OPINION: Mr. President, stop slapping thieves on the wrist

President Museveni launching the Lifestyle Audit Campaign on Thursday, December 09, 2021

On December 9, President Yoweri Museveni used an official event celebrating the International Anti-Corruption day at Kololo Ceremonial Grounds to make a startling statement about the Inspectorate of Government’s planned lifestyle audits of public officials:

“We are lucky that our corrupt people are corrupt here, they steal the money, and put it here, you see a five-star hotel from corruption. Now if you only concentrate on the lifestyle, then they will take the money out and you will have no evidence here,” Museveni told his audience, which included international donor agencies, the Chief Justice, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), the Inspector General of Government, and police chiefs, among others.

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The president’s statement is no different from the proposal made to the IGG in 2013 by the Coordinator of Operation Wealth Creation (OWC) General Caleb Akandwanaho aka Salim Saleh.

Saleh, who is also a senior presidential advisor on military affairs, wrote in 2013 to the then IGG, Justice Irene Mulyagonja requesting her to declare an amnesty for all public servants who have accumulated wealth illegally but are willing to publicly declare their loot.

Saleh wanted the IGG to commit herself not to prosecute those who take up the amnesty. He further said that the loot should be valued and the thieves asked to pay taxes for about five to ten years.

Saleh further argued that the hard-line, long winding, and unproductive legalistic approach will not, in isolation, bring the crisis at hand to an urgent halt.

He likened the fight against corruption to an armed insurgency that had dominated the northern part of Uganda, which was partly solved by the offer of amnesty to all those who would give up fighting the government.

Later, the IGG informed Saleh that in the absence of a law, his suggestion of blanket amnesty was impracticable and unrealistic.

President Museveni’s recent speech seemed to re-echo his younger brother’s suggestion. Museveni’s stand on illicitly acquired wealth does not only go against the spirit of fighting corruption but also offends the Constitution and other laws. For the Fountain of Honour to make such a wrist-slapping declaration is to encourage those who were hesitant to dip their hands in the public purse to go full throttle.

What did the president mean by being “lucky”? Does it mean the thieves are doing the country a favour or that they are living on borrowed time; any moment their property would easily be traced and confiscated?

Whichever way you look at it, the president’s words did not offer anything of value. Uganda is a signatory to many protocols and arrangements against corruption.

One of the tools employed in anti-money laundering efforts is tracing or tracking illicit money. How can the nation rely on corruption to build the economy? How did the donors mull over this message, whose money is misappropriated by these very thieves who are being nannied? How does this blind eye approach to corruption augur in the region?

Does it mean that Uganda has become a haven for illicit money for as long as thieves build hotels? Mr. President, corruption should be treated as a security matter. Government must protect people’s lives and property.

Embezzled money is a public asset and the government must protect that property. Any public official who receives a bribe in breach of duty must pay and account for the bribe. Uganda cannot take pride in baby-sitting thieves

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