It is the “small fish” that hurt Uganda the most

It is a hot humid afternoon and we are in the dry region of Karamoja. I meet a mother, Lokung, on her way to Nadunget Health Centre, one of the thousands of health centres built by the government across the country. At nine months, she is due and hopes for a baby girl. The baby will be her fifth child. Luckily for her, she has had several antenatal visits and we can only leave the rest, as they say, to God.

But in my heart, I begin to wonder if the health official at the centre made it safe for her and her baby. Sadly women like Lokung must compete for mama kits with corrupt officials who sell the kits at private clinics.

Uganda must help Lokung make a safe delivery. We must make it secure for her baby to grow in an environment where the basics-education, clean water, health and security are all easily accessible.

In Karamoja, the resource envelop is being shared almost unequally to stop cattle rustling. So, anyone who supports the backwardness of rustling is therefore opposed to the health and wealth of Lokung and her baby. Even worse, anybody who steals Lokung’s mother kit is an enemy of the state.

Yet a few weeks earlier, we had woken up to the news that officials from the Medicines and Heath Services Delivery Monitoring Unit commonly referred to as Drug Monitoring Unit caused the arrest of the principle personnel officer of Amuru district, the CAO and the district health officer because of lack of accountability. This same unit had caused the arrest of several district medical superintendents of different districts because of failure to account for drugs received, most of which are diverted to private clinics owned by those health officials.

In one case of glaring irresponsibility by the officials, hospital wards were turned into hostels and in another a room was turned into a chicken house. Ilukut Patrick, a manager at Hotel Leslona says the unit has done a great job and must be supported at all levels; the health officials think the unit is witch hunting them.

But the unit, largely dependent on the goodwill from the media, especially local talk shows, to cause awareness and expose these cases of drug theft and poor services – is determined to move on. It takes courage and fearlessness to expose such crimes and it takes a village to open a new chapter of improved service delivery.

In other glaring offences, we see ghost teachers and ghost schools, government officials at URA checkpoints allowing the importation of fake and expired goods into the country, immigration officials abusing the work permit system. Is Uganda short of casual labourers to hire as security guards or salon attendants, shopkeepers or waitresses to bring in foreigners for such?

In Gulu Municipality, 200 ghost teachers have been “unearthed”. It is not limited to Gulu only. Where such cases are reported, the law must take its course without sparing the RDCs, whose job it is to monitor the implementation of government programs.

However, media obsession with arresting “big fish” does not go down with the fight against corruption. When the press runs headlines “Permanent Secretary arrested for embezzlement” and ignores the numerous cases where government has intervened and arrested many other “smaller fish”, we assume corruption is only a big man’s syndrome. Corruption has no colour, no tribe, and no party. A thief is a thief, regardless of the amounts stolen, or the executing style.

When citizens demand accountability in every form; they demand value for money; they demand that tendering process for any government contract be fair and quick; they demand that roads built must be sustainable – without cracks or potholes; they demand that drugs be available; they demand that the tax collected must equal services received. Schools that are built at two or three times the actual costs and that roads are constructed at ten times the actual cost is a direct abuse to citizens.

Unfortunately, communities seem to condone the culture of protecting “their own”. Cases of silent witnesses make a mockery of justice, because every case must have supported evidence. Where no one is willing to testify, the community must take the blame. Citizens should begin to take monitoring of such programs seriously, or successful programs such as the drug monitoring unit might as well give up.

Pamela Ankunda works at the Uganda Media Centre.