A serving minister in the Uganda government spent the long Easter weekend in prison. The honourable Dr Maria Goretti Kitutu was remanded on account of her alleged involvement in the diversion of roofing iron sheets (mabati) meant for the country’s poorest region of Karamoja, where they were to be given to repentant cattle rustlers emerging from the bush to start a settled life in the communities they had been terrorising.
But when dealing with a public service riddled with corruption, things rarely go according to script. Someone once said that comparing politicians to fishermen is unfair because fishermen waste their own money, unlike politicians who waste ours.
The jailing of the minister was an apparent start of a crackdown on Uganda’s “fishermen,” a dozen or so of whom are ministers in government but haven’t yet learnt how politicians safely access public wealth.
The reference to new ministers as fishermen was coined by President Yoweri Museveni himself when, upon being re-elected in 2021, like Jesus, who picked common fishermen for his disciples instead of scholars and priests, he appointed several unexpected persons to high positions in his Cabinet. Unexpected because these were not polished, sophisticated elite you expect to find at the helm governing the country.
True, they all had a university education, but this is no longer a novelty in the 21st century. Museveni’s “fishermen” are really normal people (mostly women) raised like most of us in the lower strata of society, speaking English in their mother tongue accent like most of us and still having some rough edges that need some filing before they can mingle easily in high society.
The “fishermen” were particularly deemed fit for the appointments because the five-year National Development Plan (2021-26) is really grassroots-based, and their being “of the common people” made them NDP’s suitable implementers. We had all thought, and rightly so, that the fishermen wouldn’t intentionally waste our money like typical politicians do. But it appears Museveni’s fishermen were not comprehensively warned about the snake-pit of public service that they had entered. They climbed down the pit, oblivious to the silent cobras, mambas and vipers crawling in the dark.
Cheap mabati bait
So, they apparently fell for the appropriate bait of cheap mabati that were, according to most of the implicated, just delivered to their homes, all the paperwork done by assistants. Had they been baited with a million dollars, our lovable fishermen would probably have screamed and reported their tempters to their appointing authority, and we wouldn’t be having this mess. But mabati were within their realm, so they took them and donated them to village schools in their constituencies, hoping to smoothen their re-election to parliament in 2026.
The corruption entrenched in the public service possibly consumes a quarter of the national annual budget, according to the Inspector General of Government. In reality, this is half the country’s tax revenue, since nearly a half of the budget constitutes debt (borrowing and servicing). Conspiracy theorists argue that if you are among the captains in charge of siphoning a quarter of the budget (Ush10 trillion — $2.7 billion), you don’t want some fishermen unschooled in these things to be your bosses and asking you funny questions, moreover rather too loudly.
Common fishing identity
The fishermen, incidentally, include the Vice-President, the Prime Minister, the Minister for Karamoja Affairs and her deputy — all women. The not-so-discerning media hasn’t explored their common fishing identity enough, nor have the police investigators who are only interested in securing evidence of theft. The prosecutors are concerned with the violated sections of the law and the politicians are concerned with minimising the damage to the state’s image.
What is not being asked, and should be asked, is how on earth it was decided that procuring and distributing thousands of iron sheets was the solution to the instability of Karamoja, an arid region whose suffering stems from insecurity and lack of water. Obviously, a borehole sunk in every village and a couple of policemen deployed cannot be resold in a market outside, even within, Karamoja like iron sheets, which are undesirable in the hot region in the first place.
That is just one of the questions that is not being asked in the mabati saga, which has cost hundreds of man hours for a parliamentary committee, police investigations, prosecution work, which are far more expensive that the five or so thousand iron sheets that were not lost but sent to the wrong districts.
But the law is an ass and, unfortunately, the fishermen did not know that.
Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]