Fighting corruption at the expense of democracy?
By Jasper Tumuhimbise, coordinator, Anti-corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU)
Would it not be wonderful if we Ugandans one morning woke up and had a strong person in power with the heart in the right place? Imagine a person who would finally take up the fight with the corrupt civil servants and politicians that are draining this country of its meager resources. A person, who would not hesitate to have the fraudsters arrested that are daily abusing their public office.
Surely, it is a tempting thought. And apparently, they seem to have it in Rwanda. In the last edition of Independent (issue 49), Andrew M. Mwenda makes a very interesting analysis on why Rwanda is making more progress on fighting corruption than Uganda.
The basic idea is that a strong nationalist leader like Kagame, who has a strong commitment to rebuilding Rwanda, is able to make progress. As Andrew states, Kagame is able to “move with a free hand” and he seems to care much more for taxpayer’s money than Museveni who “is a self-seeking power-hungry opportunist whose primary interest is the pomp of power rather than service to the citizen”. Andrew M. Mwenda argues that the case of Rwanda and Uganda challenge “modernization theory”.
In Uganda, you have over the last years introduced an endless number of institutions and checks and balances, all of which should be able to reduce corruption and the personal abuse of the state. To what use? Uganda is still one of the world’s most corrupt countries in the world. True. Rwanda, on the other hand, has an effective personal leader who does not shy away from intervening himself on many occasions. Just recently, he has requested the arrest of three officials who had authorized the payment for a German company that was delayed with its construction work.
First of all I agree with Andrew, it is indeed refreshing to see a leader clamp down on the culprits. Yes, it is relieving to see a leader make a stand. And yes, there is something rotten in the state of Uganda. And yes, it is tempting to desire a new form of rule. As it seems, democracy, at least under the rule of Museveni, has not yielded the desired improvements. But sometimes temptations are dangerous! If there is one important lesson to be learnt from history it is this: There are no short cuts to introducing democracy and good governance – neither is there to fighting corruption. And getting rid of corruption at the expense of building institutions, which are vital for any form of good governance, would be a gross mistake.
I will not hesitate to agree that institutions in Uganda have been a disappointment. But it would be a gross mistake to conclude from this that we should throw all “modernization theory” in the dust bin. It seems that Andrew is suggesting that this imported model of democracy from the west simply does not work here in Africa. ‘Give us a strong leader who will clamp down on corruption, and we will be better off’ seems to be the motto. The fact that institutions still are not working is not a case for strong-man-rule! History has only too many times shown us the danger of this path. May I remind you that notorious leaders like Mugabe, Mobuto Seseko, Kamuzu Banda and Idi Amin, who were all taken as freedom fighters, took power seemingly with the best of intentions, especially at the beginning of their regimes? And even Museveni came to office with good intentions, but apparently his regime is considered to be the most corrupt. We have other examples of good-hearted leaders who were driven by patriotism and wanted the best for their countries but have ended as liabilities to the nation they seem to have fought for.
A President need not make arrests!
It should never, as you mention in Rwanda, be the president who orders the arrest of civil servants. You argue that the judiciary is restrained by procedural rules and “even a government genuinely committed to fighting graft will find it difficult to secure convictions.” Yes, I know, democracy can be tiresome. Surely, it is harder to fight corruption when you actually have to play it by the democratic rules. It would also be easier to fight terrorism by locking everyone suspicious up. But is this the society we want?
Introducing institutions that truly work is a hard and tiresome struggle. And I have to admit it is quite sad that so many years of institution building in Uganda have not yielded more results. But the solution is not to discard this path. In fact, institutions need to be stronger and be given more space and scope.
The only sustainable way to fight corruption in the long run is to ensure working institutions, which will also set the standards for behaviour in society. An important role of institutions is not only checks and balances but to promote a certain behaviour. The motivation for doing the right is not only, as Andrew argues, the fear that the country may fall apart. Contrary, the role of institutions is also to foster a behaviour where all citizens feel and see the apparent benefit of doing the right thing.
Sure, we need political leadership with a will
I am aware that institutions can’t do the walk alone. We need political will to take Uganda in the right direction. And perhaps this is what Uganda is truly lacking. We need a political leadership that wishes to truly commit itself to the fight against corruption – but they should never rule at the expense of institutions. On the contrary, their full attention must be directed to the institutions.
We don’t need a president who is ordering arrests of citizens – and undermining the institutions that are in place to curtail the vice. A government’s role is to build the institutions and to send the signal that corruption is not acceptable. The Police and the Judiciary will do the rest - if only the politicians will let them do their job. A system based on personal leadership and not institutions is not sustainable. It will wither when the benevolent leader retires or gets tired. A leader may simply become less benevolent, as history has only showed too many times. The ultimate consequence of Andrew’s argument is that Africa is best suited for the personal strong rule rather than institutional democracy?
There is no doubt autocracy and dictatorship can have certain advantages. At times, they can prove very efficient as they don’t have to follow the same nitty-gritty trivial procedures and rules that balance a democracy. But at the end of the day, the only long lasting way to improve people’s lives is ensuring a government that respects the institutions and its people. This is essentially what Anti-corruption Coalition Uganda is advocating for. One of civil society’s most important tasks is to push the government in the right direction though often government has frustrated the efforts of civil society by either protecting or pardoning the corrupt, a clear exhibition of the absence of political will in this country. But expecting the corrupt to fight corruption is more like expecting demons to sing a song of angels. The solution lies elsewhere not in our current leadership!