To eliminate graft East Africa must break and build
Saturday April 15 2023
From Kampala to Dodoma, East Africa is in the grip of a corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. As President Yoweri Museveni weighed his options in dealing with the “Mabati scandal,” in which key figures is his administration are implicated, Tanzania’s Controller and Auditor-General released a report that details graft in government procurement, inflating public debt for the benefit of individuals and costly bureaucratic inefficiencies that are bleeding the country dry.
In Nairobi, in sensational revelations on television that have sparked a huge public debate, David Ndii, President William Ruto’s economic adviser candidly spoke about massive wastage of public resources, even as government runs broke and struggles to pay civil servants on time.
The common thread across the three countries is that public affairs have been hijacked by a seemingly powerful and incorrigible elite and the public is resigned to that fate. The factors perpetuating that state of affairs also have similarities – a democratic deficit and a long history during which political leaders have not been accountable to the masses.
Uganda’s mabati scandal
In a functioning democracy, a failure on the scale of Uganda’s mabati scandal in which nearly a dozen political leaders, including Cabinet ministers are implicated, should have been enough to bring down the government. But this is Africa.
Unless this wanton plunder of public resources is stemmed, the ultimate price will be high. Economies will go beyond distress into total ruin and reconstruction will only be possible on terms that will destroy the fortunes of an entire generation.
President Samia Suluhu Hassan has sent some officials packing. That is commendable, although not entire new, and past sackings have not stopped the culture of embezzlement by public servants. To succeed against graft, Samia and her peers in the region will need to take a more revolutionary approach. A government cannot fight graft on its own and hope to succeed without public support. That requires an overhaul of the politics to entrench democracy, diversity and inclusion in the management of public affairs.
The current system, where political cronies populate the public service, is a recipe for failure. The late Tanzanian leader John Magufuli sacked officials suspected of the vice, replacing them with cronies and only succeeding in centralising graft, run by a web of close-knit looters.
For the same reason, President Museveni faces hard choices in fighting graft because of the proliferation of party cadres and clannism in public affairs. In Kenya, President Ruto faces a widening credibility gap as the public sense lethargy and a rudderless approach to ending government wastage and graft.
At one level, President Samia is facing legacy issues that must be resolutely dealt with before her administration gets sucked into the vortex of an absurd normal. So far, her actions have been commendable, combining slackening of the political leash demanding better of public servants. And the results are showing. The rot in government is now in the public sphere because CAG reports are public and the media has leeway to report on them.
To make telephony universal, Africa demolished legacy networks, replacing them with wireless ones. The success of that experiment should inspire the reforms to build accountable government.