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Corruption: Kagina battling bravely, but how sustainable are her heroics?

State structures in African countries are often inhabited by officials who rather line their pockets and please those above them than render a service to the public.

In the second and last part of an investigation carried out in Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria, journalists ANAS AREMEYAW ANAS, THEOPHILUS ABBAH and BENON HERBERT OLUKA highlight how courageous civil servants fight criminal syndicates and plunder.

However, going by the methods used in countries such as Uganda, the big-picture question becomes: are these approaches sustainable?

By the time Catherine Allen Kagina, commissioner general of the Ugandan Revenue Authority, retired in November 2014, public regard for her performance was so high that she joined a very small group of public servants formally honoured by parliament.

Unbeholden to powerful individuals, syndicates and practices within the tax organisation, the woman called ‘President Museveni’s golden girl’ had trimmed bloated departments from eleven to seven; done away with ‘permanent and pensionable’ employees (resulting in a twenty percent smaller bureaucracy) and technically improved systems, leading the manual-to-digital transformation of service provision at the tax office.

In this way, in ten years, the URA was transformed from “a den of thieves” (Museveni’s words), plagued by smuggling, under-valuation and under-declaration of income, to a sleek, efficient organisation. Revenue had shot up from US$ 1.05 billion in 2004 to US$ 2.4 billion in 2014. Uganda’s dependence on donor funding for its national budget shrank from about fifty per cent in 2004 to thirty-five per cent in the 2014-2015 financial year.

An easy job it wasn’t. Kagina had made a point of being transparent, inviting public scrutiny from the media, and visiting places where health, academic and other state institutions were being constructed with government money, to show taxpayers that their money was being put to good use.

ANTI-GRAFT WARRIOR? Allen Kagina from URA to UNRA

Throughout, she advocated for more good use: “Let’s invest in roads and power, not in consumption,” she famously said once, in a reference to salaries in the bloated government bureaucracy. Such statements gave Ugandan taxpayers confidence that at least someone in the government – otherwise riddled with corruption - was worrying about what that government was doing with their money.

Kagina was also not afraid to make enemies: in a speech at the end of her 10-year reign at the tax authority’s Open Minds Forum in October 2014, she denounced the fact that corruption enquiries in the mid-nineties had gone nowhere in court, asking “what was the essence of (that) commission then? Perhaps by throwing the voluminous report away, the judiciary was sending us to die.”

She also recounted then how she had done away with the system that worked on the basis of ‘signatures’ from individual people at the top of the revenue service.

“These were a source of inefficiency and corruption. We devolved all power to the lowest tax administrators and the role of the rest of us top managers would be supervision.”

PROTECTED BY THE PRESIDENT

One would be hard pressed, however, to find a real obstacle that was ever put in Kagina’s way, or a real risky moment where the people who had always had the ‘signatures’ could have kicked her out.

The reason is simple: having been appointed by the highest office in the land, President Museveni himself, she could count on his protection throughout. Cynics in Uganda, however, counter that President Museveni wants the tax office to run well because it funds his government, and that he may not be as concerned about countering corruption elsewhere.

On the other hand, as if to prove the critics wrong, Museveni has in recent years also appointed ‘silver bullet’ deployees to sort out other troubled institutions, such as the Kampala city administration.

Uganda, 2015: A random couple of visits to tax offices shows that performance has stayed up even now that Kagina has left, and been succeeded by another ‘Museveni girl,’ Doris Akol.

At the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) headquarters in Kampala, for example, we find computer firm director Bernard Wanyama in a very good mood indeed.

“I came to sort out my tax matters and it was a breeze, much to my surprise!”

Wanyama has nothing but praise for the lady who attended to him and “who was kind enough to teach me how to use the online system, amend my details and get my tax clearance certificates.”

Wanyama later even more elatedly reports that “within hours of my visit at the office, I received an email with all the pending clearances I had almost given up on.”

Even in the offices in the rural areas, where one could hardly get anything done in the past, there is now efficient round-the-clock service. At Bibia on the Uganda-South Sudan border,- a remote area 430 kilometres north of Kampala with no grid electricity-, the URA office draws power from a solar system and a thermal generator.

And at the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, 370 kilometres west of Kampala, a neat two-roomed cottage houses four work stations in one room and two other stations for the managers in another. Each work station is a one-stop centre that takes care of a trader’s every need.  Henry Bwambale, the chairman of the regional Mpondwe Clearing Agents Association, says the only challenges the traders face is the lack of internet.

“When there is network, there is efficiency; customs officers will clear you. You will only get stranded when it’s not on,” he says.

Nigeria, Abuja University, 2015: With a new vice chancellor in the University of Abuja, a new wind seems to be blowing there, too. “We are witnessing a change,” says Professor Omole.

“Our new vice chancellor has drummed it into the ears of lecturers that he will not entertain corruption and everybody is falling in line. Also, the new administration in Nigeria is fighting corruption headlong. Now, seven universities are under probe. Their finances and administration are being looked into. Also, lecturers are being dragged to courts over corrupt practices. With this, the authorities will sit up.”

Omole feels that social media are playing an important role in the change. “University lecturers who sleep with students are being shamed. We see secret recordings of such vices being uploaded on YouTube, scandalising those lecturers. The culture of silence over sexual assaults is giving way. All these give us the feeling that corruption in the system will not continue for too long.”

LOOKING FOR THE TWUMS

INEC offices, Abuja, 2015: The 2015 elections overseen by INEC under its new leadership have again been commended for being transparent and fair. Part of this success is based on technical improvements: a better voter registration system; the issuing of new ‘Permanent Voter’s Cards’ (PVCs) and the use of electronic card readers to verify the authenticity of PVCs. Lastly, the use of additional fingerprint identification, linking the voter to the card and to the INEC’s registry, closes some last technical loopholes.

But technology alone cannot combat the complex issues of the corruption. The transparency and efficiency of elections also depend on the calibre of employees in the institution.

Which is why new elections chief Attahiru Jega is developing a recruitment system that targets educated officers with good service values to replace fired, corrupt officials. New job candidates will now not only be asked for their certificates, degrees and diplomas: much more credit will be given to integrity, efficiency and dedication. The system will, in short, look out for the Charles Twums and Ndidi Okafors.

2015, Kampala: This is precisely, critics of Ugandan President Museveni’s ‘golden girl’ approach say, what is still missing in the East African country. His appointment of Catherine Allen Kagina at the tax authority may have worked out well: a good manager at the top with a mandate from the highest office in the land clearly makes a big difference, but it is no systemic change.

Like in Ghana’s ‘good’ courts, the result may be limited to temporary pockets of good service, dependent on one individual, at risk of ‘going bad’ again as soon as that individual goes.

“What happens when Museveni exits? asks economist Ibrahim Mike Okumu of Makerere University. “We must develop a capable workforce without depending on individuals from the president’s inner circle.”

REDEEMING THE JUDICIARY

Ghana, December 2015: Twelve High court judges have been suspended and twenty lower court judges sacked after Anas’ and Tiger Eye’s exposure of them taking bribes on undercover camera.

“The judicial council is determined to take prompt, resolute and necessary measures to ensure the integrity of the judiciary and the judicial service,” said Ghana’s chief justice Georgina Wood of the decision to sack the guilty judges. “We are, indeed, fully committed to redeeming the image of the judiciary and the judicial service.”

Charles Twum is happier than ever before. “The system used to be such that you can’t fight it from within and you dare not even talk about it,” he tells Anas. “Since you’ve come, now we can talk and address the problem.”

This cross-border investigation is a product of the African Investigative Publishing Collective (AIPC) and The Watchdog centre for investigative journalism at The Observer, in partnership with ZAM magazine from the Netherlands.

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