It’s barely two years since Uganda Airlines was revived after 18 years, and it is already in the headlines for very old reasons.
Virtually all the airlines’ executive leadership was recently sent packing, and almost immediately after, its board of directors was also bundled out. The managers have been accused of corruption, and the board was entangled in a bizarre power struggle with government bureaucrats and the vultures feeding off the carrier on the side.
In December, President Yoweri Museveni, perhaps aware of how the airline’s story was likely to end, warned crooks to stay away. "I congratulate Ugandans for having your own airlines. And to you the staff, I urge you to stop corruption. Don’t allow corruption in the new airlines,” he said at a ceremony to receive a new Airbus A330-800Neo.
“I don’t want to (sense) a smell of corruption in the new Uganda Airlines. And I thank Airbus for making a new product. We were wise not to buy the other American one — the Boeing which has been crashing and killing people. God is there, he’s the one who guided us," said Museveni.
This God is a funny one. He could guide Uganda to buy the right aircraft, but not give it the strength to be honest in its management, or the will to fight the corrupt.
Yet, there was something reassuring in the fact that the airline is already being eaten by crooks. It is so recognisable of the Ugandan public sector, in the same way it is quintessentially Kenyan that once soaring Kenya Airways, that was justifiably dubbed “The Pride of Africa” has also been munched to the bones. Uganda and Kenya are Siamese twins in that way.
If, instead of the scandals, Uganda Airlines had reported that it had saved a basketful of money through efficiencies, and finding lower prices for its supplies, there would have been total confusion. There would simply be no framework for understanding such prudent and scrupulous management, and it could only have been a mistake.
Knowing corruption is certain, gives you an opportunity to build unique structures to fight it, and to cost the risk. For starters, special laws or regulations need to be made to punish corrupt public officials and parastatal managers. They should be extreme, including seizure of all the thief’s property, that of his wife or her husband, and solitary confinement.
However, precisely because of rampant corruption, such high penalties could have the effect of raising the price for investigative agencies and dishonest judges to get them off the hook.
The risky, but potentially effective, alternative would be to play to their greed. Thus, for Uganda Airlines, provide that if they make budget, whatever it is, they can take and share among them all the money made or saved beyond that.
Fellows who are cunning enough to steal $2.5 million are good enough to make $5 million and pocket half it for themselves with no risk.
There is a future for Uganda Airlines. It is just not in the hands of good men and women. The angels in Uganda will be passengers.
Museveni’s God who steered Uganda away from buying Boeings that crash should be able to look after them.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]