Transitions

Are Ugandans reaching the breaking point on corruption?

The Daily Monitor managing editor and columnist, Daniel Kalinaki, deftly captures the state of Uganda's corruption in a poignant opinion piece he's just published in the paper. The title says it all: "Uganda used to have thieves, now the thieves have Uganda." He writes about the sky-high level of official corruption and how it has become an institutionalized phenomenon. Kalinaki's piece neatly expresses what a lot of Ugandans have been thinking, and it's become a favorite in online discussions. As for me, I agree with Kalinaki that the thieves have Uganda by the balls.

The recent high-profile scandals involving mass embezzlement of funds in the Office of the Prime Minister scandal make one weep. The worst part is that money donated for disaster relief and post-conflict reconstruction was channeled into personal accounts -- even while the Ugandan media reports everyday on destitute people in need of all forms of assistance.

Ugandans are harsher on this government than they were, perhaps, on others in the past. That's because they still dream of holding it to a high moral standard they remember from the early days of the "liberation" back in 1986, when it was a "sin" to live a luxurious life. Back then, motivated by the aims of the still-idealistic National Resistance Movement, servants and public officials lived modest lives -- or, at least, that is how they chose to portray it. Today the powerful are perfectly happy to flaunt their ill-gotten wealth. The sheer injustice of it makes ordinary people want to bray for blood.

We're still digesting the news about how public officials in collusion with politicians stole donated aid money. Respected Ugandan columnist Charles Onyango Obbo compares the officials to the African masters who sold their people into slavery. He wonders why there has been no discussion of going back to the status quo of when the donor countries managed the financial aid process and the money was actually spent on the things it was intended for. He argues that there have been more and more cases of embezzlement ever since donors began giving aid to the government for it to disburse.

...More and more aid was, therefore, shifted and given as budget support -- in other words, it was put into the government's coffers and it apportioned and spent it as it deemed fit. The benefits of this approach, however, came along with greater corruption -- now we had the goods, so we ate them.

So why isn't there a push to return to the old approach where donors managed the aid directly? And why, despite the few token aid cuts and suspensions now and then, does the donor cash still flow into corrupt systems?
Well, after the economic and political reforms of the late 1980s and 1990s, it was clear that most African countries' economies would continue to grow. As a result, their dependence on aid would reduce.

The story around aid would soon change, and donors would not be needed. And they would lose their influence and leverage, as a result...

In another op-ed, Ugandan social critic Timothy Kalyegira wonders why western donors did not learn from the Chinese and Japanese, who are carrying out massive development projects around Africa but never seem to see their money embezzled.

The news of the scandal has overshadowed other important stories around the country that suffer directly as a result of institutionalized embezzlement. Last month the intensive care unit of the national referral hospital was shut down for five days. The country could not hold the national census this year because of a lack of funds, but lavishly spent on the 50th independence anniversary celebrations. The Ugandan tabloid Red Pepper reported that the Uganda Bureau of Statistics needs over 100 billion Uganda shillings (approximately 40 million USD) to run the census next year. Teachers around the country have not been paid their October salaries and are planning another strike. Apparently this is a delay due checking out anomalies in the payroll system in order to weed out "ghost teachers" and to align correct banking details.

Wives of the officers of the Ugandan Police Force living in Ntinda, Kireka and Naguru Police Quarters, a city suburbs, staged a demonstration over poor living conditions and constant power outages. The police were dispatched to deal with the situation.  The arrests captured the irony of the policemen ordered to arrest their own wives who are demanding their husband's delayed salaries. The police force has become synonymous with its use of tear gas when suppressing any public gathering.

The Force said that an investigation would be launched into the strike to explore the possibility that the police officers might have encouraged their wives to demonstrate. If they are found to have incited the protest, it would be considered a mutiny, akin to treason.  

Civil society organizations announced a week of mourning over the corruption mess in Uganda and called upon Ugandans to wear black during that period. A mass demonstration was planned to run from November 12-16.

As I write this, I remember the placard I saw during the OccupyNigeria protests early in the year that read: "One day the poor will have nothing left to eat but the rich." In the case of Uganda I would add, "and the thieves."

Follow Jackee on Twitter at @jackeebatanda

Photo by Kasamani Isaac/AFP/GettyImages

Transitions

Egypt's ominous attack on porn

"I called people up so they would join the revolution. And they died. I let (Ahmed) Harara walk onto Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and he was blinded. My friends, who weren't into politics but whom I talked into coming to the streets, died... All so you would block porn sites, you sons of bitches?"

The Twitter rants of activist Mohamed "Gemyhood" Beshir were outraged and heartfelt. The ridiculousness of the situation was uncanny. Never mind the imperative issues of unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, education, and police reform -- the Egyptian state has opted to busy itself with the trivial, the controversial, the ridiculous: Banning porn. After all, isn't that what the 2011 revolution was all about? Forget "bread, freedom, and social justice:" Blocking pornography is what we really need!

There's more to it, though.

First, the decision to block access to pornography isn't new: It actually builds on a 2009 verdict from the administrative courts to ban pornographic material for Egyptian users. Back then the decision was mocked as the ministry of telecommunications did not -- and still does not -- have the technical and human capacities to enforce such a filtering mechanism. More importantly, however, the ban came under the premiership of Ahmed Nazif, a former minister of telecommunications whose claim to fame was his efforts to popularize access to the Internet. He was unlikely to undo his own achievements.

The 2009 verdict was revived this week by General Prosecutor (and Mubarak-era holdover) Mahmoud Abdel Meguid. Recently Abdel Meguid had a public row with President Morsi, who publicly "relieved him of his duties" (with strong support for his removal from the Egyptian public), but moved him to the very cushy post of ambassador to the Vatican. The decision turned out to be illegal, and Abdel Meguid therefore remains in his post. Many believe the row between the two men was overblown.

This new decision is therefore seen as either an attempt by the general prosecutor to ingratiate himself with the ruling conservative Muslim Brotherhood (and their ultraconservative Salafi allies), or, more likely, as an initiative prompted by the government.

Second, the issue isn't so much "pornography" as the fact of the ban itself. In a society that likes to pretend it's religious (though really we're talking about superficial religious hypocrisy, but that's another subject), it's hard to make the argument for individual freedom concerning something that would be religiously reprehensible, such as pornography, without being smeared as a proponent of "western decadence." It's clear that what the new powers-that-be are actually trying to do here is to re-accustom the populace to the idea that one of the natural jobs of the state should be controlling and censoring the media they consume -- an effort that amounts to rolling back one of the few concrete achievements of the 2011 revolution.

And third, censorship is a very steep and very slippery slope. There is no clear definition of what would be deemed pornographic or not; and already a fringe group of Salafi youth is demanding that medical websites be censored as well (apparently they get aroused by drawings of the reproductive system). Today it's pornography; tomorrow it's websites that criticize religion. Already, the draft constitution, due to be finalized within days, includes a clause that "forbids insulting all prophets," so this is not a far-fetched assumption.

Soon after it will be those that insult the state and its rulers -- anything that criticizes the government would potentially be exposed to being censored.

Disappointingly, though, activists do little more than wallow on social media, and opposition politicians keep mum. As usual they are unwilling to show any kind of courage or contrary positions.

It is hence likely that the only thing standing between Egyptians and outright internet censorship is cost-prohibition of organizing servers to block IP addresses and domain names, but more importantly, acquiring an army of reviewers to flag websites and handle complaints for websites mistakenly blocked.

If you want to find out whether the ban on online porn is being enforced, anyone interested in the issue can always check the very helpful website, "Is Porn Blocked in Egypt yet?"

Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images