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UGANDA: Trying to Blow the Whistle on Corruption

Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi

KAMPALA , Apr 7 2010 (IPS) - The Ugandan Parliament is debating a Bill that will involve citizens in the fight against corruption following an increase in embezzlement of public funds by public servants.

The Whistle Blowers Protection Bill 2010 will not only create an enabling environment for citizens to freely disclose information on corrupt or improper conduct in public and private sectors, but they will also be rewarded with five percent of the recovered monies in a corruption scam.

However, there is scepticism whether this legislation will work in a country where corruption has become a way of life. “It is apparent that corruption has been institutionalised as an acceptable way of life,” says the National Integrity Survey Report 2008.

And as one citizen, city trader Farouk Kazibwe, clearly rubs it in: “Why would I blow the whistle to earn just five percent yet that person can scratch my back for ten percent?”

Hindering development

“Corruption is one of the most serious problems hindering development in Uganda,” says Mukotani Rugyendo, senior advocacy and communications officer, at Uganda Debt Network, an advocacy and lobbying coalition against corruption.

A recently released World Bank report estimated that 250 million dollars is swindled annually by government officials. Much of this occurs through procurement and awarding of tenders. Subsequently, this has affected service delivery for the majority poor, Rugyendo says.

Recent reports by the national Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority indicate that at least 184 million dollars is lost every year in procurement scams. This accounts for about 70 percent of the national budget and more than what the country receives in aid annually.

But can legislation be an effective tool in the fight against corruption? “Laws are not necessarily the cure, but they are essential and we need to go further and appeal to the conscious of our people…We believe that a combination of necessary laws that punish those who engage in corrupt practices can work,” says architect of the Bill, Ethics and Integrity Minister Nsaba Buturo.

Political problem

Rugyendo thinks corruption is a political problem and without fundamental political will, legislation is ineffective. He adds that there have been many commissions of inquiry into corruption in government institutions, but most of the recommendations have never been acted upon and no prominent public official has ever been punished, sending a signal that government is not committed in the fight against graft.

“The key point is: if corruption is identified, investigations made and a report made, is any action taken? There are so many commissions of inquiry in different departments but these reports are gathering dust,” Rugyendo says.

Currently, the biggest corruption scandal is an inquest into the misuse of public funds by several top government officials during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kampala in November 2007. Several government ministers including the vice president have been summoned by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee to answer for misuse of these funds. Although testimonies point to misuse, the public is doubtful that any action will be taken against these top officials even if found guilty.

Buturo defends the slow speed of such inquiries but agrees there are loopholes in the system.

“There is slowness which occurs because the agencies that investigate, and prosecute are inadequately provided for by way of resources. But it is also true that some people have become compromised … There is that network which makes things complicated indeed,” he says.

Access to information barriers

However, there are also concerns whether legislation can work in a country where citizens are not aware of what happens in public offices, especially since the Access to Information Act has not been effectively implemented since its adoption in 2005.

“Although there is an Access to Information Act, it is not easy to get access to records on corruption. We are trying to compile a dossier on corruption to find out how we much have been lost in corruption in different sectors. But getting that information is not easy,” says Maureen Agaba, the head of the governance and rights programme at the Uganda Debt Network.

“I regret that the Access to Information Act has not been operationalised. That was not the intention,” Buturo says.

No sensitisation

There are also concerns that citizens may not become whistle blowers until they are able to link their poverty with corruption.

“We should be able to automatically link our (poverty) situation to this grand monster of corruption at macro level. But we are not able to do it,” Marren Akatsa-Bukachi Executive Director East African Sub regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women.

“We need some awareness creation and civic education that can now bring those macro level issues to the medium and micro level to show people how these things are interrelated,” she says.

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