EU Diplomats and Ugandan Leaders Discuss Public Sector Accountability

von Christian Warnke
A high-level panel of EU ambassadors, Ugandan politicians and civil society actors has underscored the importance of a well functioning public sector which is accountable to citizens as a pre-requisite for achieving development and a just society. They, however, observed that for the case of Uganda public sector accountability is presently far from working frictionless and is mostly disturbed by pervasive corruption. This was the outcome of an intellectual discourse organised by KAS and ACFODE on the occasion of the Europe Day 2013.

In Cooperation with Action for Development (ACFODE), the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) organised an intellectual discourse on the topic: ‘Promoting Public Sector Accountability in Uganda: Sharing Best Practices with Europe’. The event took place on 6th May 2013 at Makerere University and featured high-ranking representatives from the Uganda government, EU officials, and well-known civil society actors. Although opinions differed greatly, the discussants agreed that corruption is still one of the major problems the Ugandan society has to face, affecting most severely the country’s poorest people. To reduce the deep-rooted corruption dramatically and to improve public sector accountability, a multi faceted approach was suggested, that first and foremost needs a strong political will, as H.E. Dr. Roberto Ridolfi, Head of the European Delegation to Uganda, remarked.

The intellectual discourse was organised under the project ‘Action for Strengthening Good Governance and Accountability in Uganda’ implemented by KAS and ACFODE with support from the European Union under the Democratic Governance and Accountability Programme (DGAP). The motivation to hold the event was premised on the growing importance of public sector accountability in the governance discussion in Uganda. This subject gained more relevance in the face of several widely publicised instances of public resources being misappropriated in different government departments in Uganda. A recent incident where significant amounts of public funds were discovered to have been mismanaged and consequently lost in the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) presented just one of several examples in this regard. As much as $13 million in donor funds intended for reconstruction projects in war-torn northern Uganda were embezzled by government officials.

The aid given to Uganda by foreign donors accounts for about 25% of the national budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year and it excludes other significant amounts that come in as direct project support. After the corruption scandal in the OPM was revealed, donor countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway withheld their aid and partly wanted to have the misappropriated money refunded as a way of forcing the Ugandan government to implement effective anti-corruption measures and realise a fully accountable management of public funds.

The subsequent response from the development partners in the form of aid cuts attracted diverging reactions from both the government and the Ugandan public. While the donors clarified on not having an intention to ‘hurt’ the local citizens who are the targeted beneficiaries of the assistance given, this consequence could not be entirely avoided as several externally funded projects were affected by the aid cuts. In some government circles there were also questions as to whether the withholding of aid was to be seen as a new form of external control on the Ugandan state.

Many governance experts already observed that Uganda needs to significantly improve its anticorruption strategy to ensure appropriate utilisation of public funds. This is not just to be emphasised as a pre-requisite for the country to have comfortable relations with her development partners, but, most importantly because it is a pre-condition for achieving the transformation and development Ugandans aspire for.

On the premise of the foregoing, KAS and ACFODE utilised the occasion of the Europe Day – considering that the European Union in combination with its individual member states undoubtedly constitute Uganda’s largest development partner – to organise an intellectual discourse on the topic of public sector accountability. The event was thus held on 6th May as part of the activities in the build up to the celebrations of the Europe Day on 9th May.

In her opening remarks, ACFODE Executive Director Ms. Regina Bafaki stressed the importance of the European engagement in Uganda’s development which, she noted, especially focuses on the promotion of democracy, good governance and accountability. Concerning accountability, Hon. Raphael Magyezi who represented the Speaker of Parliament referred to Uganda’s undesirable poor performance on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2012 when it was ranked the 46th most corrupt country in the world out of 176 scrutinized states. The best measurement the government can use to fight corruption is a strong legal framework, which requires institutional reforms, Hon. Magyezi pointed out. For him, the challenges Uganda has to face in her anti-corruption endeavours are manifold and reside in the behaviour of high-ranking public sector officials, the low pay of public servants, the glorification of corruption by society, the overstay of politicians in their positions that leads to a culture of impunity, and the weak capacity of ministries and institutions to deal with corruption.

In his elaborated speech H.E. Dr. Roberto Ridolfi agreed with the previous speaker regarding the complexity of corruption in Uganda. He stated that the main responsibility to deal with corruption lies with the government. On what could be considered a positive note he observed that President Museveni had made commitments towards pushing back corruption during a recent political dialogue the EU ambassadors held with the Ugandan head of state. Dr. Ribolfi emphasised that the promised efforts are desperately needed to breathe life into the statement of zero tolerance against corruption that the Ugandan government used as a common slogan. He expressed discomfort to the fact that there is currently little progress, showed in dealing with the recent corruption scandals. Notwithstanding that, the EU ambassador confirmed Europe’s commitment to its long-standing support to the government in improving financial management and accountability. He also pointed out some betterments as shown for example by the government’s disclosure of significant budget information to its citizens as indicated by the 2012 Open Budget Survey. Following his line of argument, solely such unveiled budget information allows for serious investigations of embezzled funds.

Yusuf Kiranda, Programme Manager at KAS, reminded the audience in his discussion impulses that all Ugandans are supposed to be equal shareholders in the public sector regardless of any individual difference such as age, gender or sexual orientation. He emphasised that as shareholders the Ugandan citizens are the owners of all resources the public sector controls. That the public sector is not able to be accountable to its shareholders is manifested mostly by the continuing non-transparency, the ongoing corruption, the government’s inability or unwillingness to deal with corruption satisfactorily, and the state’s interruption of anti-corruption campaigns by the public. In addition, he noted with concern the deep contrast between the commitment to accountability – as elaborated in several Ugandan public sector documents including the constitution, the National Development Plan (and now Vision 2040), as well as the manifestos of all political parties, among them the ruling NRM – and the defacto situation dominated by pervasive corruption.

Key contributions to the panel discussion were made among others by Mr. Arthur Larok the Country Director of ActionAid Uganda. He commented on what he referred to as the ‘accountability dilemma’. According to him, this dilemma comprises of, firstly, citizens who are weaker than the state and therefore failing to keep the state accountable. Secondly, the Ugandan state is very present and absent at the same, meaning that, for instance, the government takes action against protests, but nothing happens when somebody somewhere gets a heart attack. Thirdly, the Ugandan population completely lost trust in the government, which among other things leads to a withdrawal of domestic investments. And lastly, the government is only giving hope to the people without doing enough to improve the situation.

In addressing what Dr. Ridolfi had reported of the ambassadors’ meeting with the Ugandan president, Hon. Gerald Karuhanga who chairs the Ugandan chapter of the African Parliamentary Network against Corruption (APNAC-U) appealed to the EU ambassadors to apply whatever leverage they have to demand that the Ugandan government implements stronger anticorruption actions. He further pointed out, that corruption is increasing other problems Uganda is facing. Moreover, Karuhanga pleaded for the introduction of, what he called, a ‘real’ parliamentary prosecutor, who is accusing frauds and taking them to court.

Hon. Lydia Mutende Wanyoto, a former Ugandan Representative of the East African Legislative Assembly, presented a more optimistic picture. Citing examples from Tanzania and Rwanda, she emphasized the possibility of having a public expenditure working without corruption. She added that no government official steals in the name of the ruling NRM party. They rather do so, to enrich themselves on private basis. She assured participants that the NRM as an institution can still be relied upon as a key ally in the anticorruption crusade. Hon. Wanyoto reiterated that the ruling party will try its best to work on the corruption issue before the 2016 election approaches.

In his closing remarks the Minister for Security, Hon. Wilson Muruli Mukasa, assured all participants that he filtered and noted all inspiring ideas that had been shared and promised to share them with relevant government departments. He commended the dialogue initiative as ‘a big step in the right direction.’ Hon. Mukasa admitted that corruption is still a major problem in Uganda, but noted that there was an inch by inch advancing progress in dealing with it. Moreover, he suggested a closer cooperation between the government and partners like the EU, civil society as well as opposition parties to fight corruption effectively and sustainably. Anti-corruption measures should be guided by the principle of honesty, because dishonesty, following Mukasa’s line of argument, is just another form of corruption.

Other contributors to the panel included the Vice Chairperson the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, Hon. Paul Mwiru, H.E. Alain Hanssen, Ambassador of Belgium to Uganda, and Hajji Abon Muzamil, Director of Regional Offices and Follow Up at the Inspectorate of Government. Mr. Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi, host of the locally celebrated radio talk show ‘Hot Seat’, moderated the discussion.

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