Recently, I forgot my flash disk on a computer in a Kampala internet café and when I went back a few hours later to claim it, the café attendant assured me that I had to part with ten thousand shillings for the ‘Good Samaritan who had picked it.’
What he forgot to say is that he himself was the Good Samaritan and that he had actually plucked it out of the machine, hoping to cash in on his good fortune.
With a guilty smile he returned the gadget when I insisted that I had not lost or dropped it but had only forgotten it there.
That was a small victory against corruption but if it had been something more valuable belonging to a more desperate citizen perhaps the fellow could have got his way.
Such among many cases is how deeply corruption has got entrenched in the Ugandan society deep down to the common man. In my few days visit in Uganda, I heard the phrase “Do you have (the) money” very often.
It begins at the Katuna border where a passenger who held a temporary travel document was pulled aside by a forlorn looking policeman and asked. “Do you have money, because I can get you a police covering letter and call someone who can help you get a travel document in Kampala?”
In Uganda, corruption has lost the shame factor. People are not guilty of taking bribes. Instead they request aggressively making it clear that they are just trying to help. One such official in a government ministry who wanted to help a desperate senior citizen to access his pension file said, “Just give me one hundred thousand and we will do an express job for you.” His colleague added, “We are not thieves. That is just the express service fee.”
In order to extract more money, they will tell you how they have “put in money” so the file can be looked for or for the file to find itself in front of the officers’ desk before hundreds of other pending files. One of the reasons why there is rampant corruption in because of bureaucratic red tape in Ugandan offices.
In Rwanda, the government has worked hard to minimize this by making sure that most government services are accessible online and that government offices are accessible personally or through well displayed contacts on the office doors.
If government services are delivered quickly and efficiently, opportunities of exploitation by junior officials to ‘move things’ would not be necessary.
In Ugandan anything is possible with money. Traffic policemen are famous for their bribe taking, but this new trick impressed me.
They stand at the traffic lights in the wee hours of the morning where they are invisible to an oncoming driver and since the lights do their color dance all night, instead of going the customary flickering yellow, the fellow is confident that more than half of the motorists will drive through the red lights beaus eit is late.
As soon as one makes a move, they pounce out of the dark and shock the motorists waving them down and demanding for a bribe to let them go. One such Ugandan motorist was wiser as soon as the policeman appeared; he put off all his car lights and sped off dangerously such that the man of law could not read the offending car’s number plates.
At a prominent lawyers office in Kampala I accompanied a friend to swear an affidavit. The innocent looking secretary asked “Do you have money, because it will cost you a notary fee of two thousand shillings and a processing fee of thirty thousand.”
On affirmation the lady typed the document quickly and led us out where we exchanged the money in the corridors and thanked us, after warning us, “those government things, you have to be having money, otherwise they will take months.” She chuckled. “This is Uganda.”
In Uganda money can get a busy student a mercenary who specializes in doing other students’ course works and in the big classes which run into hundreds, sitting exams for their ‘clients.’
You can get an express birth certificate even if you were fortunate to be born in a banana plantation in a remote part of the country. You can get a driving permit without stepping into a car. You can bribe your way out of a police cell and your nemesis way inside.
You can even get you child into the most prestigious government schools even if they failed their qualifying exams.
It begs the question. Is corruption inherent in Uganda or is it just a vice that can be done away with by a serious bottom up approach of transparency measures the way such progress has been achieved in Rwanda?