Can new State House unit tame bribery?

by Gerald Musoke
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No self-respecting business person in Uganda will publicly admit that they pay bribes. It is illegal and certainly bad public relations.

Although bribing is an added cost and a constant accounting nuisance, but if by doing so, your business’ interests are best served, then why make noise anyway?  Secondly, it might not do your company much good by antagonizing the shady characters who are part and parcel of well entrenched networks that now encompass normal business practice.

Annual losses from public procurement due to corrupt practices during 2019 were estimated at just over UGX600 billion. Nearly 15 years ago, the Uganda Manufacturers Association concluded that large companies, which are able to pay bribes, get contracts from the government which marginalizes the smaller ones.

If what prevents you from getting a UGX500 million contract are a bunch of people asking for UGX50 million up-front, the inclination to pay is strong. Not because you want too, but because you have decided the returns are worth the risk.

In other circumstances it may involve a signature on a certain document urgently needed to finalise a potentially lucrative deal. It is often far cheaper to figuratively hand over a brown envelope than endure endless bureaucratic red tape. Ironically, this is the exact situation which encourages bureaucrats to go-slow so as to be in a position to demand for bribes.

At the beginning of May, President Yoweri Museveni announced the setting up of the new State House Investors Protectorate Unit to tackle bribery. Experienced anti-graft fighter, Col Edith Nakalema, has been appointed to head the unit. The task ahead of her is not only daunting, but more likely to be frustrating.

President Museveni appointed his senior advisor anti-corruption, Col Edith Nakalema to head the newly created State House Investors Protectorate Unit(PHOTO/Courtesy)

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Bribery in Uganda, as in many other countries around the world, is a fully-fledged service industry, with linkages that penetrate almost every sector of the economy.  When it comes to the organised variety found in the public sector, usually you have the crème de la crème who skim from the top and provide direction and a measure of protection. Underneath them are a select group of mid level managers who do all the donkey work and finally at the bottom are the runners who interface with clients.

Unless it is absolutely necessary, names are rarely mentioned. What is important is delivering the service being requested for and payment is made under the agreed terms. During 2020, Pwc, the international financial services and management consultancy published a report, Uganda Economic Crime and Fraud Survey.

It highlighted that 43% of the business respondents reported having been asked to pay a bribe in the past 24 months. Besides being asked, respondents also reported numerous cases of having lost an opportunity to a competitor who they believe paid a bribe.

Introducing another anti-corruption agency is not going to stop this well-oiled machine that is helping to shore up Uganda’s expanding middle class.  Figures are not available, but several sources agree that a substantial amount of money that has gone into growing Kampala’s real estate and property sector has come from the proceeds of bribery.

There is no universal definition of bribery. However, according to Transparency International, all definitions have in common a situation involving someone in appointed position acting voluntarily in breach of trust in exchange for a benefit. The benefit does not have to involve cash or a payment exchanging hands. It can take many forms such as lavish gifts, hospitality and expenses, access to assets or a favour made to a relative, friend or favoured cause.

When a person offers, promises or gives a bribe, it is called ‘active bribery’ and when a person requests, receives, or accepts a bribe, it is called ‘passive bribery’.

Whether active or passive or a beneficiary of both, the problem with tackling bribery is that many of us are guilty by default. Let’s recall the rebuke Jesus gave a gathering of indignant people: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stoneat her.”

Ordinary people are just as willing to pay bribes to speed up things or dodge perceived inconveniences. Perhaps this morning you are one of several thousand motorists who handed over a 10k or 20k to avoid being penalized for a traffic offence.

For that matter, you might have bribed to fix your child in a school, get a job; jumped the queue for a public service; paid an attendant for medicine that is supposedly out of stock; slipped a currency note to someone for the sole reason of getting preferential treatment.

According to an Inspector General of Government (IGG) report, ‘Research studies, such as the Fourth National Integrity Survey in Uganda and the East Africa Bribery Index, show Ugandan citizens often only access essential public services if they pay a bribe to the public servants who function as gatekeepers of these services’.

The IGG states that full eradication of corruption, which includes bribery, can lead to potential savings of UGX9.144 trillion per year, which translates to 23% of annual government budget. The savings from eliminating corruption in Uganda hold a potential to significantly improve the provision of public services to the citizens.

Public response to the new unit has been muted. We have heard all this before. The worrying thing however is it also signals that perhaps the government is losing the war on corruption.

Findings from an Afrobarometer survey done just before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic showed that almost three-fourths (73%) of Ugandans say the government is performing poorly in its fight against corruption.

Why add onto the existing duplication of effort and further squeeze the available resources? Staff at other similar institutions may even feel demoralized in the face of the new entrant and the question of who takes priority for allocation of cash will come into play. Having  ‘State House’ on it letterhead will no doubt give the new unit added bragging rights.

From the point of view of small business owners who make up the majority and pay plenty of bribes on a daily basis, the new unit will not make much of a difference. Whenever the President talks about ‘investors’ the immediate picture that comes to mind are foreigners or Uganda’s larger companies—not the likes of them.

With the exception of China, our main development partners periodically needle us about our high levels of corruption. They do so in the comfort of knowing back home, their anti-corruption institutions work pretty well at nabbing and penalizing wrongdoers.

During the past 20 years, big name firms such as Airbus, Ericsson, Siemens, Halliburton, Alcatel-Lucent, Rose Royce, Credit Suisse, Volkswagon, Goldman Sachs and Glencore have been hit by hefty fines for bribing largely foreign potential clients in order to sign up new business.

For the most part, our anti-graft institutions are largely understaffed, underfunded and overwhelmed. Just the way the organised bribery industry likes it to be.

To fire up public imagination, lip-service about bribery should give way to more practical support for our existing anti-corruption institutions. Not create new ones. Cross sections of the business community may complain about the problem, but they also know by not paying bribes may hurt their bottom line. 

For the general public, making an example of a very big fish would be ideal. Unless that happens, the favoured formula remains: ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’.

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