Anti-corruption legislation and institutions alone cannot fight corruption. It also takes political will and pressure from the grassroots.
“Corruption deprives the poor of their basic rights and makes them even poorer, while the rich get richer. That is why it is so important to fight corruption,” says Angela Byangwa of the Rwenzori Anti-Corruption Coalition.
She has been an anti-corruption activist for years and has realized that there is no quick fix to fight corruption. It takes a long, broad and sustained effort. Most importantly, traditional perceptions about the role of political leaders and citizens must be challenged:
“In Uganda political leaders are still seen as masters rather than servants of the people. Consequently, lots of Ugandans look at basic services like health and education as a gift from their political leaders rather than a right. Similarly, political leaders get away with branding services paid for with public money as their personal gift to their servants. This provides a fertile ground for corruption and misuse of public funds, and it is this attitude – among both ordinary citizens and political leaders – we have set out to change,” Angela Byangwa explains.
The Rwenzori Anti-Corruption Coalition was founded in 2002 and now boasts 450 community monitors who track and check public expenditure in the seven districts of Rwenzori. They are assisted by the coalition’s six staff and 15 community facilitators.
Community monitors like Julius Kwebi(above) from Kyegegwa form the backbone of the Rwenzori Anti-Corruption Coalition's efforts at local level and are trained by experienced activists like Angela Byangwa.
“We train the monitors to empower people to make demands and claim their rights rather than just passively waiting for things to happen. We tell them that people have far more power than many of them realize. They are the ones that elect the politicians, so they also have the power to vote politicians that do not deliver out of office.”
But a change of attitude does not suffice. People also need tools to hold their leaders accountable:
“If the citizens do not know that the local school was supposed to receive 50 desks, they do not object and make noise if only 25 desks arrive. So we train the community monitors to demand information and to understand and read budgets and accounts.”
Angela Byangwa acknowledges that petty corruption is still widespread in Uganda and undermines basic services in health, education etc. But she is confident that the success stories – small as they may seem – experienced by the Rwenzori Anti-Corruption Coalition and other anti-corruption activists in Uganda signal change.
“We have been able to recover millions of shillings that were embezzled and mismanaged. We have had shoddy done projects redone and unfinished projects completed, like schools and staff houses for health workers. These success stories show that change can happen if people claim their rights and take action.”
But Angela Byangwa also admits that change takes time:
“It is an uphill battle. Anti-corruption activists are often intimidated by wealthy and corrupt persons. It is a challenge to find evidence to nail the culprits, in particular the politicians as they rarely sign anything. Also the accused have the money to hire experienced lawyers.”
Still, Angela Byangwa and her fellow anti-corruption activists carry on their work and see some reason for optimism:
“We increasingly see that people from within the system come to us and blow the whistle on corrupt colleagues. They are honest teachers, health workers and other government officials who are sick and tired of seeing colleagues and leaders abusing public funds. Before we came around they felt they had nowhere to go and they are happy to share their knowledge with us and contribute to fighting corruption.”
“This is supposed to be a finished and fully handed over classroom block. But as you can see, one block of two classrooms was abandoned before the roofing was put in place and the second block was abandoned without the walls being plastered,” explains Mesach Byomutura, a community monitor of the Rwenzori Anti-Corruption Coalition. Mesach is furious that the contractors of Umoja Primary School in Bundibugyo District were paid over and above the amount that had been approved for the project and yet they had not finalized the construction of the classroom blocks:
“The floor screed was not done; doors, window frames and shutters were not fixed and yet all funds to the contractor, including retention were paid in full. That is a typical example of shoddy work for public money involving connivance of both the contractors and district officials. we did inform the Police Criminal Investigation Department and the district’s Inspector General of Government (IGG) who instituted an audit of this project, and, as a result, the contractor was tasked with finalizing the project to acceptable standards,” Mesach Byomutura says and adds,
“I am doing this monitoring as a community member and an anti-corruption activist. It is my mandated obligation as a citizen under the Constitution of Uganda”.
Cases of corruption feature prominently in Ugandan media – even in the New Vision, the government-controlled daily.
Uganda has an extensive legal framework to curb corruption. A range of special anti-corruption agencies have also been established starting in 1986 with the Inspectorate of Government (IGG) tasked with eliminating corruption and the abuse of public offices. In 2008 yet another institution was set up to strengthen the fight against corruption, the special Anti-Corruption Division of the High Court.
While the head of the special court, Justice Paul K. Mugamba, sees the high conviction rate of well over 70% of those charged at the court as a positive sign that action is being taken, several critics claim that the numerous anti-corruption institutions and comprehensive legislation will only succeed once they receive clearer backing by the top political leadership.
The Rwenzori Anti-Corruption Coalition forms part of the Anti-Corruption Coalition of Uganda (ACCU) formed in January 1999 to bring together civil society organisations at the national, regional and district levels. It provides a forum through which these actors can mobilize and enhance their capacities as one strong voice and force that can lay out effective strategies to formulate a results-oriented agenda in the fight against corruption.
In 2010 Uganda featured as 127 out of 178 countries on the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Uganda’s score was 2.5 (1 is most corrupt, 10 least corrupt). This marks a drop since 2008 where Uganda’s score was 2.8, but is an improvement on the 2003 score of 2.1.
Stories about corruption also feature prominently in Ugandan media, in the electoral campaign and in Uganda’s dialogue with its donors. In 2010 several donors cut budget support by 10 per cent “due to slow progress on key indicators related to the fight against corruption.”