs of clinging to power.

Without the spoils of graft, there is no oil for the patronage network to run smoothly and effectively. If the rulers cannot place their cronies and kin in strategic positions – corruption’s two bedfellows of cronyism and nepotism – they would not be able to maintain the prize of personalised control of the state. 

In addition to the instrumental use of corruption, there is also a disingenuous belief that stolen money invested domestically aids growth of the economy, and the rulers at one point believed they could engineer a local business class through corrupt ways! Because the system as a whole runs on corruption, to effectively fight and defeat corruption is essentially to end the ruling system as it is currently constituted. 

The very people in charge of that system cannot accomplish the task rolling back or obliterating their own system. They would be biting the very hand that feeds them.  

Instead, the revolutionary transformation to do away with a corrupted governing system will have to come from an entirely different set of players and circumstances, unfortunately not anytime in the near future. It is a bleak present and arguably a worsening future ahead.