13 November 2012

Uganda: Anti-Corruption Crusade Should Be Fair, Just and Factual


I have keenly been following anticorruption fight in this country. First, I firmly believe that unless an antidote against increasing corruption if found, efforts towards transformation of this nation will be gravely hurt.

Indeed corruption or the simple dereliction of duty creates massive all-round inefficiencies in delivery of public services. Therefore, corruption is a serious issue and should be treated as such.

Secondly, across the board, we need to think and act creatively to find practical solutions to end this vice. But why are many actors in Parliament, wider media and civil society transforming corruption into a platform for blackmail, innuendo, and selfish political positioning and limelight/sound bite predatory schemes?

Corruption should never be a stimulus for ugly partisan political contestations, but rather an evil we should all roundly reject and fight.

The recent allegations against the First Lady, Janet Museveni smacks of the foregoing ill schemes. These schemers are trying to use the so called "lion strategy" by attempting to blackmail and isolate leaders they presume to be strong challengers.

For example, without attempting to verify facts but run to falsely allege that the First Lady travelled to Israel eight times in one month is silly and lazy.

But why would the Auditor General publish falsehoods about the First Lady without inquiring with her office on this matter? Why would the wider media publish the story without deploying their investigative assets to find the truth? Why would someone in the wider public use twitter, facebook, e-google etc to crucify the First Lady for money paid to OPM cashiers' personal accounts? Why are we not crosschecking facts and summoning reason? Is responsibility in free speech-too much to ask? This is simply a skewed attempt to tarnish the name of the First Lady who has staked out her neck in many ways to serve the public good.

If we don't stop and reflect, legitimate efforts to fight corruption will be pushed under water by swarms of self-interest. Indeed, the 'holier than though' parliament will restore legitimacy in the fight against corruption by engaging in self-examination.

A data visualisation by Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment shows that Parliamentary Commission expenditure is shooting through the roof. From sh82 billion in the 2008/2009 financial year, it hit sh280 billion in the 2010/2011 financial year.

A deeper drill into the data shows that many MPs are spending tax payers' money on foreign trips. MPs are entitled to an allowance of sh1.4m ($550) per day spent out of the country on official duty.

On the 21st of November 2011, the media reported that sh8.5b was allocated to facilitate at least 300 of the 344 legislators on foreign travel for the financial year 2011/2012. In a space of just four months sh2.2b had already been spent on MPs' foreign travels - an average of Sh550m per month!

Yet they are quick to throw tantrums at the First Lady who explained her single trip to Israel at half the cost because she delayed her trip to hitch a lift on the presidential jet, since her husband President Yoweri Museveni was travelling to New York for a United Nations General Assembly.

But what are our MPs doing abroad? Have we increased our exports as a result of their trips? Has parliament become more efficient with infusion of lessons from abroad? Is this how they fight for aspirations of their constituents?

Allegations that some MPs pick per diem and hang around should be investigated. Official travels should be streamlined to national interest to avert bloating public administration expenditure.

An independent media and civil society can do a lot for the fight against corruption. Part of the solution in the fight against this vice is in propagating factual information on expenditure, releases etc to the wider population. Information has the power to stimulate imagination of citizenry to, for instance, ask and monitor what is going on and most importantly, follow their money and hold officialdom to account.

Apart from bickering, there are practical experiences of what works when tackling corruption.

For example, in 1996, Rivtva Reinikka and Jakob Svensson in a study tracked how much of the capitation grant reached the schools. The figures from the survey teams that went to the schools were then compared with the computer records of the releases.

The answer they got was nothing short of stunning. Only 13% of funds ever reached the schools. More than half of the school got nothing at all. Inquiries suggested that a lot of the money most likely ended up in the pockets of district officials and bureaucrats.

When these results were released in Uganda- there was uproar - and the finance ministry started publicising the releases in the main national newspapers.

By 2001, when Reinikka and Svensson repeated their school survey, they found the schools were getting, an average 80% of the discretionary money they were entitled to. About half of the school head teachers that had received less than their entitlements initiated formal complaints and eventually most of them received their money.

There were no reports of reprisals against them or against newspapers that run the story. It seems the district officials had been happy to embezzle the money when no one was watching but stopped when that became more difficult.

These Uganda head teachers suggest an exciting possibility: If rural schools head teachers could fight corruption, perhaps it is not necessary to wait for a change of government or profound transformation of institutions for better policies to be implemented.

Careful thinking and access to ferment of information driven through the wider media has potential to check and stop corruption. Unfortunately, quite often what you see is mudslinging, partisanship and laziness by actors in the media and public arena.

It is a central responsibility of media to do rigorous research, deliberate inquiries and due diligence-necessary for fair reporting. Some journalists and media houses have turned into political activists instead of professional umpires in the business of information.

In fighting this corruption monster, let us be fair, balanced, just and factual. Let us not play to the gallery.

Writer is a Researcher and Public Policy Analyst

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