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Corruption in Uganda

Simone Schlindwein / guJanuary 28, 2014

In Uganda corruption is part of everyday life. Police officers demand bribes; ministers and judges buy expensive villas. Journalist Edward Sekyewa has declared a war on the corruption in his country.

Edward Sekeywa is seated behind the wheel of a car.
Image: DW/Simone Schlindwein

The court hearing only took 15 minutes before it was adjourned. But the plaintiff, Edward Sekyewa (in the picture above), is a patient man. He does not want to give up. Uganda's most courageous journalist has taken his country's government to court for refusing to disclose information. Sekyewa suspects that state employees have purchased land rights in an area where oil has been discovered recently, and landowners receive generous compensation when oil companies erect rigs on their property.

But the authorities have refused to disclose whom the land belongs to, even though they are required by law to provide this information to the public. Parliament had already passed a law as early as 2002 making it mandatory for state employees to declare their income, assets and liabilities as well as those of their closest relatives, in order to fight corruption. It is one of the laws governing the public's right to information, Sekyewa's lawyer Isaac Kimaze explained.

"Individuals like myself, like Edward, can then access that register of declared information. But the act speaks of a form, and the government hasn't provided that form," Kimaze complained before the judge. In 11 years, the minister responsible for ethics and integrity has failed to prepare the required application document.

The prosecutor, on the other hand, blamed the East African Community, which had wanted to establish a court to handle such cases but has not yet done so. Then she requested an additional two months to work on the case.

Sliding downward on the corruption index

On the global corruption index compiled by the non-governmental organization Transparency International, Uganda ranks 140th of 177 countries listed. Every year the East African country sinks further down the index. Last year it dropped by 10 places.

In Uganda corruption is simply part of everyday life. It had become normal for police officers to ask for money when they stopped cars, Sekyewa said. It was almost a matter of course that bribes had to be paid for the authorities to get something done, like registering a car, for example. It had become normal, Sekyewa said, that enormous sums simply disappeared from state coffers and that ministers and judges bought expensive real-estate, drove huge cars and lived in large, extravagant villas.

A city street is lined by a block of fancy new apartments, surrounded by a high wall. Further on there is a modern building with a large glass facade.
How can government employees afford expensive real-estate?Image: DW/Simone Schlindwein

As editor-in-chief of an investigative monthly magazine, 38-year-old Sekyewa has often run into obstacles which he believes are deliberate attempts to make it more difficult to access information. But Sekyewa does not want to let such things discourage him. On the contrary, from the environmental protection agency he wants to know who has issued permits to build houses in nature reserves. From the presidential administration he wants to know what criteria are used to award scholarships. He wants to know who built the bridge that collapsed two weeks after its construction was completed. He wants to know how an undersecretary in the ministry of agriculture can afford a Mercedes worth 100,000 dollars (73,254 euros). But to demand access to this information is hard work and requires patience and perseverance, Sekyewa says.

Sekyewa has submitted 36 applications so far. He did not receive an answer to a single one. That is why he wants to initiate legal proceedings in 36 cases. He has founded a non-governmental organization and received money from an international foundation to be able to pay the lawyers.

Are citizens accomplices in the corruption?

Sekyewa's theory is that corruption in Uganda has been able to assume such proportions, because the citizens are too complacent. If a society asked questions instead and demanded transparency, corrupt officials would not get away with it so easily, the journalist believes.

A cyclist and several cars try to steer clear of a pothole and cause a traffic jam.
People complain about potholes, but defend corrupt officialsImage: DW/Simone Schlindwein

But Sekyewa has often experienced that Ugandans simply put up with the corruption or even come to the defense of corrupt officials.

"People ask me: Why are you doing this? You leave those people alone!" Sekyewa recounts. And these are the people who go to the hospital and complain that there is no medicine, that we are driving on funny roads, but they are telling you to leave those people alone! You will find a civil servant who earns like 2.5 million Ugandan shillings ($1,367; 1001 euros) a month, but you'll find the same person putting up four, or three, buildings at the same time. And you don't ask yourself: where does he get this money. We need an awakening."

Make-believe laws for Western donor countries

Sekyewa is now using the laws passed to fight corruption but never applied, such as the freedom of information act, which was passed in 2005. It was not until 2011 that there were any rules for the implementation of the law.

"These laws, especially the anti-corruption laws we have here, are not made for Ugandans. They have been made to appease the donor community, the international community, to make them believe that we have these checks and balances to check corruption," Sekyewa says.

The governing party boasts of having come up with such anti-corruption laws. "But have they implemented them? So now we Ugandans have a chance. It is up to us to start testing these laws. That's what we are doing."