How Uganda became a land of thieves

The NRM government which is led by a religious president with a religious first lady must be embarrassed for presiding over a country whose citizens have largely become perpetual thieves. Everywhere you turn you read or hear stories about theft – of money and property and increasingly of children. People are no longer ashamed to be caught or accused of stealing. It has become normal to steal. There are those who steal because they are too poor to make ends meet and those who are already rich but steal to become filthy rich.

When we were growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s all religious faiths preached against stealing. If you found money, handkerchief, etc, etc, you took it to the nearest Protestant or Catholic priest so the item could be returned to the owner. On Sundays there would be announcements of the lost and found items. Those who found them would be praised. As a result, employees, housemaids, gardeners etc would not steal from their employers. Those who still managed to steal would be denounced in public and punished. This served as warning to potential thieves. At school, thieves would be called names and teased by fellow students until they left the school. Some thieves would confess and be forgiven.  Priests, church wardens and teachers never stole church money or school fees. They served as role models. These early exposures prepared many people from stealing in their adult life. Unfortunately, when economic hard times set in caused by political instability and economic decline, and corruption, stealing crept in and started to gather speed. 

When NRM government came to power, it was christened ‘Mr. Clean’. Soldiers on roadblocks would not take anything from travelers, which was a major welcome departure from previous practices. As time passed, soldiers began to ask gently for a cigarette, next it was ‘chai’ or a little money to buy a cup of tea, then came cash demands openly sometimes specifying the minimum before they let you drive on. Next were stories that some officials or their relatives were stealing public money and banking it abroad. Some people in key positions and their families began to live way beyond their means (dressing very well, building big houses, purchasing huge chunks of land, driving expensive 4×4 (SUV) vehicles, etc) implying that they had extra sources of income. The concept of relative poverty (I have a small car and my neighbor of the same rank in the public service has a big one) as opposed to absolute poverty (I cannot meet basic needs of food, clothing and shelter) became more common. Some officers began to extend their hands into public coffers for private gain. Cases of public money missing began to appear in the media, with no commensurate investigation or punishment. Only a general condemnation would be made of the creeping thieving malaise which would not be tolerated in the movement government. Lower rank officials began to emulate their bosses and stealing spread from the public to the private domain. Domestic workers and employees in the private sector began to steal from their employers leading to a public outcry. Some ministers were censured by parliament and some resigned but were later returned as ministers in more powerful or strategic positions than before. They never returned what they had stolen.

In this tolerant environment stealing got worse with each passing year leading to the Global and Commonwealth funds scandals among others. Donors demanded corrective action as a condition for continued donor assistance.  Commissions of inquiry took place and detailed reports were written with corrective recommendations but no major action took place.  To date, donations continue to flow into Uganda as if nothing happened.  Stealing too has continued unabated and arrest of junior and imprisonment of a few officers has only led to public cynicism.

NRM government’s failure to arrest and prosecute the big thieves who continue to wield immense influence at central and district levels, coupled with the continued flow of donor funds have sent a wrong message to the public. Lectures about good governance including transparency and accountability of public officials are losing meaning quickly. Consequently, stealing has spread to all sections of Uganda and is seen as the norm, a sad and regrettable development which if not checked will keep Uganda unstable, troubled and underdeveloped.