OP-ED: The stolen iron sheets that shelter Uganda’s anti-corruption crusade

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BY OLIVIA NALUBWAMA

The last time we heard of the iron sheets/mabaati saga, they had come to a disappointing anticlimactic finish.

The iron sheets had the public raving mad but the highly placed culprits got off with a friendly pat on the wrist. Several culprits claimed that the iron sheets walked themselves to the residences. Being the kind and thoughtful leaders they are, they received them.

Perhaps that is how things are distributed up there in the clouds. What would we know down here rolling in the dust and potholes? The culprits bristled at being accused of corruption and quickly refunded the iron sheets. Such a magnanimous way to fight corruption – refund what you stole then we can all hold hands and sing liberation songs.

At the height of the saga, the Speaker of Parliament, also one of the culprits, commented derisively that she found the furor over the iron sheets a tad boring – not quite the highbrow debate she is accustomed to. With the prosecutors’ hands off and the speaker’s bored yawn, the iron sheets melted away into the forsaken annals of public corruption scandals.

Nonetheless, just when the iron sheets seemed like another missed opportunity for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime to walk that anti-corruption walk it regularly spews, the United Kingdom (UK) government entered the chat.

On April 30, the UK government imposed sanctions on three mabaati culprits- two former ministers in charge of the Karamoja docket and the speaker of parliament. Citing the three for corruption, “stealing from the poorest communities in Uganda”, the sanctions have lifted the iron sheets out of the doldrums where they had fallen silent. The culprits must be wondering at the manner of sorcery within the mabaati.

Foreign policy experts opine that sanctions are an instrument of power – thus; it is insignificant if a minor actor like Uganda sanctions a British politician. The common Luganda phrase ‘Toli wakitalo nga bwolowooza’ (you are not as important as you think) is apt. 

Narges Bajoghli, anthropologist and co-author of How Sanctions Work: Iran and the Impact of Economic Warfare says (country) sanctions work in two ways, “Either they’re supposed to put enough pressure on the regime and targeted state to change its behavior, or they’re supposed to put enough pressure on society to rise up against the state to then topple the state.”  

Human Rights Watch notes that targeted/individualized sanctions highlight the need for individual accountability. Playing to the gallery, the speaker quickly rubbished the sanctions as inconsequential and demanded that the Uganda government take up her cross and defend her – she who does not own even a ‘pussycat’ in the UK.

The speaker reached into her plush bag of limited tricks and waved the anti-homosexuality card, which she has taken to brandishing when the discomfort of accountability threatens her comfortable perch in the clouds. 

Unfortunately, the speaker has not endeared herself to the public with parliamentarians fawning over her and her glorious displays of wealth. During the online Uganda Parliament Exhibition, she inelegantly ignored public calls regarding the obese expenditure of her office.

Instead, she lifted up holy hands and scoffed in superlatives extolling her loyalty to the president. The president duly accused the architects of the online exhibition of being sponsored by foreigners, specifically homosexuals and imperialists. Sigh.

Now the foreigners – those homosexuals and imperialists – have sanctioned the president’s speaker. The optics are contradictory on every side.

Political analyst and commentator, Yusuf Sserunkuma in his May 8 column, ‘The dilemma of being rewarded by benefactors of your oppressor’, discusses the Janus-faced nature of foreign diplomacy. Sserunkuma scathingly highlights the irony in donor-driven human rights awards in countries with dismal human rights records, whose regimes are propped up by donor aid. The cycle is unrelenting.

On our home turf, when sanctions land, we puff out our chests and soliloquize impressively about neocolonialism and African solutions for African impunity while continually enabling homegrown impunity.  We claim a sovereign and robust anti-corruption machinery but it is the stuff of Ugandan fairytales made in Wakaliwood.

To get ahead of the sanctions narrative, the president in a May 2 letter to the minister of Foreign Affairs queried the assets of the speaker directing the inspector general of government (IGG) to verify the speaker’s holdings outside Uganda.

How quaint for the president. The president is also on record tying the IGG’s hands when he reasoned that the IGG should go slow on lifestyle audits as they would discourage the corrupt from investing their loot in Uganda.

Yet for all our breathlessness over the UK government sanctions of ‘our people’ (they become our people once foreigners – those homosexuals and imperialists – accuse them of wrongdoing), the story of our anti-corruption effort is a rich tapestry of ‘no change’.

Political analysts argue that corruption is how the regime operates; to upend corruption would be suicidal for the regime. In 1986 when the NRM regime rose to power, they stood gallantly upon the ten-point program, which included point seven as ‘elimination of corruption and misuse of power’.

In its 288-page presidential manifesto for 2021-2026, the NRM is ebullient, glossing over the gravity of public corruption. The manifesto lists parliament as a key tool in the fight against public corruption.   

Yet here we are. No change premised upon an entire resistance movement.

smugmountain@gmail.com

The writer is a tayaad muzzukulu

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