21 November 2012

Uganda: The Devil Lies in the Details


First, the disclaimer: This is not to pour cold water in any way on the investigations into thievery or corruption, so do not let anybody slow down their efforts, claiming discouragement.

Nor is it to dampen the spirits of those who found inspiration in the headlines declaring Forbes to have named Uganda's richest people last week.

Now: We really must learn to pay more attention to small details. That is somewhat the basis of the adage: "Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves."

We are all justifiably angry at very many government officials right now because of the fraud uncovered in the Office of the Prime Minister and the public service ministry, even though we knew it was happening all along.

Amidst that anger, though, there were a couple of important yet non-obvious lessons.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, some documents were leaked and circulated by email, purportedly from the office of the Auditor General, titled, "OPM Final Report", "OPM final appendices" and "OPM final cover".

To start with, these documents were in Microsoft Word and were easily accessible by just about anybody with a computer. So we all read them and many people forwarded them on and on and on.

Maybe they were leaked before they were completed and converted into the relatively tamper-proof pdf format, but I worry that these were indeed the final products of the official arm of the government handling this matter.

Not many who received the document in their inboxes, I am sure, went ahead to check the document properties of any of those files, which reveal the document 'authors' to be one "Tajok" and another "Haggai Kijjambu".

This is not to say that the documents were leaked and circulated by the named persons, but the fact that the office of the Auditor General is not aware of simple document encryption mechanisms in Microsoft Word is worrying. It would be worse to think that they are aware of the feature, but did not bother to utilise it - because that is carelessness.

And a careless auditor is just as bad as a drunken surgeon approaching an operating table.

Within the report itself, there is almost no use highlighting errors in grammar, since even newspapers frequently make these errors, but God forbid that some sharp lawyer picks up on these to somehow crush the more salient details of the report.

Within the same context, speaking of newspapers and errors, but moving on to legimitately-acquired wealth, last week a story broke that Forbes Magazine's online edition had named rich men from Uganda in an article titled, 'Five Ugandan Multi-Millionaires You Should Know'.

Understandably, if you are Ugandan, this got translated into "Uganda's Richest Men" when published locally, and lots of discussion ensued without quibble.

Until the author of the very report, one Mfonobong Nsehe, tweeted: "Ugandan media needs prayers. I put up a random list on Forbes, and the media takes it as an official list..."

Embarrassed that this had been posted about Ugandans for the world to read, I immediately checked the original blog and found that he had not posted his actual research nor called them the richest.

Still, I challenged him a little bit and he simply confirmed, "There was research to it, but it was not a list of the richest. It was just a list of some of the richest people in Uganda."

True, the five men named are, as the title clearly said, 'Ugandan Multi-Millionaires', but the only way they can be called the richest Ugandans is if there is a calculation done using a method that we can all agree upon to be fair and even, and then for the results to be made clear.

And when that methodology is followed, perhaps the five named will be found to be the richest. But until then...

Even as I type this, I can mentally hear someone say in a 'Ugandan' accent: "Those are just details!" and just hope they are not employed in the Office of the Auditor General or a newspaper.

The writer is a social analyst.

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