24 November 2012

Uganda: Anti-Corruption Fight in Uganda Seems Dead

I guess it depends on what stories you find entertaining: You could look at the latest corruption shenanigans in Uganda and give a great big yawn, thanks, next.

Or you could look at it as the latest episode of a long-running, bit cheap, but still chuckle-worthy soap. And there was a tiny bit of excitement in this saga recently:

Ireland found that EUR4m given to Uganda by the Irish government for development in Uganda's north had gone missing. Those were funds channeled through the prime minister's office.

When Ireland began looking for its cash, it turned out that an even larger sum for northern Uganda, EUR12 not just from Ireland, but also Norway, Sweden and Denmark, had been misappropriated.

The Irish were displeased, but the Ugandan PM was casual - this is clearly a man with a hands-off approach to running his office that rivals that of a neighbouring president.

He said this to Irish RTE One: 'I didn't even know. No money was ever paid to me and I never handled money. As Prime Minister I never handle money of Government. Never.' I suspect raising the concept of political responsibility with this gentleman might be a waste of time, so don't. Intriguingly, RTE also wrote 'Local media say the officials perpetrated the fraud from the basement of the office building in which Mr Mbabazi is based.'

But maybe Mr Mbabazi was a little too casual. Losing a couple of million euros is not ideal, especially when it was play money for friends and family, but also not the end of the world.

The smaller countries like Ireland and Denmark were always more ready to withhold aid (even if only temporarily) than the biggies. Whatevs.

But this time, even the biggies were reacting. Last week, the UK announced that it would suspend all direct aid to the Ugandan government.

According to the Guardian, total direct financial aid for the current fiscal year was GBP26.9m, of which the remaining GBP11.1m have been frozen for now. Oops. Better find a few minutes to contain this.

The Guardian reported on 20 November 2012: 'In a meeting with the EU, US, China, Japan, the World Bank and the IMF on Monday, the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, acknowledged the "rampant corruption in the country" and vowed to clean up the civil service.'

I suspect Mr Museveni just pulled out the standard manual on 'Responses to Donors Complaining About Corruption' and scanned through the options in his multiple-choice menu (more than one selection allowed: Deny everything; complain about interference in sovereignty, optional: accuse of neo-colonianism, Mugabe variant: accuse of gay gangsterims; emphasise theft of public resources is naturally utterly inacceptable; promise rigorous follow up; claim that UG can do very well thankyouverymuchwithchips without aid, optional: threaten look-East policy; recent addition: threaten withdrawal from Somalia).

Faced with clearly strengthened donor willingness to cut not just symbolic amounts of aid, he must have decided to edit the selected response slightly to include the 'rampant' bit and generally seem a bit more conciliatory.

Plus add the usual routine of a few court cases against officials of the Office of the Prime Minister. Pole sana for the people who got dragged to court, but they will be reasonably sure that their cases will go nowhere. Also, how tedious that this oil money takes so long to materialise.

This has always worked quite well because, of course, donors also have something to lose: if they cut aid in response to corruption allegations, this means that they need to reduce their portfolio in the recipient country.

Aid is their business, and no aid means no jobs. Plus outrage at the UG government has to be tempered for PR purposes: surely large-scale corruption doesn't come out of nowhere - anyone with even the most rudimentary Google skills can easily pull up a portfolio of Uganda's Great Hall of Corruption Fame. So why keep giving money to a government that is clearly corrupt?

The World Bank - an organisation that has VIP tickets in access to Uganda's fiscal and other data - is reportedly also assessing its engagement with Uganda and came to the following cutting-edge conclusion: 'The recent allegations indicate that the overall fiduciary environment in Uganda needs to be strengthened to ensure better management of public resources.'

No kidding, Captain Obvious! Uganda receives on average USD350m to USD400m a year from the World Bank, and of that, USD100m is not tied to any projects, but is direct budget support.

I'm curious to see how this will play out. By which I mean: how long will it take everyone to go through the usual motions and reinstate funding.

For one, Uganda is still an important player in Somalia where few other countries were ready to send troops. And the situation in eastern DRC might also require some consideration.

Plus, all those aid agency folks want to get on with their business. Here's a hint: According to Uganda's Independent, the US ambassador to Uganda said: 'The U.S has decided to continue giving aid to Uganda despite the ongoing numerous investigations into the misuse of foreign aid.'

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