29 November 2012

Uganda: Corruption Has Now Grown Into Wholesale


The stench of corruption and mismanagement that has been rising from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) and other government departments in recent weeks and months now seems to have reached high heaven, with everyday revealing even more rot. Like it or not, it is becoming difficult to avoid feeling it or smelling it one way or the other.

In the past, as we grew up in the village, whenever we came across something stinking, and therefore undesirable, we would pick a shovel and throw soil over it or if it was really that bad, a hole would be dug in the ground and the offensive substance pushed into it with a long stick and the hole refilled.

In other words, it would be buried. Not so today, it seems! The NRM government has been stinking with corruption for a long time now with many Ugandans literally holding their noses up in disgust. Yet this government has remained, decomposing further every passing year and letting off an even more offensive smell.

One of the earliest indicators of where we would be in future (now the present) was the privatization process in which politically well-connected bureaucrats and politicians stripped the various state corporations that, while limping, still functioned and provided employment and import substitution opportunities to the country.

The asset-stripping was apparently to prepare them for sale to either foreign companies (some of them parastatals themselves) or to regime functionaries who would in the next few years become the icons of business in the country. Other companies were, however, altogether grounded and the carcasses chopped up and shared.

The obituary list of these long-dead state companies includes the Uganda Airlines, Nytil, Uganda Grain Milling, Uganda Development Bank, Uganda Commercial Bank, Cooperative Bank, Dunlop East Africa, Coffee Marketing Board, Uganda Railways Corporation, to mention a few.

The Omongole report of the Sixth Parliament (MP Tom Aisu Omongole chaired the sessional committee investigating privatization) gave perhaps the most graphic details of the robbery that took place in the so-called Public Enterprises Reform and Divestiture (PERD) process with the country even incurring debts to sell off its assets!

In all, there were no net earnings from the sale of the several enterprises save the phantom image President Yoweri Museveni ably sold to Ugandans that the real earning was in the savings the country made by stopping subsidies to loss-making public corporations.

Indeed, many Ugandans firmly stood behind Museveni and his government even when many voices pointed to the various anomalies that were taking place. Some of the key officials and regime functionaries involved in the privatization 'robbery' still straddle the public space and have cleansed themselves enough to begin speaking out in public and telling their well-choreographed rags-to-riches stories embellished with lies.

Having gotten away with daylight robbery in the privatization process, the NRM government functionaries would in the intervening years become even more emboldened in stealing from Ugandans.

Some of the infamous corruption scandals that define the early NRM years include the NSSF-Alcon Workers' House construction project that the vampires will not let go yet, the junk helicopter purchase scandal, the Capt Dan Byakutaga incident in which the UPDF paymaster disappeared with Shs 6bn in several months' salaries for thousands of soldiers then deployed in DR Congo, to mention a few.

At that time, however, we were still dealing with what someone recently described as "retail" corruption - that is theft in millions of shillings. As usual, many Ugandans continued to trust the 'Nyarwino' (big red ant) as President Museveni once described himself to eventually bite the corrupt real hard. Nothing happened, either because the big red ant was unable to see the little things on the ground, or - as he said - there was no evidence!

Then enter Chogm in 2007, Temangalo in 2008 and the recently revealed OPM-Kazinda fraud, theft of public servants' pensions, etc, and we are now in new territory - 'wholesale' corruption where billions of shillings are stolen in one swoop, and the act is repeated several times over!

The trail that started with Godffrey Kazinda, then chief accountant in the Prime Minister's office, is now a maze, winding and twisting to and from the doorsteps of people many Ugandans have been at pains to trust, or have been made to 'trust', prompting several donors to cut aid.

Many Ugandans, however, continue to believe in Museveni and his government's promises of fighting corruption. So, who is fooling who here? Even when the corruption trail is rotating around some of the president's closest political allies, Ugandans are still falling short of calling for the president and the government to resign in public interest or join forces with activists to force it out through civil disobedience.

Hopefully, the proactive approach of civil society and the public - at least in Kampala - this week following the bungled debate on the Oil bill will be sustained and widened to bring pressure on the regime.

The author is a political and social critic. He is a former editor of Sunday Monitor and The Independent.

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