Uganda’s Endemic Corruption: Why We Are all Guilty


President Museveni hands a sack full of sh250m notes ($100,000) to leader of a youth group in Eastern Uganda in 2013

Today I wanted to share with you my recent reflection on corruption and why it’s a problem we are all responsible for, whether personally guilty of it or not.

It would sound remarkably unbelievable to a foreigner that here in uganda, workers who don’t exist (now colloquially known in Ugandan speak as ‘ghosts’) get paid huge amounts of money, that an investor will be asked for a cash down payment of 1million dollars before entering any haggle to be given an investment opportunity, and that health personnel will steal hospital medicines to sell in their private clinics. Now that it is election season, it is crunch time. Both for petty as well as grand corruption.

Not a day goes by without one seeing headlines about an official bucking the system to steal billions of shillings, another one falsifying a payroll to create ghosts and pay himself and members of his/her ring billions. Another will be manipulating the procurement system to award himself billions worth of tenders, or getting illegal commissions for ‘winning’ the bid for a certain contender. The Auditor general recently reported that the Entebbe Express highway was inflated four times it’s ideal cost.

However, these are only ‘big’ scandals we get to know about only because they are published in the media.

Every day on a personal, family, regional or district level, many instances of man’s selfish, greedy and cunning nature are on display. A voter somewhere in the village shamelessly trades his or her vote for sh500 worth of local brew, a child is sent for a kilo of sugar at a local shop and the change he brings is sh500 less of the real amount because he had to be ‘smart’ and get something for himself; a gateman asks sh200 ‘kitu kidogo’ to allow a visitor to enter a hospital’s gates, a manager at an NGO has branded receipt books to use to ‘account’ for the organisation’s funds, and a head teacher has an army of ‘ghost pupils’, so he can request for more UPE funds. A friend lamented to me recently that she can’t start a business to supplement her meagre office salary because “there is no one to trust” including among members of her own family! A blunt friend has always told me that almost ALL of us are guilty of corruption in one way or the other!

There are many facets of corruption in Uganda but the vice is reaching a pick of potentially tragic proportions to the point that worrying about it now is no longer enough. What is needed is despair by officials and citizens who have this country at heart. As in all situations, when despair sets in, people take desperate decisions to save the day, and I think that is what we need to address the cancer that has become corruption.

And the decision I would challenge every Ugandan to take is to start listening to his/her conscience.

The great theologian C S Lewis in his classic work “The case for Christianity” simply said this, in his reference to Conscience:  “Human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and can’t really get rid of it”

Lewis followed on his reflection, with his understanding of how difficult it is to follow one’s conscience, but how that never the less doesn’t nullify the importance of this personal natural endowment into the wholesomeness of man. In “Why I am not a pacifist”, Lewis said;

“How do we decide what is good or evil? The usual answer is that we decide by conscience. But probably no one thinks now of conscience as a separate faculty, like one of the senses. Indeed, it cannot be so thought of. For an autonomous faculty like a sense cannot be argued with; you cannot argue a man into seeing green if he sees blue…But even in this sense conscience still has two meanings. It can mean (a) the pressure a man feels upon his will to do what he thinks is right; (b) his judgment as to what the content of right and wrong are. …conscience is always to be followed. It is the sovereign of the universe, which “if it had power as it has right, would absolutely rule the world.” It is not to be argued with, but obeyed, and even to question it is to incur guilt…”

What should worry us more is that the corruption problem isn’t just a matter of poverty, greed, or any of the superficial ways in which some attempt to academically define it away. The problem has as much to do with the values that we have as individuals, as families, and, ultimately, as a country, as it does with the social problems that sociologists try to attribute it to. The values inculcated in a child when it’s born, and when it is brought up. What values do parents hold, and what do they ultimately pass onto their children?

If the moral conscience of a country is dead, then we are better off dead than alive. When you lose your conscience, you’ve technically lost your life. We need, as C S Lewis once again noted in one of his other writings, to embrace the “tyranny of our conscience”, because, when the conscience damns our actions as it always does before we do something wrong, we ought to listen and take heed.

Otherwise, so long as we continue to hold in the highest regard the rich whose wealth everyone knows is ill-gotten, so long as We continue to regard with contempt the people we think are ‘nobodies’ because they have retired with so little as they were so faithful and took only what is due to them from their jobs, we continue with the social trajectory that tells our kids that to steal is to be cool, and to get rich quick is the new fashionable life style.

President Museveni has rightly admitted that, after fighting (and winning) countless wars, his remaining greatest challenge is fighting corruption. He is right but I think we need not only look at the problem but also at the root cause. Yes, we must decisively punish corruption. But even if we punish corruption with death as it is done in China Taiwan and other “Asian Tigers”, this will only be a temporary measure that will not be sustainable. Capital punishment for murder has never completely stopped people from killing other people.

What every Ugandan needs to do is serious soul-searching and reflection; knowing that ill-gotten wealth is the very opposite of meaningful living, that corruption itself is a dead end, and that values of hard work, honesty and faithfulness, and the ultimate contentment with one’s possessions is the only God given purpose for meaningful living.

Why, in the world would someone think that stealing is now the new normal, the right course of action? It’s because of the culture of the impression we have created by our absurd acceptance of wrong as right and right as wrong. That a youth who, by virtue of ‘right’ contacts has it all by the age 26 is only being “sharp”, that a political thug who steals her way to an election victory “schooled” her opponents.

This is not only sad but will have unprecedented impact on the future of this country. If dad is a thief and everyone, including the newspapers, says he is, wouldn’t the son or daughter feel ashamed that he should be a child to such a parent?

Instead our kids have also lost their innocence. They are now being overtly and covertly indoctrinated into the absurdity. Nursery kids who want to vie for leadership positions in kindergarten have to ask dad for the money to buy sweets for the ‘voters’! Where is this country headed, really?

We have a huge challenge on our hands. To reverse this mentality is going to be a long and hard slog in which we must step up to fight for the very soul of our country. To start being the families that we are supposed to be by teaching the values of hard work and the folly of cheating and unrighteousness. That way, children will grow with the full knowledge that lying, cheating, stealing, etc, are bad behaviours, unjustifiable under any circumstances. Then these children will grow into responsible adults with disdain for ill-gotten wealth, and will refuse to be partakers in the vice, and in the end, our nation will be reborn.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s