Dr. MESHARCH KATUSIIMEH RWEBIITA | Corruption in the times of COVID-19: An Open letter to President Museveni

Your Excellency, it was reported in the media that you were angry with the legislative arm of government over the UGX 10 billion allocated to members of parliament to fight COVID-19. Mr. President, you are not alone.

This act of MPs led by Speaker Rebecca Kadaga has somehow tainted the good image of Uganda as a success story in the fight against COVID-19. There was public outrage especially on all major social media platforms with people accusing MPs of taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to abuse their power for private gain.

Even a section of MPs who didn’t agree with their colleagues went to court in a bid to block the whole move. This is not the first time Parliament is accused of corrupt practices. Yet parliament should be leading by example as an organ of government that ensures that good governance is adhered to. You will even recall Mr. President that MPs when debating the Constitutional (Amendment) (No.2), 2017 had even attempted to extend their tenure in parliament from five to seven years.

Mr. President, this is a reason why MPs have been branded ‘enemies’ of the people. Going by the statements of the Speaker of Parliament and the majority of the MPs in trying to justify allocating themselves UGX 20 million each, one can realize that corruption has become a way of life and normal. And this doesn’t just apply only to parliament. The other day officials from the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) were arrested on allegations of over-inflating COVID-19 food prices. The whole society is rotten. Parliament is just a microcosm of society.

Your Excellency, whereas government has put in place some legal framework and institutions aimed at curbing corruption, in reality, they are largely symbolic. The inspiration for this article is to attempt to explain the factors that sustain corrupt practices in Uganda.  Why are MPs and public officials generally behaving the way they are behaving? How can we reform an economy when corruption becomes the norm?

Your Excellency, you were quoted in the New Vision of December 5th 2018 and in the daily monitor January 26, 2020, acknowledging that corruption has become a problem to Ugandans but still defeat-able. Mr. President, as you are aware, there have been a number of reforms geared to combat corruption in Uganda since 1986. Mr President, your latest intervention is the appointment of the anti-corruption unit under your office headed by Lt Col Edith Nakalema.

Dr. Katusiimeh is an Associate Professor – Governance & Dean Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences Kabale University. (PHOTO: Courtesy)

At the launch, you were quoted to have said that while the institutions to fight corruption are there, they have been “infiltrated by weevils”. Mr. President, you rightly stated that those supposed to fight corruption have lost the moral ground to enforce discipline at local government and central government also noting that even the Inspectorate of Government is not clean in this matter. It is even worse that the institution supposed to hold them accountable – parliament is also in the same boat.

Mr. President, corruption has become so endemic in Uganda, and is an accepted way of life, to the extent that when someone is appointed or elected to a public office they think it is now their turn to take advantage. Your Excellency, I now turn to explain why?

Your Excellency, there are sociability pressures which many Ugandans have succumbed to. You hear many people saying “I have to return the favour”.  There is a general unwritten rule may that when one receives benefits from a person in authority; it is “sociable” to offer something in return. Violating this norm may result in a guilty conscience, an undermining of self-identity, a loss of face, harsh criticism, even censure or punishment. There is also the social norm of providing for your kin (from immediate family to extended family to clan or tribe).  

Mr. President, there are also horizontal pressures too. You hear people saying “my colleagues are doing it too”. The institutional peer pressures are not easy to escape as resistance or rebellion can lead to social isolation, diminished career opportunities, and restricted access to attractive posts and workshops.

Mr. President, there also vertical pressures – I am forced from above or the orders from above syndrome. Subordinates have certain formal obligations to follow orders from their superiors. When a superior requires conduct that is illegal or unethical (because they probably get a share of the cut of the proceeds) the pressures to comply will still be strong because saying no may well result in loss of a job or promotion.

Mr. President, just as these pressures explain why corruption persists, they also help explain why standard anti-corruption reforms may fail. In other words, reforms that have been instituted before have done little to stop the corrupt behaviors from recurring.

My argument, Mr. President is that these reforms may be failing because they generally ignore the influence of social norms and pressures, an oversight that may explain why seemingly sensible solutions may often have a limited effect. Let us examine two of the most popular interventions (salary increases and codes of conduct) to illustrate this point.

Mr. President, salary increases as a way of fighting corruption among public officials in Uganda has been implemented before. According to the fair-salary hypothesis, if public officials could earn enough to make ends meet and support their families, then they would have fewer incentives to engage in corruption by asking for bribes.

Mr. President, higher wages have been tried in parliament, Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) and Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) among others but corruption is still widespread. Studies have indicated that the introduction of higher wages actually increase expectations about the extent of social support that public officials could provide, leading to a net loss for some officials once they had met social demands for redistribution. To make up for such a loss, public officials who have received salary raises may seek to extract even more bribes.

Mr. President, another reason for the failure of salary increases might lie in the persistence of horizontal pressures. If within an organization, such as the police force, accepting bribes has become a widespread and maybe even acceptable practice, higher salaries do little to change these pressures. Social norms within the police force remain the same. Asking for bribes may remain common – and acceptable – practice.

Mr. President, codes of conducts are common in almost all organizations (public and private). Intended to provide clarity about expected behaviour, duties, and responsibilities, such codes seek to provide a normative reference point to which employees should adhere. But as we have seen, there may be horizontal pressures on employees not to abide by the official code.

If corruption is tolerated and tacitly upheld by a majority of the group, then few officials pledging to comply with the code of conduct may not change much. These codes of conduct also need enforcement from above, that is, from figures at higher levels of an organization. But as described earlier, these higher-ups may be receiving a share of the proceeds of corruption schemes and therefore have little interest in enforcing rules about integrity. Going against vertical pressures may result in sanctions – ridicule, loss of job, position, or earnings.

Mr. President, already this is playing out in parliament with the Speaker Rebecca Kadaga threatening to discipline Hon Karuhanga Gerald and other MPs who have taken the parliamentary commission to court so as to stop the disbursement and withdrawal of UGX 20 million to MPs.

In fact, Speaker of Parliament has vowed to take stringent measures on MPs. For example, she has threatened to summon Hon Amelia Kyambadde Minister of Trade and Industry to the disciplinary committee for speaking out against parliament’s unethical behaviour. This in future may constrain a change to more honest behaviour in parliament.

Mr. President, given the damage which corruption has brought on the Ugandan society on multiple fronts, the natural assumption would be that citizens, at least a majority of them, would support a credible fight against it.

The elite may mount pressure against the corrupt but not the rural folk. The job of a public servant is good in the minds of the rural fork with standing in society in terms of acquiring wealth. They are expected to be corrupt and to have accumulated wealth. Because of that, they experience significant social pressure (i.e. their electorate, pressure from family, friends, their village) to have displays or visual markers of wealth, commensurate with their perceived status, if they wish to be respected and/or perceived as successful. They feel pushed to live beyond what their official compensation actually supports, which creates a demand for additional resources.

In fact, there are certain idioms that reflect the attitudinal dispositions that have been nurtured among citizens: a goat eats where it is tethered or where one works is where he chops; position in government is an opportunity to eat; government business is nobody’s business; when there is a big tree, small ones climb on its back to reach the sun; the national cake must be shared; those who take from government are wise; those who do not are fools. This means that public officers may not engage in corruption simply because of greed or to supplement their incomes, but they often experience peer pressure to participate in corruption. With the increase in peer pressure comes more regular engagement in corruption, as individuals conform to these expectations. Over time, corruption has become a learned and accepted behaviour in public service.

Mr. President, the above considerations suggest that there is a crucial need to rethink the formulation of anticorruption approaches in order to account for locally prevailing conditions.

Practitioners seeking to ensure and build integrity in the public sector require a thorough understanding of the social forces that perpetuate the corrupt practices. In order to do so, we can interest ourselves more in exploring how anti-corruption practice can benefit from a better understanding of behavioural influences.

This means developing a set of interventions that may complement the traditional interventions – such as salary increases, policy reforms, codes of conduct and civil society groups vigilance and scrutiny.

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