Are we fighting the right battle on corruption?

(Cartoon by Mwijuka Stuart)

Clare Cheromoi

During the State of the Nation address by President Museveni on 7 June 2017, fighting corruption was highlighted again, as it has been over the years.

The challenge of corruption to Uganda’s progress and service delivery was also emphasized by the Minister of Finance, Mr Matia Kasaija, during the Budget Speech. What is clear in both the President’s and the finance minister’s speeches, is that corruption is a cancer that needs to be tackled.

The question that puzzles many is why corruption has persisted despite the numerous anti-corruption efforts and government undertakings? In some circles, people have argued that fighting corruption is a conundrum, a fight without a clear solution.

I, on the other hand, think that the point is not that corruption is undefeatable but rather we might be fighting the wrong battle.

Experience from other countries that have managed to control corruption to some degree shows that critical steps in the fight should be targeted at understanding the underlying causes of the problem: the “causes of the causes”.

To demonstrate this line of thinking, let us consider the following illustration adopted from John Levi Martin’s book (2011), The Explanation of Social Action.

He argues about two scenarios. In scenario one: A sells a store to B and a year later, C breaks into the store and kills B.

In scenario two: A was an  ancestor of C, who kills B.

The key question therefore is: “What caused B’s death?”

What we can conclude from Martin’s analysis is that C’s murdering of B is a more proximate cause of B’s death than A selling him a store. However, we cannot rule out that A’s selling the store to B contributed to B’s death. The implication is that in order to understand the real causes of our current problems such as corruption and therefore get the right antidote, we need to appreciate that no event or outcome exists without the culmination of a whole plenum of things that could have happened differently, or some time back.

For instance, a historical perspective into the anti-corruption movement of the current regime shows that the whole effort is focused on formulating laws and the establishment of institutions. Since 1986, legislation after legislation has been enacted to prevent, control and prosecute the corrupt in Uganda.

For example, the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda created the IGG’s office. In 2000 the Leadership Code Act was enacted and the years 2000 to 2013 saw the enactment and amendment of eight other domestic laws on anti-corruption.

This implies that at least every year, legislation on anti-corruption is proposed or enacted. Do the reformers in Uganda believe that creating many laws to strengthen the legal and institutional spaces for the corrupts’ behaviour is the solution?

However, corruption has increased despite these efforts. This indicates that we should not only focus on C causing B’s death but also minding about A’s selling of the store to B as a legitimate cause of B’s death. For example, the setting up of the laws and anti-corruption institutions does not address the inherent greed of many Ugandans and culturally embedded perspectives about resources and wealth amassing.

Do people who grew up in conditions of scarcity become greedy once they are exposed to resources? If so, then putting laws in place alone will not control greedy behaviour, unless their basic needs are met in their communities.

Should we conduct due diligence on people’s backgrounds before electing them into offices of power, or offer them employment?

The point is that the causes of corruption have many faces. It can be likened to a tree. If you do not cut the roots and only prune the leaves, it will sprout again.

In conclusion, controlling corruption in Uganda does not lie only in laws and institutions that enforce them but also in identifying the root causes of the current behaviour of the corrupt, and designing appropriate measures to deal with them.

The writer is a lecturer in the Faculty of Social Sciences at UCU

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