News and Views

Culture mired in corruption slowly yields to forces of fragile democracy

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As the car trundles along the rocky, dusty roads of Kampala, the hourly news bulletin crackles through the radio, delivering the latest update on the Ugandan donor crisis.

“This is what happens in Uganda. A big scandal breaks, a big fire flares up, then they produce a report, and nothing happens,” muses the 24-year-old driver as he looks out across this sprawling, dynamic city.

The misappropriation of €12 million in foreign aid unveiled by Uganda’s auditor general has been front-page news here since the scandal broke two weeks ago. Thanks in part to the country’s relatively free, and surprisingly strident, press, the issue has engaged Ugandans – and not just in the capital.

In the country’s rural villages, the issue is avidly discussed. For most it is just the latest in a series of government scandals that has beset a country which has finally emerged from decades of civil war and instability.

Newspaper reports on the latest “donor crisis” sit alongside articles on corrupt school officials and the latest update on a recent “ghost pensioners” scandal, which saw millions in public funds paid to fictitious pensioners.

But while corruption stubbornly persists , the former British colony, which marks 50 years of independence this year, has taken steps towards modernisation. More than 30 years since the end of Idi Amin’s reign, Uganda has an active, multiparty parliament.

Though democracy is fragile – the results of last year’s election were widely disputed – the very act of voting is viewed by many as empowering. Fierce public criticism of the government also adds to a sense that accountability is important, if not always enforceable.

The arrest of the opposition leader last month and the banning of an anti-government play illustrate how the repressive power of government can be deployed when needed.

While Uganda’s notoriously draconian attitude to homosexuality is still a major concern for many in the international community, in other spheres the east African country has progressed.

Power of learning

Education is a major priority area. The country’s rural roads are dotted with groups of uniformed children bound for school, even if many of those schools are understaffed and overcrowded.

Numerous universities have led to the emergence of an educated generation, though many complain of the lack of white-collar jobs in a country whose primary industry is still agriculture.

Moves to combat corruption have been initiated, including greater use of IT and e-portals for citizens’ interaction with government agencies – minimising personal contact between officials and citizens has been identified as a key way of reducing corruption.

The disparity between the country’s relatively developed technology infrastructure and the abysmal state of its roads is one of the contradictions of the east African nation.

The economic potential of oil is perceived as a key tool in Uganda’s fight against poverty, as the country works out how to handle foreign private sector involvement in the sector by companies including Tullow Oil.

With Uganda keen not to repeat Nigeria’s mistakes, an oil policy is inching through parliament, with debate currently focusing on whether the country should build a refinery which would avoid all crude oil being shifted out of the country.

Foreign assistance

Underpinning all this is, of course, foreign aid. Uganda was the second-largest recipient of Irish Aid funding last year after Mozambique, getting €33 million of Irish money distributed both directly to government and through NGOs and other agencies.

The response to Irish Aid’s decision to suspend funding to the country has been mixed. While Ireland was praised for being first off the mark for ceasing aid payments following the scandal, some have asked why we persisted in funding a government with a track record of corruption.

A recent comment piece in the influential Daily Monitor newspaper, for example, points out: “The Irish Embassy in Kampala has a political and media section. Every single day of the year from January 1st to December 31st, Uganda’s newspapers publish reports and news on corruption, nepotism, and embezzling of public funds.”

Domestic political pressure on president Yoweri Museveni looks set to continue, with more details expected to emerge when the auditor general’s report goes to parliament next week. A separate criminal investigation may also deliver results in the coming weeks – a relatively short time by Irish standards.

The country’s Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Directorate has already made arrests over the pensions scandal.

Museveni has stayed relatively silent on the donor aid controversy.

Politicians are furious the passing of a resolution last week to interdict the permanent secretary of the office of the prime minister has been ignored. A number of deputies have also questioned the government’s decision to repay the money at this point, arguing the people who received the diverted funds, and not the Ugandan taxpayer, should foot the bill.

As the controversy plays out over the coming weeks, the main outcome may be an examination of how Ireland’s foreign aid is dispersed.

The wisdom of channelling aid through governments has been called into question .

A significant proportion of Ireland’s foreign aid to Uganda is already distributed through NGOs such as Goal and Trócaire, as well as organisations which are trying to foster business development and economic growth in the country. Irish organisation Traidlinks is one such body working with businesses to develop private-sector activity in the country.

Trade versus aid

There has also been a noticeable policy shift in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in the last few years towards a strategy of “trade” versus “aid , underlined by the decision to rename the department to include “trade”.

Minster for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore has strongly advocated economic ties between Ireland and Africa, particularly as Africa emerges as a significant economic power.

The need for a shift in the balance towards trade rather than aid is captured by Julian Omalia, a vivacious Ugandan entrepreneur, who employs 500 people in her fruit juice business.

Explaining how she recently bought 1,000 acres of agricultural land in the lush north, the site of the recent Koni wars, she described local workers . “At first they didn’t want to work. They were used to being given free things. I had to tell them, ‘No, you have to work for the money!’” She smiles: “It’s about changing the attitude.”

-* Suzanne Lynch travelled to Uganda with the support of the Simon Cumbers Media Fund


Population: 38.4 million

Capital : Kampala

Government : Restricted democracy . Vice-president and prime minister appointed by president.

President : Yoweri Museveni.

GDP (Purchasing Power Parity): $46.368 billion (2011 estimate); equivalent to $1,317 per capita.

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