Fighting corruption is a major campaign issue this election year, and both the ruling party and opposition are playing up their capacity to run a clean government.
Opposition leaders have for long hammered away at NRM’s poor record on fighting corruption and many voters appear to have paid attention this time round.
But the NRM maintains that it is in a better position to fight corruption than any other political party. The ruling party points at having over the years ended the more ‘overt’ forms of corruption such as extortion at road blocks, looting of personal property by armed security personnel, supply of ‘air’, and poaching in national parks.
The NRM candidate, Yoweri Museveni, is promising to deliver the last blow on corruption once reelected. Being incumbent comes with many privileges for Museveni, but it also has its baggage - his achievements, just as his failures, are there for all voters to see and decide.
Museveni promises in his 2011- 2016 reelection manifesto that the NRM will in the next five years “vigorously implement its zero-tolerance policy on corruption.”
He also promises to strengthen the investigative and prosecution capacity of the country’s anti-corruption agencies to handle new and more sophisticated forms of corruption such as cybercrime, as well as mobilise the public to participate in the fight against corruption using laws like the Whistleblowers Act and Access to Information Act.
Museveni also promises to support anti-corruption agencies to carry out value-for-money audits and to enact a law that allows individuals to initiate civil suits to recover stolen money for and on behalf of the government. Such people would get some monetary compensation after successful suits.
The President also promises to constitute a committee to investigate political leaders and senior public officers named in corruption scandals. And if the committee prefers further investigations by institutions like the IGG, then he would grant their request and ask the person(s) under investigation to step aside until they are cleared.
But not everyone is blown away by these promises. Critics argue that Museveni doesn’t need a law to tell officials named in corruption cases to step aside pending an investigation. Others see the promise of a law allowing private individuals to sue and recover stolen money as an admission that the state has failed to fight graft.
Cissy Kagaba, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda, says President Museveni and NRM can no longer be trusted to fight corruption which was part of the initial 10-point programme.
“Their (NRM) word has been tested and there are many precedents to show that it has failed,” she said.
She points at the findings of commissions of inquiry and corruption indexes that show unabated corruption. The 2010 East African Bribery Index report by Transparency International released recently ranked Uganda as the second most corrupt country in the East African Community after Burundi. Uganda was said to be followed by Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, in that order.
A recent Transparency International report ranking the world’s most corrupt countries shows that Uganda’s corruption rating improved from 130th to 127th among 178 countries sampled. This ‘improvement’ could, however, be because of the worsening corruption in other countries rather than improvements in Uganda.
According to a 2005 World Bank report, Uganda loses about $300m (Shs 510b) annually through corruption and procurement malpractices.
The 2009 Global Barometer report also ranked Uganda among countries most affected by petty bribery. Others listed were Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Cameroon, Iraq, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
He may be well intentioned, but Kagaba says President Museveni’s proposal to create a new committee to investigate political leaders and senior public officials named in graft shows that he has lost faith in the existing institutions.
“Why form another institution when there are existing ones? We don’t need more laws (or institutions), we need implementation,” she said, describing the proposal as a campaign gimmick.
“They have nothing more useful to promise.”
She doesn’t fault only NRM for the escalating corruption levels but institutions like the church too. Instead of rebuking politicians named in corruption scandals, she says, church leaders, “idolize, give them front seats and allow them to address their congregations.”
Can opposition be trusted?But does NRM’s failure to fight graft mean that the opposition can be trusted when it says it will fight corruption? This depends on who you talk to.
“I can’t say we can trust them, but let us give them an opportunity. We can’t judge them before they are in power,” says Kagaba.
To her, some opposition politicians could well be clean. She points out, for instance, that if people like Jaberi Bidandi Ssali, Dr Kizza Besigye and former Army Commander, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, had been corrupt while in government, the state would long have exposed their dealings to undermine them politically.
While he is not sure that the opposition can effectively end graft, Godber Tumushabe, the executive director of ACODE Uganda, says any change that removes President Museveni from power would herald hope in the fight against the vice.
Tumushabe notes that NRM can no-longer fight corruption because it is part of the regime’s survival and longevity strategy.
“It cannot fight corruption unless it abandons its strategy to stay in power,” he argues.
Tumushabe explains that during the NRM’s 24 years in charge, thieving channels have been deeply entrenched and can only be dismantled through a regime change.
Yet for Dr Josephine Ahikire, a senior lecturer in Makerere University’s Department of Women and Gender Studies and board member of the National NGO Forum, fighting corruption has nothing to do with regime change. She says it simply requires strong institutions.
“Most people trust individuals, me I don’t trust anybody,” she says.
While she admits NRM has failed to empower institutional frameworks to fight corruption, she says neither has the opposition demonstrated that ability.
With no hope in both the opposition and NRM, her hope is in “an active citizenry who are ready to demand accountability.”
She admits that the NGO world has not done enough to mobilize citizens for the anti-graft effort. She, however, attributes this to the legal framework regulating NGOs, which makes it hard for them to mobilise the populace without appearing to be partisan.
Although few people are willing to give credit to NRM’s fight against graft, its manifesto highlights the party’s achievements since 1986. It cites elimination of “the more overt forms of corruption and criminality; i.e. air supply, extortion on road blocks, etc” and the establishment of anti-corruption agencies like IGG, the Auditor General, DPP and parliament oversight committees like PAC.
Others include the strengthening of the legal framework for fighting corruption through enacting laws like the Leadership Code Act 2002, the Inspectorate of Government Act 2002, Access to Information Act 2005, the Anti-Corruption Act 2009, and the Whistleblowers Protection Act 2010.
The manifesto also cites Uganda’s ratification of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and the African Union Convention for Preventing and Combating Corruption.
However, political watchers say much as these make a good anti-graft framework, it has largely remained on paper. The President has also been accused of weakening the very laws championed by his government.
For instance, in 2003 he swore an affidavit in support of his advisor on Political Affairs, Maj Kakooza Mutale, who was challenging provisions of the Leadership Code.
The NRM indeed admits to challenges in fighting corruption, citing weaknesses in the investigation and prosecution capacity.
Same old promisesYet a keen look at the Museveni manifesto shows his promises are not much different from those he made in previous elections.
In the 2006 NRM election manifesto, President Museveni again praised his government for having eliminated “overt” forms of corruption like extortion at road blocks, looting of personal property by army personnel and armed security personnel, open bribery, supply of air, embezzlement, over invoicing and poaching in national parks.
He promised a zero tolerance policy and intensification of legal and structural approaches in fighting graft. Others were a policy of cadre identification, cadre development and cadre placement on account of their education and integrity.
Earlier in 1996, Museveni had again listed ending extra-judicial killings, magendo business (hoarding) and smuggling as some of his achievements in fighting corruption. He then promised to fight the remaining forms of corruption through investigation, prosecution, adjudication and accounting officers and administrators ensuring that the money is not stolen.
Critics, therefore, find Museveni’s delivery on his promises wanting. Some point out that the few times he has attempted to move on corruption, he has targeted “small fish”.
The President often attacks health workers who steal drugs from health centres, primary school teachers, sub-county NAADS officials, ignoring the “big fish” like his ministers implicated in the misuse of CHOGM funds, Temangalo and GAVI scandals. To the contrary, the President has often appeared to be protecting them.
Justice John Bosco Katutsi of the Anti-Corruption Court is on record for saying he’s tired of trying only small fish.
His court recently convicted Eng. Samson Bagonza, the former chief engineer in the ministry of Works and Transport, making him the first government official to be tried for CHOGM related impropriety.
Earlier, Justice Katutsi convicted the former Director of Economic Monitoring in the President’s Office, Teddy Ssezi Cheeye, who is serving a 10-year jail term for misusing the Global Funds. Others convicted by the court in the recent past are Fred Kavuma. Annaliza Mondon and Elizabeth Ngororano are out on bail pending their trial.
These court decisions have done nothing to allay the criticism that “small fish” are being targeted while more prominent transgressors enjoy impunity.