Uganda's Karamoja region is awash with minerals. It is also the poorest, plagued by decades of cattle rustling violence, punitive disarmament campaigns by every government since independence, and exploited by a shadowy network of foreign and Ugandan carpetbaggers, especially for its highly prized marble.
Its nomadic Kalashinkov and spear-wielding cattle herders are a hardy, headstrong lot. But decades of drought, starvation, pests (it bore the brunt of the 2021 locust swarm in East and Horn of Africa), and a violent putdown of its "warriors" by the government might be about to break their backs. In the past year, photographs of the starving and dying in Karamoja have been like something straight out of a horror movie.
Karamoja is the region that has, for the longest time, had a minister dedicated to the area. Even Uganda's First Lady Janet Museveni was thrown at the problem as Minister for Karamoja Affairs from May 2011 to June 2016. She came out without a victory trophy.
Iron sheets and goats
With locusts compounding the Karamoja crisis and rising anger and militancy threatening mining, in 2021, the government voted hundreds of billions of shillings for feeding programmes, and to buy iron sheets and goats for the vulnerable in the region.
In the past few weeks, Uganda has been riveted by the news of what happened to the iron sheets and goats. Politicians in Kampala, most of them ministers, pocketed the iron sheets and goats (so to speak). With the scandal raging, a junior Finance minister had to endure the embarrassment of removing the Karamoja iron sheets from a fantastic shed he had built for his farm animals in central Uganda. The media obliged with before and after photos showing the bare roof.
There is virtually no such government undertaking in Uganda, as in most of Africa, that doesn't end in scandal. There are few Ugandans who expect no corruption will be involved. However, even the most cynical of them think there is still an "eating red line" left. They thought they would never see the sight of pampered, well-fed ministers driving Land Cruisers stealing iron sheets and goats from their own starving citizens. They were wrong.
No conscience to quit
A parliamentary committee has called for the people involved to resign. Unlikely. Someone who steals from someone dying in Karamoja probably doesn't have the conscience to quit.
There have been calls for President Yoweri Museveni — at this point, one of the few people in his government who hasn't dipped into the Karamoja iron sheets — to crack down on them. It is a test that he will fail, or he will only take the scalp of only one or two crooked politicians.
Museveni's first problem is that there are too many politicians, several of them crucial local power anchors in their areas for him, who have Karamoja iron sheets and goats stashed away in their backyards.
With succession politics heating up in Uganda and signs that Museveni might seek to extend his rule in 2026, when he will have been in office for 40 years, he is unlikely to punish the hands that deliver him the votes, however soiled they are.
Museveni's grip slipping
The same succession, in fact, has heightened corruption. Museveni's once firm grip is slipping, as age and the long exertions of presidential office continue to take a toll on him. The optimistic scenario has him making it to 2031. The worst-case scenario doesn't see him pulling off 2026. For many in the government and ruling National Resistance Movement, this means they have only between three and eight years to, as the Kenyans say, put their affairs in order.
These will be three to eight years of frenzied corruption as politicians and other regime apparatchik build golden parachutes with public loot to cushion them in the post-Museveni era.
But, even without that transition uncertainty, corruption has, unfortunately, become one way Uganda's leadership cultivates loyalty. You steal Karamoja iron sheets, the scandal breaks in a newspaper or mysteriously lands in the documents of a parliamentary committee, and there is a national circus around it. Sometimes the theft doesn't break, but it is known to a few via a confidential security or state agency report.
If your patrons or the President protect you, they will not sack you; if they do, they will ensure you don't get prosecuted or return your stolen spoils. From that point, they own you. If there is even the vaguest suspicion that you are going to join the opposition or insist on contesting the election against a candidate preferred by the Big Men in your constituency, there is always that corruption case whose file will be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
It is a very effective tool of control and motivation for politicians to campaign for the ruling party during elections. When you hear politicians declaring that Museveni is the child of immaculate conception, that God sent him to save Uganda from its sins, and that he has wisdom greater than King Solomon's and should thus rule into eternity, it isn't because they have been asked to utter such absurdities.
It is likely because they ate something, got caught, and a Big Man made it go away — but kept the ka-file in his drawer. It has created a market in which more people steal from the taxpayer, with the calculation that they can trade in their unquestioning loyalty for amnesty for their sins.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3