Corruption Culture: Strategies for Uganda and the United States

Corruption in Uganda has permeated every rung of the socio-economic ladder.  Everybody complains about its aggravating presence in the top political offices.  We groan when the Office of the Prime Minister spends funds designated for infrastructural improvements on a personal bulletproof Mercedes Benz.  We feel as though our rights are violated when monies are shifted into the pockets of ghost teachers (or any other brand of ghost worker).  But do we really have the right to complain?

Those at the bottom of the human food chain in Uganda rely on corruption for their basic sustenance.  Without it, they might starve.  Consider the policeman who may not even be permitted to resigned his position even if he desired to do so.  He makes less than $150 in a month.  Perhaps he has children to care for.  How can his meager wage support such responsibilities?  People get creative when it becomes a matter of survival, including policemen.  So he goes to the side of the street, stopping vehicles and demanding some coins here and there.

The non-profit sector is no different.  Funding is solicited in the most conniving ways.  Orphans are asked to return to a project site with the “next term’s fees,” despite the fact that their previous term lasted no more than three weeks and nothing was learned.  Education is the same.  Lining the pocket of a lecturer just might get you that first class.  These days, people go into the God business as well, most commonly in Pentecostal churches where wealth is often synonymous with spiritual excellence.  A pastor begs his congregation to tithe to “support the needy” – or perhaps to buy curtains for the church windows – yet the money is spent on new clothes for his own children.

Surely President Museveni is the most guilty culprit, we believe.  His legacy of corruption, far outweighing those of any of his post-independence predecessors, has birthed a new national slogan: “For God and my stomach” (once “For God and my country”).  But do we have the right to criticize the man – or any other political elite – without practically demonstrating that we have denounced the entire culture of corruption from the bottom up?  Currently, many are still identifying the ability to con money from other people as acts of wisdom, as if there were no moral value to corruption and to excel in it were a demonstration of a unique, praiseworthy talent.

If we are to fight corruption as a system, rather than a person, we will overcome the problem much more quickly and holistically.  As a beginning, organizations working to end corruption can ask residents of Uganda to use their phones to take photos any time they witness an act of corruption.  Of course, some are more difficult to document than others – but bringing public humiliation upon the corrupt could be a preliminary tactic which supplements initiatives such as the Black Monday movement.  As the project builds momentum, groups could collaborate to demand and perform “citizen audits” of any public and private offices thought to be plagued with corruption.  Of course, we could also replicate the Indian Anna Hazare’s tactics of fasting unto death until an anti-corruption body fully staffed with ombudsmen is alive and properly functioning.


Tactics become more nuanced in the United States where corruption, although not affirmed as a general cultural good, has been effectively legal for more than a century.  A few Supreme Court cases in the 19th century, including Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad in 1886, solidified the notion that corporations hold the same legal rights as individuals, otherwise known as “corporate personhood.”

Over the decades, especially after the crack down on labor unions, corporations have not hesitated to expand their power with their influence of profits.  Like individuals, they can lobby.  (I do not know any individuals personally that can afford their own lobbyist that can compete with corporations by taking politicians on extended weekend vacations and providing other “gifts” and “contributions” directly and indirectly.)  Make no mistake: this bribery is legal in the US.  It is the identifying characteristic of the nation’s neoliberal political economy.  Nearly all politicians are effectively owned by corporations, especially those with the most powerful offices.  Corporate personhood, coupled with an aggressive culture of advertisement, effectively creates a pseudo-democratic oligarchy which cannot function without corruption.  

Fighting legalized corruption is very difficult and requires a lot of groundwork.  Rethinking consumption patterns is at the forefront.  Divesting from nearly all commercial shopping and driving of motor vehicles must occur to some degree, or the system will exist unchallenged.

Yet convincing a populous whose identity is derived from its ability to be hyper-mobile and buy anything without inconvenience seems like a lost cause.  So more radical measures are necessary.  Fighting corruption in poor countries is about protesting poverty, whereas fighting corruption in wealthy countries (even if the majority in that country are poor) is about protesting excessive wealth.  Excessive wealth is only hoarded by a small elite group of individuals.  Targeting protests to effect that group of individuals is important.  (For example, protesting outside a Wal Mart store is much less effective than strategically disrupting the lives of the so-called “Wal Mart 1%.”)  And these actions must threaten the pillars of support that enable corporations to exist and operate unregulated.

There is a paradox at play in fighting the structure of corporatocracy.  On one hand, people mustn’t be shortsighted in their efforts to subvert the corporate-government partnership.  When one victory is achieved and there is no follow through from activists, the powers that be will take advantage of this limited vision (such as when activists neglected to challenge a mainstream culture of hypermobility and natural gas companies took advantage of this by marketing themselves as a cleaner, alternative form of energy).  Yes, you can speak prophetically about an oil spill, but think ahead so as to make it difficult for other (equally criticizable) companies to swoop in and steal the show.

On the other extreme, people mustn’t overgeneralize with a broad, unachievable vision.  “Down with capitalism” is not a good sign.  Although there may be an important truth behind the message, it creates an environment where simplistic ideology can be cultivated.  Or perhaps worse.  Maybe nothing cultivates, and because of its ambiguity, any party can use such a sign to advance an ideology of their own.  Concrete, specific demands, causes, and actions must be developed for any significant measure of success to be achieved.  Certainly it’s a difficult balance to strike.  It requires a lot of premeditation, reflection, and constant revision.

So yes, in Uganda and the United States and everywhere else, let us maintain the holistic vision of building a world free of corruption.  But in light of that vision, let us identify the individuals, institutions, cultural norms, behaviors, and values that breed an atmosphere suitable for kleptocrats – and let us strategize to dismantle everything that enables them to continue with risk-free business as usual.

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  1. Interesting point that corruption in Uganda is endemic in all of society, not merely the very top. But I can’t help but think of the subsistence farmer earning less than $2 per day, who is being held in poverty through corruption. The tragedy is that the very poorest are being exploited.

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