One of Uganda's most eminent politicians was remanded in custody last week following charges of abuse of office, a turn of events that has left anti-graft campaigners cautiously optimistic that the government may have finally decided to move against high-level corruption.
Ugandans were still digesting that development when they were transfixed by this week's debates, screened live on national television, about lurid allegations of oil sector-related corruption among high-profile members of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. That the debates are taking place is a genuine breath of fresh air. More puzzling, though, has been the balanced steering of the discussions by the parliamentary speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, who is an ardent member of the NRM.
For eight years, until he was replaced in May, Gilbert Bukenya was the country's vice-president. Hailing from the politically pivotal Buganda region, Bukenya has been a loyal deputy to President Yoweri Museveni, although he has had a fractious relationship with some politicians in Museveni's inner circle, whom he once branded the mafia.
In June, he was charged with abuse of office and flouting procurement regulation in a case that dates back to 2007, but remained free on a USh50m ($17,600) bail. But things came to a head last Monday when a magistrate committed him to the high court for trial and cancelled his bail. The tearful politician was driven to prison as his lawyers fought to get him bail.
At the same time, in another court and another case, Bukenya lost his parliamentary seat after a judge agreed with the petitioner that he had bribed voters during the election campaign in February. Bukenya denied the charge.
For at least a decade, the chorus about high-level corruption has been ringing ever louder, especially after Uganda hosted the 2007 Commonwealth heads of government meeting (Chogm) at a cost of more than $130m. Reports by a parliamentary committee and by the auditor general suggested several senior politicians had questions to answer regarding influence peddling and loss of funds allocated to Chogm.
A day after Bukenya was jailed, the court issued criminal summonses for three ministers, all hailing from Museveni's home Western Region, on charges arising from the Chogm investigation. They include the foreign minister, Sam Kutesa, a relative of the president.
Although Uganda has competent anti-graft laws and institutions, its reputation is blighted by the lingering, widely shared view that the Museveni government is not keen on fighting corruption. Last year, the World Bank's Uganda country manager, Kundhavi Kadiresan, speaking on behalf of donors at a budget workshop in Kampala, attacked a culture of impunity on graft.
"Corruption in Uganda is endemic, and we have seen no signs of improvement," he said. "The costs of corruption, stealing and leakages are staggering … The government of Uganda has to start fighting corruption seriously. The undeniable lack of government action to follow up on cases of grand corruption is a key area of development partner concern."
Kundhavi pointed out that official figures put the annual losses due to corruption at more than $100m. This money could, for instance, put essential medicines in health centres, in a country where tens of thousands still die for lack of as little as $5 worth of medical treatment.
Museveni periodically barks out a war cry against corruption, but usually with mixed signals. Last year, addressing a gathering of African journalists and business leaders, the president appeared to suggest the danger of corruption was overstated. He said he knew some African governments that were run with puritanical discipline but whose countries were still poor. In 2006, Museveni did not reappoint three ministers implicated in the mismanagement of $4.6m meant for vaccines. An intelligence official later said this was done to appease donors. The ex-ministers have since challenged their prosecution in the supreme court.
However, with the symbolism that comes from remanding Museveni's former deputy in custody, and with the possibility that others close to the president may also be heading that way, Ugandans are hoping for a real downturn in graft.
Opposition MPs and independent newspapers such as are waiting for evidence of this. They are demanding that the noose should tighten not just around Bukenya, but all implicated big shots.
Anti-graft campaigners are cautiously optimistic. The head of Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda, said the trial should not be a public relations exercise – an apparent reference to the demand by donors for action against high-level corruption. Leaked cables from the US embassy in Kampala have also revealed that the diplomats believed the inspectorate of government, which is prosecuting Bukenya, is used by the Museveni government to settle political scores.
Though he shares the same scepticism, Robert Lugolobi, executive director of Transparency International Uganda, appears ready to err on the side of optimism. "We are excited about these developments because we have been demanding that the government shows it has the willingness and commitment to fight corruption," he said by telephone from Kampala. "But the government has to be persistent. We are encouraging [it] to ensure that this should be a turning point because impunity hinders the fight against corruption."
The suspicion that the Museveni government may be trying to moult its corruption skin was strengthened this week by the debates about the country's oil sector. The opposition had already scored a coup by organising a bipartisan petition and recalling parliament to discuss the oil-sharing agreements, which are shrouded in secrecy. Yet not only did speaker Kadaga yield to pressure by reconvening the house, she also steered the debate in a strikingly impartial manner. At one time the speaker forced the first lady, MP Janet Museveni, to withdraw a statement; pretty basic stuff, but for many in the country such moments seem almost too good to be true.
Ugandans will now wait with bated breath to see if others close to Museveni will go to jail. Doubts have already emerged after reports that the president held a cabinet meeting to try and secure bail for Bukenya. The danger is that this may yet go down as another drama to clip the wings of potential political opponents and appease development partners, and which achieved nothing for the lowly victims of high-level graft.