Saturday, May 5, 2012

Like this... All are the same!

The vigorous anti-corruption drive by the Ugandan Parliament reminds me of a real-life story from my early childhood. My parents had a very mischievous house servant, now deceased, whose name was Kabanza.

One morning, while my parents were away, Kabanza sneaked into their bedroom and helped himself to sweet small bananas which my mother used to keep in her room in an effort to prolong their lifespan in the house. To keep them in the store or kitchen would have tempted us to break God’s Eighth Commandment. (Exodus 20:15) Kabanza got caught in the act of thieving by Bwesigye, my cousin who was living with us at the time. Bwesigye, the anti-corruption fighter, reported the matter to my parents. Court was promptly assembled, with my father presiding, and a number of elders.

It was priceless entertainment for us, too young to understand the gravity of the alleged crime, but old enough to get a thrill out of the sparring between the accused and the witness. Kabanza was quickly found guilty of theft. However, as my father began to announce the punishment, the guilty man sprang to his feet. “Sir, I have one question I want to ask,” Kabanza declared. “What was Bwesigye doing in your room when he caught me stealing the bananas?” My father and the rest of the court immediately turned their attention to Bwesigye, demanding an explanation. The hero of a few moments earlier was now dry-mouthed as he stammered away, his words completely unintelligible as he attempted to explain himself.

Kabanza helpfully informed court that his accuser had in fact been on a mission to steal sugar, another commodity which my mother always stored in her bedroom to save us from sampling it. Kabanza’s item of choice was less valuable than his accuser’s loot, the court agreed. The man had turned the tables on the anti-corruption crusader. Both lads were sentenced to caning, which was administered by the judge there and then.

Fifty years later, Bwesigye’s anti-corruption flag is flown by Uganda’s MPs. Their target is Kabanza’s moral descendants, honourable ministers who are alleged to have stolen sweet bananas from Chogm, from secret oil deals, from controversial financial compensation payments to a prominent businessman and so on. The MPs’ vigour is most admirable. Yet there is a glaring paradox. Whereas there is loud condemnation and calls for the stoning and incarceration of corrupt NRM ministers, there is deafening silence on the matter of corruption by opposition politicians. Take the case of the Hon. Yokasi Bwambale, the Bukonjo East MP who ate Shs10 million that was supposed to be used to develop his constituency.

Whereas Bwambale, a member of the FDC parliamentary caucus and of the party’s National Executive Committee and National Council, pleaded guilty to the crime nearly one month ago, I have not heard or read a statement by his party leaders demanding his resignation to pave way for a by-election. I am not aware of any reports that he has been asked to resign from his party’s top organs. Yet had he been an NRM leader, the opposition would have shouted themselves hoarse in demanding the immediate censure of the corrupt “big man”. The fight against corruption will never succeed as long as we adopt a partisan attitude. Had the FDC candidate been declared the winner of the 2011 presidential election, Bwambale would have probably been appointed a minister in Kizza Besigye’s government.

It is a fair guess that Minister Bwambale would have found it very difficult to resist an offer of Shs10 billion from one of the usual international partners in corruption. If the FDC expects to enjoy the trust of Ugandan citizens as an alternative to the terminally corrupt NRM regime, its leaders must go beyond the anti-corruption rhetoric that is not backed by swift and severe censure of one of their own. The greatest failure of Museveni in his 26 years as president has been his refusal to apply zero tolerance of corruption and abuse of office. He presides over a regime that will swiftly catch and punish small time thieves while protecting big time thieves who loot millions of dollars from the taxpayers. It is a regime that gives new meaning to the old capitalist slogan of “too big to fail.” In Museveni’s Uganda, you better steal big if you don’t want to get caught or go to jail.

This NRM version of a kleptocracy traces its beginnings to the tolerance of “minor” corruption that became evident in the “bush years” and the early days of the “fundamental change”. That fundamental change, of course, gave birth to a regime of men and women with stolen wealth even as the vast majority of the citizens became poorer and were denied basic social services. This is a lesson that must not be overlooked by the leaders of the FDC. The Bakiga say that “akati kainikwa kakiri kabisi” (character is nurtured young.) Today’s small time thief in opposition will be tomorrow’s untouchable mega-looter on government benches.

Dr Mulera is a Daily Monitor columnist based in Canada.

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