The Real Problem in Uganda is Corruption Not Kony

Joseph Kony seems to be everywhere these days. One place where he is not however, is Uganda. Kony fled the northern part of the country with his diminished band of foot soldiers 6 years ago. Now, a well-meaning, though deeply flawed, awareness campaign has gone viral across the blogosphere and social media platforms striving to raise awareness (within the United States) of Kony’s atrocities and the plight of Ugandans. The campaign video drew an immediate backlash from many in the human rights and development communities who questioned the scope and tactics of the campaign. Is Joseph Kony really the biggest threat to Uganda today?

In the days that have followed, the discussion has swelled, pouring out of blogs and seeping into mainstream news reports and even providing fodder for late night comedians such as Jon Stewart and Bill Mahr. A positive effect of the campaign has been to draw greater focus to the plight of Ugandans (particularly in the north of the country), but there seems to be little consensus as to what is the biggest challenge to the 32 million citizens of the country. And no one has yet acknowledged the elephant in the room, the one thing that more than anything is strangling the country; corruption.

Life expectancy in Uganda is just 53 years thanks to high cases of infant mortality and the prevalence of HIV, malaria and other deadly diseases. Gross National Income (GNI) per capita is only $500, meaning that the average Ugandan is left to survive on less than two dollars of income per day. And this is to say nothing of the mysterious “nodding sickness” that some have claimed is the biggest problem facing the country. But corruption stifles any meaningful attempt to deal with these maladies. All of these issues pose a larger threat to Ugandans than Joseph Kony, who with his dwindled band of 200 odd soldiers remains at large in either the Central African Republic, DR Congo, or possibly South Sudan and is being pursued by African Union and US forces.

Upon a quick glance at the laws of Uganda, one would be forgiven for thinking that corruption is effectively dealt with in the country; there is an astonishingly robust legal framework on the books including whistle-blower protections and an anti-corruption court, which PTF partner Uganda Law Society has been monitoring. However, Uganda draws the dubious distinction of having the world’s largest implementation gap; the laws are simply not implemented or enforced. This fact is best reflected in the country’s rank of 143 out of 182 countries in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perception Index.

Corruption hits those living below the poverty-line hardest. Seemingly innocuous daily transactions such as receiving government disbursed medicines, sending your children to school, or even driving are routinely upended and many times stifled by the solicitation of a bribe. Progress towards basic standards of living are obstructed by “leakages” in life-saving medicines along the distribution chain, women having to pay for pre-natal care which is mandated to be free, “ghost” employees receiving government salaries and benefits on district employment rosters, and the Uganda police force, which carries the title of most corrupt institution in East Africa.

The bottom line is that Joseph Kony, though guilty of crimes against humanity and someone who certainly must be “stopped”, poses little threat these days to the vast majority of Ugandans. Though hard to profile and far more complex to combat, corruption is the real killer threatening daily life in Uganda.