What is corruption? Corruption is the employment of public goods for personal enrichment.
Or maybe we should add, employment of public goods for personal, family and friends’ enrichment.
By this definition corruption goes beyond stealing money, but will include employing company facilities – using official cars to ferry charcoal or official computers to do private consultancies or official time to do private errands.
To complete the definition we might add, corruption is the employment of public/company goods for personal, family and friends’ enrichment. And you can be sure we have not covered all the bases.
Corruption comes from a misalignment of ambitions between the government officials and the public or between the employees and shareholders or clients. If you can align those two ambitions, corruption need not exist. I think.
The theory is that governments are in place to improve the welfare of their people, be it in terms of improved security, services and infrastructure. Generally governments are, or should be, in the business of creating a conducive environment for their people, to not only survive but thrive.
It is not automatic.
For government to execute its mandate its bureaucracy needs to one, appreciate the end goal and two, make their own personal ambitions subservient to this overarching goal.
Without the latter it will matter little if everyone understands the former.
So under what circumstances do personal greed override the well-meaning intentions of the government?
It progresses slowly but increases in pace as more and more people are roped into the scam.
It starts when the bar of what is considered corrupt is raised. One minister famously complained that he had only eaten a few hundreds of thousands of dollars when others had eaten more. That the press should stop witch-hunting him!
Proceeds on to when public officials get away with more and more without getting caught. When we hear official so-so and the other have stolen billions of shillings it rarely is it the case that they did it in one fell sweep. Often times the stolen billions are the cumulative effect of years of “hard” work.
And then when the bosses start co-opting subordinates in their shady deals.
The story is told of former Zaire now Democratic Republic of Congo president Mobutu Ssese SSeko. Whenever he wanted some money from the central bank he would send his personal assistant with a note for say $10,000, the personal assistant would trot over to the central bank, but only after adding a zero to the request to make it $100,000. The central bank governor would unlock the vaults, but only after adding his own zero to make it $1,000,000.
So at the end Mobutu pocketed his $10,000 (maybe even tipped his PA $100!), the PA got $90,000 and the central bank boss got $900,000. Makes you wonder whether Mobutu was truly the richest man in Zaire.
And finally the institution becomes a machine for the promotion of private enrichment for its officials. It may even hire out its competence to people outside.
Of course the logical conclusion to all this is that eventually the government is captured, it forgets its original raison d’etre and becomes a free-for-all-but-the-people eating spree.
By this time even inserting your most upright citizens to cause a clean-up is an exercise in futility as the “eating” networks are so pervasive and coordinated that the most righteous individual will soon be subsumed by the sheer magnitude of the racket.
And the people?
Well they will get a few crumbs when the officials charge down to the village in government monster four wheel drives or to pay fees in decrepit schools, in a bad state because they are not get enough funding for the government or a few contributions for weddings, whose standards have been blown out of all reasonableness by the example of these thieving officials' own parties.
Actually the worst thing that can happen is not that the government becomes a machine feeding off the people’s sweat for the enrichment of the few. The worst thing that can happen is that the whole population – the thieves and victims, slowly but with increasing pace accept this state of affairs as the new normal.
When your brightest minds clamour for government jobs over the private sector, where the jobs are more enriching – in the sense of professional development and advancement you know all is lost.
Thankfully that last part has not happened in Uganda. Not yet!