interviewBy Michael Mubangizi
Recent corruption scandals in government have caused quite a public stir and triggered a strong civic protest.
The Action Aid International Board Chairperson and former East African Legislative Assembly MP, Irene Ovonji Odida, was among the fired-up activists who attended the launch, early last week, of the civic campaign by NGOs dubbed "Enough is Enough."
The campaign was a protest at the wanton theft of public resources in the wake of the unravelling financial scandal at the Office of the Prime Minister and at the ministry of Public Service, in which billions of shillings were mismanaged. Odida spoke to Michael Mubangizi.
How did this latest campaign come about?
This campaign is led by a number of NGOs including DENIVA, Uganda NGO Forum, Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda (ACCU) and Action Aid International Uganda. It was triggered by an escalation of corruption scandals in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and the Pension sector at the ministry of Public Service.
Almost every week, there is a new corruption scandal. What is alarming is that the amount of money stolen is getting bigger and bigger. It used to be millions, now we are talking about billions and trillions!
The level of impunity is also worrying. Public officials (civil servants and political leaders) involved in this theft don't seem to want to take responsibility. This is why we have decided, as the civil society, that enough is enough.
How long is it going to last?
As long as it takes. We have particular demands; we want to see the police, which is charged with investigating and arresting the culprits, do its work properly instead of harassing people who are demanding a stop to corruption. We have seen cases where people are brought to court with flimsy evidence.
What kind of response are you looking for?
We want to see the president make a clear statement not by speech but by action. When a person's name keeps coming up in the scandals, as the appointing authority, he should think twice. He should ask those people to resign. The president should stop surrounding himself with those kinds of people. This is happening in countries like Tanzania.
The president should put pressure on government institutions like police to investigate properly, bring proper charges and, the DPP to prosecute and bring right evidence, instead of calling witnesses who end up testifying in favour of the accused. Police needs to know that their mandate is to uphold law and order, not to protect thieves.
As a result of our action on Monday, several individuals and offices are being harassed by police. In Pader, a staff of Action Aid was called by the DPC Ambrose Sabiti to explain why the Action Aid office in Pader was closed on Monday.
That's threatening people. It was closed to show that we don't support corruption and that we want to see action against corruption, why should a person make a statement for that? What's the criminal offence? Staff in Kumi were also called to make statements.
What do you want the general public to do?
We want them to join us. The mourning is open. Let the public wear black to show that they don't support theft by public officials. We also want to find out commercial enterprises built on public money, once we have that information, we will share it with the public and urge them to start avoiding those businesses like supermarkets, malls and hotels.
We want the public to understand the connection between public resources and theft of those resources. Government money comes from the taxes we pay, when you buy a product like water, fuel, soap, shirt, you pay tax on it. That's the money collected by URA, which goes into the national budget.
How do you rate the response to your campaign and the general corruption trends so far?
What I saw on Monday was inspiring. Young people, people who weren't part of the civil society, came and showed interest in what was happening. There was an old lady who joined and held a placard. Motorists, who passed by stopped, read our placards and signaled support for our work.
We had nuns and priests who joined us, the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda also came up with a statement. When you read comments in newspapers or follow feedback on radio and TV programmes, most people want an end to corruption.
Is it enough to dislike corruption?
No, we need to do more. This is why I am calling on citizens to join us. For instance, school teachers can talk to their pupils about corruption. Religious leaders need to (intensify what they) preach about corruption in their congregations; they need to shun donations and financial offers from those who steal public resources. They shouldn't give them front seats.
What are the trends regarding responsiveness of Ugandans to issues like poor state of service delivery?
It's better than it used to be. In recent years, there have been instances of ordinary people; closing off roads in places like Kalerwe, Wakiso and Kiswa and Amuru, protesting the poor roads. We have people who want us to broaden the scope of the campaign so that they can join in.
The first step has been creating awareness and then making a connection between theft and the contribution made by all Ugandans to the national coffers. People need to know that they are not making noise about money that came from donors but money they contributed.
So, there has been progress although it can be better than this. Different groups need to join hands. KACITA, taxi drivers, teachers, political parties, rebel MPs in parliament need to stop fighting alone because the struggle of each group is a common struggle. We need to link up and identify specific practical actions that each of us can do to increase the pressure.
But you in the NGO world have previously shunned civic actions by opposition parties like walk-to-Work:
That's not true. When the issue of term limits came up, politicians like the prime minister said nobody should discuss it. We came up as NGOs and said we all have a right to discuss this issue. No one has a monopoly over the future of this country.
After we said that, the president and the NRM leadership changed and said yes, people can discuss it. When teachers (UNATU) had their strike, as NGOs, we reached out to them and gave them assistance. We also asked lawyers to help teachers who were being threatened although this wasn't done well.
Do you remember when Ingrid Turinawe was [indecently] arrested? I remember a number of human rights organizations met; we met the Inspector General of Police and told him to stop it [the harassment]. There have been instances when we have stepped in although it needs to be done more consistently and it needs to be stepped up.
As civil society, you do not seem to have achieved much:
Not really, it's like raising a child. It takes time. You may not see the result in a day but over 20 years you eventually see the result. It takes time. Things that are important aren't won in a day.
Uganda belongs to all of us. This isn't a fight for civil society, politicians, parliament and the traders worst hit by the high interest rates on loans, it's not a fight only of teachers who want a pay rise; it's a fight for every citizen. Either we are all going to win, or we are all going to lose out. This country is the pool we are all in, if this pool is dirty, it's going to affect all of us.