Culture mired in corruption slowly yields to forces of fragile democracy
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.
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.