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If you are Ugandan and poor, research shows you are affected by corruption more than the rich

A survey by Afrobarometer found that 80% of poor Ugandans have to pay a bribe to the police to obtain assistance; 50% of the poor pay a bribe to access medical services in public facilities

Beti Kamya, the new Inspector General of Government (IGG), took up her office with gusto, making all the right noises. In the three months she has been in office, she has already threatened to clean up the office of the Inspectorate of Government itself and caused the interdiction of Ms Beatrice Byenkya, the chairperson of the Uganda Land Commission, among other activities and pronouncements.
And as fate would have it, she had a very early public meeting with the appointing authority – President Museveni – on the occasion of the World Anti-corruption Day on December 9. As the head of the body that is constitutionally mandated to lead the fight against corruption, Kamya moved to set the tone during the function held at Kololo Airstrip in Kampala.

Kamya said: “The face of corruption, your excellency and our honoured guests, is that lifestyle which is not commensurate with a person’s legitimate source of income – that expensive car, that mansion, those family holidays abroad, those expensive schools abroad where you take your children – which are not commensurate with your salary or your legitimate sources of income.”

Museveni listened to her intently, seeming to close his eyes to process the statements of his latest appointment to the esteemed office of the government’s ombudsman. Kamya, having painted ‘the face of corruption’ in vivid detail, informed the gathering that she would proceed to institute lifestyle audits, to require top public officials to explain their suspicious possessions.

When his turn came, Museveni cleared his throat and said: “Now, the lifestyle audit is good, but be careful, because we are still lucky that our corrupt people are corrupt here. They steal the money, they put it there, you see a five-star hotel, from corruption. Now if you concentrate on the lifestyle then they will take the money out [abroad] and you will have no evidence, and it will be another struggle.”

Museveni was invoking a familiar argument here. After the 2011 elections, as the Uganda Revenue Authority was looking to raise more revenue, someone came up with what they thought was a smart idea.

In light of the real estate boom, with pervasive multi-million investments in land and property acquisitions, a proposal was made that whoever acquired property worth Shs50m or more would, in the process of registering the property, be required to produce proof that they had paid tax when they earned that money. If no such proof was available, the buyer would then be required to pay income tax on the money spent on buying the property before the ownership transfer would be effected.

In that case, someone who steals public money and uses it to buy property would at least be forced to surrender 30% of it in income tax.

The proposal provoked an uproar from different sources. Andrew Mwenda, the proprietor of the Independent Magazine who spiritedly argues that concentrating single-mindedly on the fight against corruption in a poor country like Uganda is to miss the point, penned a passionately argued rebuke of the proposal, reasoning that public officials who had stolen sacks of money from the government would sneak it out of the country to invest in neighbouring countries which had no similar laws. This, he argued, would touch off an episode of capital flight that would badly damage Uganda’s economy.

It is not clear if Museveni needed any persuading to buy into that reasoning then, but his decision to throw political correctness to the wind and say it aloud to a shell-shocked audience at Kololo Airstrip during a televised function last month says it all about how convinced he is about the argument.

Museveni, now in charge of Uganda for nearly 36 years, had fighting corruption written into his Bush War manifesto – the Ten-Point Programme – as point number four. He has included a promise to stamp out corruption in public offices in all his election manifestoes since 1996.

In addition, the president has in the past held a walk against corruption and made all sorts of pronouncements, including proclaiming his last term as ‘kisanja hakuna mchezo’ (the term for no jokes), one in which he would stamp out corruption and make the government efficient.

During this term, Museveni has made some appointments which have been read by some as a move to fight against corruption. But the same president has made some hair-raising moves too. For instance, he has appointed Ms Alice Kaboyo, a former assistant in his office who pleaded guilty to corruption years ago, as the state minister for Luweero Triangle.

Ms Kaboyo paid a fine and refunded the money she had stolen, but the members of the Appointments Committee of Parliament still felt she was unfit for appointment as a minister because of her earlier conviction. The president returned her name to the committee for re-consideration, and she was confirmed as a minister on the second attempt.

Things just got murkier

Whereas the IGG has the constitutional mandate, the holders of the office have in recent years had their powers and responsibilities distorted by the president creating an anti-corruption unit in his office. The unit, which has been led by Col Judith Nakalema for years, has appeared more resourced and thrown about its undefined powers in dizzying fashion, arresting an official here or there and shaking up things in another corner.

As Kamya sought to establish her authority as the IGG, Col Nakalema was also keen to throw about her weight, doing a round across the big media houses in town to explain what her unit had accomplished and intended to accomplish.

On the occasion to mark the global anti-corruption day on December 9, Col. Nakalema’s anti-corruption unit sent out the following text message to random mobile phones: “Corruption is a crippling disease, choose not to be corrupt. To report any acts of corruption, call 0800202500 free of charge.”

That seemed like a reminder of the tuff fight that silently played out between Col. Nakalema’s unit and the Inspectorate of Government over the years.

But as the year 2021 drew to a close, it was announced that the president had sent Col. Nakalema to attend a year-long military course. It was not immediately clear whether the unit she has been heading will continue, or the president will use the opportunity to re-energise the Inspectorate of Government and let IGG Kamya lead the anti-corruption without ambiguity.

Measuring corruption

Afrobarometer, a survey research project that measures citizen attitudes on democracy and related issues and has operated across dozens of African countries since 1999, did a survey in 2019 and asked Ugandans about their experiences with corruption.
The survey used the latest census data to randomly select a nationally representative sample of 1,200, with a margin of  error of +/-3.

Out of the respondents interviewed, 75% said they paid a bribe to obtain police assistance, while 53% said they paid a bribe to avoid problems with the police. Others said they paid bribes to obtain medical care in public facilities (42%), get identity documents (40%) or school services (26%).

To obtain these responses, Afrobarometer put the following question to respondents who said they had had contact with key public services: “How often, if ever, did you have to pay a bribe, give a gift, or do a favour [to obtain the needed services]?”

The data gets more interesting when you consider the economic status of those who say they paid bribes.

Eight out of 10 of the respondents that Afrobarometer classified as experiencing ‘high lived poverty’ said they had to pay a bribe to the police to obtain assistance as opposed to five in 10 of those who were classified by the study as experiencing ‘no lived poverty’ and they paid a bribe to the police to achieve the same end.

In order to avoid problems with the police, 67% of the respondents who were classified as experiencing ‘high lived poverty’ said they paid a bribe to the police as opposed to 50% of the respondents were grouped as not experiencing ‘no lived poverty’ that said they had to bribe the police for the same purpose.

To obtain medical care from public facilities, 50% of the respondents who experience ‘high lived poverty’ said they had to pay bribes, while the corresponding figure for those classified as experiencing ‘no lived poverty’ was 16%. To obtain school services, 38% of those with ‘high lived poverty’ said they to paid a bribe, as opposed to 5% of those with ‘no lived poverty’. The percentages are a bit more even regarding paying a bribe to access identification documents, but still those with ‘high lived poverty’ (43%) said they had to pay a bribe in this regard than those with ‘no lived poverty’ (33%).

What Afrobarometer captures in these numbers is only bribery. Corruption is much bigger, of course. But the striking thing about these numbers is that the poor seem to find themselves in more situations where they have to pay bribes than their rich counterparts. The alternative interpretation may be that many well-to-do Ugandans – those that Afrobarometer categorises as experiencing ‘no lived poverty’, routinely pay out monies to public officials which they only consider as tokens of appreciation whereas their poorer counterparts, because they are more affected when they part with any of their little monies, would consider such payments as bribes.

Whatever the interpretation, it is an established fact to most Ugandans that in order to be served by a public official, one has to pay an inducement.

There is perhaps no point in attempting to state how much Uganda loses to corruption every year. This is because different officials come up with random fingers at different intervals, and the figures are far apart from each other.
Col. Nakalema, as head of State House’s anti-corruption unit, estimated in January 2020 that Uganda loses up to Shs2 trillion to corruption every year. She was at a two-week training session for local council leaders in Wakiso District.

During the commemoration of the anti-corruption day we highlighted above, IGG Kamya raised the bar, claiming that Uganda loses up to Shs10 trillion per year in corruption. Uganda’s total budget for this financial year is shs44.7 trillion, meaning that almost a quarter of the total budget is stolen if this number is to go by.

Over a decade ago, the World Bank estimated that Uganda loses Shs500 billion to corruption every year.

Transparency International, an in international NGO, ranks countries using the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The index aggregates perceptions of the general public, business people, and risk analysts to rate countries basing on how likely they are to accept bribes. The ratings are on a scale from zero to 100, with higher scores representing less corruption.

Uganda was in 2020 ranked by Transparency International as No.142 out of 179 countries with regard to how corrupt their citizens perceive the public officials to be, with a score of 27 out of 100. The countries perceived to be the most corrupt on this index are South Sudan and Somalia, with a rank of 179 and a score of 12 out of 100. On the other hand, New Zealand and Denmark are perceived to be the least corrupt, with a score of 88 out of 100 and a rank of one.

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