As they say one swallow does not make summer. Similarly dismissing a couple of ministers won’t end corruption in Uganda. The problem needs a surgical operation and it can’t wait. This is the kind of situation, an emergency, where there is no room for patience. When the house is on fire, as Uganda is, you need to move fast but use the right tools. Fighting fire with fire as some Ugandans are fond of reasoning could make matters worse. To uproot corruption, we need to define it more broadly and understand the link between it and the decadence in Uganda. Proper understanding of the impact of corruption has been undermined by focusing on factors of secondary importance such as lack of resources, skilled personnel, contraception facilities, long distance from the Indian Ocean, etc.
Corruption goes beyond merely taking public money for private use. It includes using public money to corrupt officials to take or ignore certain actions that are harmful to the economy and society. It means relying on relatives or ‘yes’ men and women who will not point a finger at a problem when they see it. So dealing with corruption needs a comprehensive framework. Many Uganda elites have tolerated corruption because they see it as the quickest way to accumulate wealth. Instead of fighting it they scramble to be part of it. But they forget that they are creating serious problems down the road that will affect them directly or indirectly. For example when they fall sick, they do not get good healthcare because the money to buy medicine disappeared into private pockets. Or when their wives go to the clinic to deliver, there is no midwife or doctor because they were not paid and left the profession or the country or they charge a fee that may be too high. Some are even defending corruption as an integral part of rapid economic development. Yet others are arguing that corruption is universal but two wrongs do not make a right. We need to have a long term view of how corruption is destroying Uganda and take appropriate corrective measures.
In Uganda corruption has become endemic and institutionalized making it the number one deterrent to economic and social development. Public money and much of it donations for development has not only disappeared into private pockets or used to bribe officials and opinion leaders but also most of it has found its way in foreign banks – back to where it came from. With a few illustrations, let us trace how corruption is accelerating decadence in the once “Pearl of Africa”.
The disappearance of funds for recurrent expenses including salaries and capital development has led to two immediate outcomes: massive brain drain and shortage of funds for investment in or maintenance of infrastructure such as roads and energy and institutions such as research and extension. Thus, Uganda’s acute shortage of funds and qualified and experienced personnel is mostly a function of corruption. In turn the shortage of funds and trained manpower has led to reduction in design and investment in capital and social infrastructure. Reduced investments in infrastructure such as roads and energy; schools and clinics or maintenance of existing infrastructure and institutions have discouraged private investment which NRM government had counted on as the engine of growth and job creation. Lack of adequate employment opportunities in the public and private sectors has resulted in massive unemployment and disguised unemployment (under-employment) especially among the youth to the tune of over 80 percent. The unemployed and underemployed have no purchasing power to induce production of goods and services. The reduction in the production of goods and services is reflected in reduced GDP growth rate from 10 percent in the mid-1990s to around five percent currently. Lack of jobs and income has aggravated absolute poverty which stands at over 50 percent. To make ends meet, the unemployed and poverty-stricken have resorted to criminal activities and a breakdown of morality. Insecurity is up, witness high walls in urban residential areas and unprotected sex workers are getting and spreading disease. The youth are dropping out of school and getting married in their teens and having many children they cannot afford and have no money for contraception. Population growth is getting out of control because poor people produce more children than rich ones. Because the poor cannot afford electricity they are resorting to charcoal and deforestation has followed with adverse impact on temperature and rain patterns as well as soil erosion. Exposed soils are losing fertility through wind and water erosion, temperatures are rising, rivers are drying up, lakes are shrinking, water tables are dropping and Uganda is turning into a desert (the Sahara was once covered in thick forests with abundant water bodies). A UN agency has already warned that Uganda could turn into a desert within 100 years if corrective measures are not instituted without delay. Finally corruption may have reduced funds needed to hire adequate border patrols, resulting in uncontrolled illegal immigrants that are already causing trouble.
Through these illustrations you can see how corruption is strangling Uganda. You therefore cannot end it by merely forcing a few ministers out of office. Fingers are pointing in all directions, implying that the entire NRM system is corrupt. Those who continue to praise and defend NRM government have no basis for doing so unless they are using hidden criteria. NRM is corrupt to its neck. The obvious solution is to uproot the NRM system that has caused too much suffering. Since much of Uganda’s revenue comes from foreign donations, we appeal to the donors to recast their policies significantly reducing money going directly to the government in the first instance. The argument that reducing donations will hurt the poor is not convincing because the money through government never gets to them anyway – directly or indirectly. And that is why despite massive donations absolute poverty has remained unacceptably high: over 50 percent. Through corruption, much donor money has gone to a few rich families skewing income distribution, the rest has been squandered through mismanagement due to hiring relatives who are not qualified much less experienced. In circumstances like these anything is possible including a breeding ground for all sorts of evils. And guns, torture chambers, air force, military, police, intelligence and prisons won’t solve the problem. NRM is largely responsible but has no will or capacity to reverse course. Someone else with clean hands will have to do it. Ongoing peaceful and legitimate demonstrations are part of that solution. This is a democratic process which the government should not frustrate through intimidation, arrest and shooting peaceful demonstrators. To succeed, development partners will need to extend a helping hand to those seeking a peaceful resolution of Uganda’s current political, economic, social and ecological challenges.