The government last week got more ammunition for fending off critics who accuse it of lacking the political will to fight high-level corruption.
The next time that charge comes up, someone will drop the name of John Muhanguzi Kashaka, the now former permanent secretary in the ministry of Local Government. On Thursday, Kashaka and five other officials were handed various jail terms for their role in the botched purchase of bicycles for LC chairpersons ahead of the 2011 elections. The scandal left Ugandan taxpayers at least Shs 4.6bn poorer, as the contractor, Aitel, got paid for no work done.
Handing Kashaka and former Principal Accountant Henry Bamutura 10-year jail terms each, Justice Catherine Bamugemereire spoke of the need for stern punishments to discourage other people from robbing the Ugandan public.
But the judge went one step further. She ordered the convicts to refund the money that they “mindlessly” gave away.
We think this latter directive is very significant in a country such as Uganda. So rampant is graft that the corrupt seem undeterred by the threat of jail. Instead, it seems, one may see a few years in jail as a small price to pay for amassing wealth to sustain a generation.
By ordering that the convicts refund the money, the judge sent a useful message to other would-be offenders. Such strong measures would have the effect of hiking the cost of stealing public resources. If people know that whatever they steal may eventually be reclaimed by the state, they may think twice before engaging in corrupt practices – whether by blatant commission or by careless omission.
Of course there is no guarantee that the Shs 4.6bn will be recovered: the government would have to be extremely smart and resolute. But the judge has made a powerful directive that the government – if it is indeed serious about fighting graft – should implement and take as a precedent.
It is not enough to go after the thieves; the government must develop mechanisms to recapture the loot. As regards theft from the Ugandan public, that is what will constitute meaningful justice.