Why the shameless official corruption?

Author: Moses Khisa. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Iron sheets, of all things, procured by the Office of the Prime Minister and meant for the wretched of the earth in Karamoja, that part of the country that has for long been the focus of star-gazing attempts at bringing about ‘development and civilisation’.

The iron sheets-gate has been the big story of the last few weeks in Uganda’s rather hopeless public square. Ideally, it is a story of deeply embarrassing proportions. But Uganda of today has gone way past a big corruption scandal being a source of national soul-searching and reckoning.

Iron sheets, of all things, procured by the Office of the Prime Minister and meant for the wretched of the earth in Karamoja, that part of the country that has for long been the focus of star-gazing attempts at bringing about ‘development and civilisation’.

Instead, the iron sheets were allegedly shared out among Cabinet ministers and other government officials. When the news first broke, the minister in-charge of Karamoja, was reported to have diverted the iron sheets to her village and members of her family were allegedly involved in selling them on the open market for the cheap!

Scandalous as you can ever find, but not quite an outrage because Uganda under the current rulership has sunk to unimaginable levels. Elsewhere, heads would have rolled. The government could very well have collapsed altogether. Not in Uganda of Mr Museveni.

For those who have closely followed the current system of rule, there is nothing scarcely surprising. Theft of public resources and the commandeering of state property has been integral to the rule of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) almost right from the beginning although, admittedly, there were initial attempts at wanting to put up appearances and display a commitment to clean leadership.

Going as far back as the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were rampant stories of prominent NRM officials, especially individuals in military uniform, engaging in abuse of public office for private gain. There was already talk in the pages of the Weekly Topic newspaper of the system of ‘broad base’ having gravitated towards ‘bread base’.

By the end of the first decade of NRM rulership, it was apparent that egregious actions of looting state coffers and using official positions to commandeer resources for personal material aggrandisement had become part of the broader technology of rule.

In simple terms, corruption, the euphemism we use for the criminal activity of engaging in theft of public resources, was seen by the core of the ruling class as a critical tool for holding onto state power. This played out, and continues to, at different levels.

First, those who steal public resources, and are afforded the impunity to do so, meaning they are not held accountable in any serious and consequential way, become fully implicated in working for the continuation of the status quo.

They can neither speak out when things go wrong nor can they defect to the opposition. They are captive because they have sinned! For their own safety and security they must play ball and stay the course.  Second, corruption is a source of spoils and patronage that oils the system. This started in earnest with the sweeping privatisation process in the 1990s during which formerly state owned enterprises were doled out to regime cronies who in turn sliced back some resources towards supporting the system, especially during election campaigns.

The NRM has no officially known source of money for its election campaign, instead it relies on government budgetary allocations as well as donations from private sector business actors who are beneficiaries of official corruption including those awarded government contracts and government businesses.

The third, and less obvious, angle of understanding how corruption is a tool of rule and for maintaining state power is the array of activities and actions by agencies and institutions supposedly involved in fighting the vice.

Part of the wider system of corruption as a technology of rule is to set up a façade that purports to be fighting it. It includes mainstream government and state bodies like the Inspectorate of Government, the Police’s Criminal Investigations Directorate and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

There is also the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee and the government Auditor General, to boot. In addition, you get proliferation of outfits like the so called State House Anti-Corruption Unit. What is more, civil society organisations spring forward with the good, but ultimately vain, intention of seeking to fight corruption and assure public accountability.

In the end, all this adds up to very little in substance because corruption is not just a procedural and technocratic problem to be fixed through law enforcement, rather, it is fundamentally a political dynamic that is heavily embedded in the politics of the day.

Let me put it in more explicit terms: official corruption is one of the keys to NRM rule. The current system of rule is built on corruption. Corruption does not fail the system, it makes it work and survive. Without official rampant corruption, it is possible the NRM rule would collapse! To fight corruption, therefore, is to fight the ruling system. That is the crux of the matter.