Corruption in Uganda has evolved unique traditions, including a class system that apportions how much the members can fleece the victims. The three classes of the corrupt – the commoners, the aristocrats and the royals – enjoy a symbiotic relationship and protect each other’s interests from the nosy folks who are forever trying to expose their rot.
The commoners take kitu kidogo (small amounts) from public or private transactions. The aristocrats, who populate the largest segment of the white-collar class, take kitu kikubwa (big amounts), usually from public transactions, perhaps up to 40 per cent of the official value. The royals, a small fraction of the ruling class, help themselves to kitu kyote (the whole thing) as and when they see fit. When caught in the act, their cases habitually disappear into the dark hole that “the system” has become. Very few have been invited to spend time in the country’s prisons.
We do not know how many Ugandans enjoy membership in each of these classes. The corruption in the land is so pervasive that one is almost tempted to agree with Mr. Green in Chinua Achebe’s No Longer At Ease in which the colonial Englishman claims that the African is corrupt through and through. “They are all corrupt,” repeats Mr. Green in reaction to the arrest of Obi Okonkwo, a promising pre-independence Nigerian civil servant, recently returned from England, who has taken a bribe.
I recall the anger with which I reacted to the fictional Mr. Green’s statement the first time I read Achebe’s classic novel in high school. My youthful patriotism and anti-colonial passion did not allow room for doubt about the racist explanation for such statements.
Time and experience have sobered my cocky dismissal of the Englishman’s observation. The mega-corruption scandals of the last 30 years in Uganda alone leave one breathless as one counts them off. And these are just the tip of the landslide. Trillions of shillings have been stolen in a national orgy of pinching from the public purse, the rot starting at the top and trickling down to the littlest of the citizens.
Anyone who has done business in Uganda, however small, has a story to tell about their encounter with corruption. Which Diaspora Ugandan has not been cheated by a relative? Which employer has not been robbed by a domestic servant? Is it not an entrenched belief in the land that “man eateth where man worketh?”
It is enough to honor Chinua Achebe’s Mr. Green for his accurate diagnosis of the African condition. However, that too would be an over-reaction. The truth is somewhere in between.
Like all societies in the world, Uganda has a population with a rainbow of morals. There are many morally upright men and women who have neither stolen a cent from the public purse nor accepted the groceries that the rulers have used to control the population. They have faithfully discharged their duties as citizens and their contractual obligations to others. We need to hear their stories around this Fireplace.
I honour one man today for his exemplary conduct in the face of a most tempting opportunity. In August 1968, Mr. Katono of Sindi, Rukiga, Kigezi, was the headman for a maintenance crew on the treacherous road through the Rukiri Mountains. He was my parents’ friend, having previously worked as a labourer under my father’s supervision at Mparo Health Centre.
Early one morning, Mr. Katono arrived for work and discovered an overturned Barclays Bank Land Rover high up on the mountain, with bags of cash in the vehicle and a lot more scattered around the scene of the “accident.”
Mr. Katono summoned Kuribakanya and Bangyendereire, his teenage sons, to hurry up the steep hill and keep watch while he hastily rode his bicycle to report his find to the Ssaza (County) Chief.
The latter soon took charge of the situation and Mr. Katono continued with his work as a manual labourer. He later appeared as a state witness in the case of the Great Bank Robbery that has now entered legend.
It was an inside job that involved collusion between the civilian robbers, the police and the bank staff responsible for transporting the millions of shillings from Kabale to Mbarara that fateful morning.
A couple of chaps went to jail. Other suspects are said to have got off scot-free, though one surmises that they probably remain haunted by that great crime that shocked Kigezi out of its innocence 48 years ago.
Even back then many people ridiculed Mr. Katono for foregoing this entandikwa that might have lifted his fortunes. “You will die poor,” they taunted him. To Mr. Katono the question of stealing the loot never arose. The money belonged to Barclay’s Bank and that was that.
Mr. Katono died a very poor man, ridiculed and unappreciated but with a clean conscience. His little homestead at Sindi has since disappeared. Few locals recall him. But to me he remains the citizen to emulate.
I honour Mr. Katono and immortalise him through the digital record. Let his story be told down the ages, along with those of the numerous Katonos that populate our land and labour in obscurity but with clean hands. Not all Africans are corrupt, Mr. Green.