19 December 2012

Uganda: Is Theft Inherent in Genes?


THERE is a public outcry about the theft of our money by government employees.

Flabbergasted anti-corruption activists have, in desperation, called for a language shift away from sanitised terms such as corruption and graft, to a stronger language such as 'thieves', 'stealing', etc.

It seems that in today's Uganda, wherever there is money, there is a thief waiting to pounce on it. There are big thieves (grand corruption) and small thieves (petty corruption).

The new Inspector General of Government, Irene Mulyagonja is reported to have said that "corruption (read theft) is not blue, red or yellow. You may continue to see the same situation even if you change colours (read government)". (New Vision, December 5).

True, some theft has rightly been attributed to political sanction, to raise funds for political activities, such as funding the elections of some political actors.

However, Mulyagonja's comment, which implies that theft has no political boundaries, begs the question, "where does the inclination to steal come from"?

Aren't we born with it? To answer this question conclusively and scientifically, we would need an inter-generational study to find out whether there is a strong correlation between parents or grandparents who had stealing tendencies and the thieving habits of their offspring.

Of course some steal because it is easy to and others because of desperation. For example, when you loan yourself money put in your care, with the genuine intention to refund it but find yourself in a situation where you simply can't refund because it has become too much, you are forced to do disguised accountability.

Likewise, one can steal as a last resort when that is the only course of action standing between you and disaster. For example, a woman who steals bread and milk for her starving children should not be equated to a woman who steals lipstick.

However, the kind of theft we are confronted with in present day Uganda is not driven by need but is inherent in one's make up and insatiable greed.

One of the most disturbing developments of recent is the level of sophistication associated with the theft - it is well planned evidently by very well trained people - people who engineer grand theft spend sleepless nights figuring out how to break codes or forge signatures in a way that makes it impossible to detect them before billions have been siphoned away.

Such engineers will not stop at doing it once. It becomes a habit. For habitual thieves, the fear of being caught and going to jail is not a sufficient enough deterrent.

They will go through all this and return to steal as soon as they have done their time. Habitual thieves are almost of the same ilk as suicide bombers.

They are fully committed to their cause - if stealing can qualify to be called a cause. Of course there are people who become thieves through recruitment or blackmail by others.

But if they are not born thieves, sooner or later, such people will opt out, confess or even testify against their colleagues, irrespective of the consequences of such a 'betrayal' of their partners in crime.

Born-thieves start stealing at a very early age and the urge to steal leads them to steal almost anything they lay their hands on.

An old man in Kabale stole an alarm clock; hid it in his overcoat and sat comfortably awaiting to leave after he has had lunch. As soon as it was lunch time the alarm went off as the old man fidgeted to stop it.

Upon this the family head says to the culprit, "Since it has refused, please put it back in its original place".

When some tracing was done, it was discovered that among his grandchildren there was a tendency to appropriate what does not belong to them.

Though it was suppressed in modified behaviour, such as strict discipline or religion, the urge remains inert but never gone and one day will it surface with vengeance.

As the Bakiga say, "Akaze kararanda" - born habits creep across generations. At this rate of thieving, however controversial, for certain positions, inter-generational background checks may be called for to supplement policy, institutional and legal safeguards.

The writer is an economist and development consultant. 

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