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CORRUPTION-UGANDA: Leaders’ Integrity Questioned

Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

KAMPALA, Nov 24 2009 (IPS) - Seated at a u-shaped table is an assembly of middle-aged men and women clad in business suits, faces stern and expressionless. Refreshments – bottled water, sodas and giant flasks of tea – clutter the long table, competing for space with piles of documents.

The rattling of china tea cups interrupts the silence as the aromas of steamy hot samoosas and fresh queen cakes fill the air. But the business to be conducted this morning is far from a tea party. It’s yet another sitting of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Parliament of Uganda.

And today the members of parliament (MPs) are interrogating officials from the ministry of information and communication technology over the shoddy work being done on an underground internet cable network that has cost the taxpayer millions of dollars. This routine has created a certain amount of fear among public officials, and deterred some of them from corrupt practices.

Hundreds of high-ranking public servants have appeared before this committee for alleged corruption, bribery, embezzlement, extortion, fraud and diversion of public funds.

Among the matters at hand are the regularisation of expired contracts of public officials, recovery of embezzled funds from schools, and causing prompt audits of government accounts by the Auditor General.

The latest is a continuing investigation following a report that revealed fraud in a contract to supply vehicles for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), held in Uganda in 2007.

According to the report, the tender for the supply of 204 executive cars to transport heads of state was finally handed to a company whose licence had expired a year earlier. Members of parliament resolved to summon Vice-President Gilbert Bukenya for questioning, after he was named as one of the officials who authorised the award of the 9.4 million dollar car deal without proper tendering.

False Accounting

Uganda’s Inspectorate of Government defines corruption as abuse of public office for private gain, including false accounting in public affairs. For a long time, Members of Parliament have been accused of false accounting in public affairs by chronic absenteeism – not attending plenary and committee sessions – and yet drawing full salaries.

MPs earn an average of 7,500 dollars a month in salaries and allowances. This is a high compared to the monthly 200 dollars that a doctor earns and the 100 dollars that a teacher earns. But a report – Accessing the Performance of Uganda’s Legislatures (2006-07) – published by the African Leadership Institute, revealed that average attendance and participation of parliamentarians was generally poor.

“On average, Uganda’s MPs attended just 23 out of 89 plenary sessions and some never attended at all. Committee attendance rates were also low at around 41 percent,” the report said. The 2007-08 report showed a performance even lower than the previous year. Committee attendance was also lower. In 2006-2007 eight MPs attended no committee meetings, and in 2007-2008 that number tripled. There are 321 MPs in the eighth parliament.

It is common to find a plenary session with no quorum, even when the register shows a long list of attendees, proving that not all who “signed the register” actually attended the session. According to the Rules of Procedure, quorum of Parliament shall be one third of all MP’s. Empty seats characterise the live broadcasts of the plenary sessions screened on two national television slots every afternoon, and civil society organisations have expressed concern.

“Absenteeism is a form of corruption, because MPs are paid to be in office for a particular period,” says Felix Kafuuma, programme manager, information and communications, of the Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda (ACCU), a non-governmental organisation fighting corruption in Uganda.

“Corruption is a moral issue. It is more than just money exchanging hands, or money being stolen. If you are absent and you are being paid to be at work, then you are cheating the nation,” he told IPS.

MPs have also come under scrutiny for failing to account for spending from the Constituency Development Fund, an annual package given to them for development of their constituencies. Others have been accused of drawing travel allowances to visit their constituencies and not doing so. Beatrice Anywar, who says she is committed to fighting corruption at leadership level, is one of the few MPs who can openly speak about these allegations.

“Corruption in this country has gone to the level of being called a cancer. Fighting it is becoming almost impossible. And it seems to have not spared any part of society. It seems nobody can be trusted with anything.

“Yes, you find that some of us (MPs) draw travel allowances to visit our constituencies, and instead we just sit here in Kampala. You hear constituents complaining that they have never seen their representatives.

“Every month we are given a fuel allowance, but some of us do not travel there. How much time do we commit to our country’s work, other than running up and down chasing our own businesses?” she asks in an interview with IPS.

“That is true,” says Michael Kaggwa, a 38-year-old teacher from Luwero district. “Since my MP was elected in 2006 he has never come back to his constituency. It’s now three years,” he tells IPS by telephone.

But stories such as these are not novel in a country where corruption has evolved into an acceptable and coveted way of life. In 2008, minister in charge of national security and MP, Amama Mbabazi, was accused of flouting procurement rules, and violating provisions of the Leadership Code Act, by selling more than 400 acres of land to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF) in the amount of 11 million dollars.

Forty hectares of this had been declared a wetland by government environment watchdog the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA). The ‘Temangalo saga’ dug deep into the savings of citizens who deposit a monthly saving into the NSSF as pension.

The NSSF has a clientele of close to 300,000 people, each contributing 15 percent of their gross monthly salary to this scheme.

In 2006, the Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB suspended its funding to Uganda after accusation of embezzlement and mismanagement of finances. Health ministers Jim Muhwezi and Mike Mukula were held accountable. They have since been replaced.

Although Section 12 (2) of the Leadership Act provides that in circumstances such as these, “a leader is eligible to vacate his office or be dismissed”, so far no Ugandan leader has willingly resigned.

Growing cancer

Corruption remains one of the most serious unethical practices undermining trust and confidence in public officials, says the Third National Integrity Survey (2008) by the Inspectorate of Government, a statutory body mandated to enforce accountability and integrity in public offices. The commonest form of corruption is bribery (66 percent), and this was largely attributed to greed, the survey said. The level of reporting corruption was very low, the main reason being lack of knowledge of where to report. Other reasons were fear of offending people and fear of retribution. The survey concluded that people were thus treating corruption as “a useful means of accessing services”.

The survey found that demands for and payment of bribes were no longer secrets in society.

“People seem to glorify those who acquire wealth through graft, while they ridicule those who uphold principles of integrity and moral values. This shows that corruption is becoming a way of life,” the report said.

Questionable integrity

Citizens are now beginning to question the integrity of national leaders, posing questions on whether bodies like the PAC really have the moral authority to interrogate others accused of corruption.

“Leaders do not realise that once they are appointed or elected, they become stewards. Citizens are relying on them to do a good job,” says 34-year-old Agnes Atimango, an accountant at a Kampala NGO.

Anywar agrees: “It is on record that we in leadership – being the civil servants and political leaders in this country – are not clean. We do not have clean hands,” she says, recalling an incident in 2005 when MPs in the 7th Parliament accepted a “gift” of $ 2,500 from the ruling party to amend the 1995 Uganda Constitution, and lift presidential term limits.

“It’s a shame that MPs can be bribed with just five million shillings (2,500 dollars) to amend a constitution. It remains a shame on the floor of parliament that even with issues of national importance, members are being whipped into silence and into accepting the position of the government, at the expense of countrymen, by saying ‘Aye’.

“I do not think we have the moral authority to question the corrupt. It’s a shame. We have allowed ourselves to be bribed,” says Anywar.

Indeed the Integrity Survey ranked parliament the sixth most dishonest out of 28 selected public institutions. Other notable dishonest institutions were the Public Service, urban authorities and courts of law. The police force was rated the most dishonest institution.

“We are like walking corpses, and when we go out there, we have even been told that we do not even deserve to be called Honourables,” Anywar said.

The Inspectorate of Government has been at the forefront in enforcing accountability and integrity in public office, but it does not have the capacity to contain an overwhelming situation.

“Corruption is a big issue and needs to be fought. It needs concerted effort by everybody, because the IGG cannot be everywhere. Laws have to be reviewed and civil society should join the fight by sensitising the public on the dangers of corruption,” said James Penywii, director of operations in the Office of the Inspector General of Government (IGG).

“But leaders must also lead by example, and we should apply the law to everybody. Citizens should be taught to demand their rights,” he said.

Anywar concurs: “The fight against corruption can be fought only by starting from the individual. So let them start with me, Beatrice Anywar. Let’s start with parliament. We are the leaders representing our people. Let’s lead by example.

“You must walk the talk. If you don’t, then it’s very difficult for the people you are representing to take you seriously, and implement what you are talking about.”

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