(Photo Credit: Halima Athumani/VOA News)
As 2019 drew to a close Uganda attracted attention for its walk against corruption when President Yoweri Museveni led thousands of citizens in a march against corruption through the streets of Kampala.
The President described the corrupt as “parasites” and spoke of the need to develop the economy in addressing corruption “so that our people do not have a material basis for acute need, which forces them to be corrupt.” He appeared to take ownership of the initiative, while lawmakers and judges renewed their public vows to be honest and refuse bribes.
However, there are many who have questioned the sincerity of President Museveni’s commitment in light of the fact that after more than 30 years in power corruption remains one of the key challenges facing the country.
As Nickson Ogwal, the director of programs and policy at Action Aid International Uganda, put it, “He is the chief law enforcement officer of Uganda… He’s therefore the one [to] whom the citizens are supposed to walk and show and demonstrate that they are angry about corruption. Now, to whom is he angry? So, we really think that he is playing politics.”
Popular musician turned politician Bobi Wine has gone further and described President Museveni as “the godfather of corruption.”
Opposition leader Kizza Besigye had announced plans to march against corruption. However, the Forum for Democratic Change claimed he was arrested on his way into Kampala. The banning of the opposition from the event was just one sign that all is not well and has lent credence to those who have accused the government of politicizing the fight against corruption.
The State of Corruption in Uganda
Uganda is ranked a dismal 149 out of 180 on Transparency International’s Corruption Index.
There have been several attempts to quantify the cost of corruption to the country. A 2015 parliamentary report estimated that Uganda had lost around $6.5 billion dollars to corruption since 2005. A report by Global Integrity report estimated that more than half of the government's annual budget is lost to corruption each year. These figures help explain why despite its wealth of natural resources including gold, tin and phosphate, 15.8 million Ugandans live in extreme poverty.
Scandals are never far from the headlines. For example, in 2018 a former Hong Kong government official was convicted by a US court for a multi-million dollar bribery scheme that saw $500,000 paid to an account designated by Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa. In 2012 donor government temporarily suspended aid following allegations that $12.7 million in funds had been embezzled from the Office of the Prime Minister.
Efforts to Fight Corruption
Since President Museveni came to office in 1986 there have been a number of organisations and individuals appointed to tackle the problem, including the anti-corruption unit at State House.
While some convictions have been secured over the years, these appear to have been limited with concern that under President Museveni countless companies, middlemen and politicians are protected.
In 2018, the then-Inspector General of Government Irene Mulyagonja said most corrupt government officials were "hiding behind" the back of President Museveni and using their connections with the Head of State to evade justice.
Hope for 2020
While President Museveni continues to talk big on fighting corruption, citizens are increasingly turning to social media and other forums to hold him to account. A recent Tweet by the President on the occasion of the march prompted several users to respond to hijack his thread listing some of the enabling factors for continued corruption in the country.
President Museveni has publicly committed to fighting corruption in 2020. However, many remain sceptical. Commenting on the latest pledge to tackle the scourge Ugandan deputy speaker of parliament Jacob Oulanyah has been quoted as stating “It’s a public show for nothing. I come because it’s a public show, but deep down I know. We are going right back to practice the same damn corruption that we claim to fight.”
Cleaning up corruption in Uganda is a task that requires more than a march or two.