It is 2016 in the Central part of Kampala, and in one of the suburbs Bukoto, there is a wedding taking place.
A young traffic policeman is getting married. He is still new at the job. He secured his path by paying many people a handful of shillings. And since then, he has to pay each week from his salary of Ugx1.8m to keep the job. How does that work? He is expected to make up his income from the daily bribes he extracts from motorists along the Kampala City streets. And on this special occasion, his colleagues from the force are presenting him a special wedding gift, three days patrolling along the most lucrative busy Kampala – Jinja highway.
This is Uganda. One of the most corrupt countries. The World Economic Forum published a report which spells how bad corruption can be. It slows down economies, creates misery, and it is an epidemic in many countries around the world. But what can you do about it? If you a minister in a corrupt country, now is the time to start taking notes.
When you grow up in a society that is corrupt, it absolutely affects everything from the beginning to the end. People are used kickbacks. The public comes to accept that they have to bribe to get something. To understand the extent to which corruption slows down economic transformation, SB magazine has to take you as far as 2002 to a small country called Georgia. These were the challenges facing Georgia back in the early 2000s.
“I spent most of my childhood without electricity. The energy minister was pocketing money meant to be spent into repairs of the energy sector,” notes a one Natalia Atalova, a former Georgian journalist. The under development of the grid system meant that those in the urban areas would expect electricity for few hours. Much of the country side was permanently in the dark. There were children who died or frozen because of lack of electricity to provide the much needed heat. The masses had to depend on kerosene lamps.
It wasn’t the electricity and water supply that were affected, corruption even dedicated what could be found on the shelves of the supermarkets. “I remember very vividly we had to wake up at 3am during very cold winters to queue for bread.” Added Natalia. There wasn’t enough bread because the agricultural minister had sold off most of the country’s wheat.
Back then, most of the lucrative jobs were working for the state despite the low pay. Civil servants were expected to make up for the short falls in their salaries by extracting bribes. And the public had come to accept they would have to pay for everything. “You are driving down the road and you are stopped by a traffic officer. You had to pay a bribe,” – Natalia.
By 2003, things in Georgia had become so dilute that everyone was feud up but it was the redirections that finally sparked a revolution. Elections were rigged and hundreds of people came onto the streets. The demonstrations were led by a charismatic former Justice Minister Mikheil Saakashvili. Two years previously he made a name when he burst into a cabinet meeting waving pictures of officials he accused of misusing public funds.
Now, he was heading a new party that seemed fresh and different from what Georgia had seen before with his main focused on fighting corruption. In November 2003, he and his supporters stormed the parliamentary building. The president fled the country and two months later, they held fresh elections widely considered to be free and fair. The results were staggering. Mikheil Saakashvili’s coalition won by 96 per cent of the vote.
“We can’t do miracles. But at least we will help to get very close to doing miracles. May be it is possible after all. I am going to look into it.” So convincing was the new president that he managed to secure the financial backing of big institutions like the World Bank and United Nations. A team of very young reformers mostly in their 20s and 30s had an incredibly strong mandate and financial resources to transform things in Georgia. Minister if you are taking notes, the high level of public support and the backing of the World Bank are really useful things to start with if you are going to combat corruption. It’s not going to be pretty. You will be challenged.
President Saakashvili adopted the following to transform the country.
“A strange smell was the first thing that struck me. The sewage system did not work very well,” notes Yountville who works for the country’s think tank, the Georgian Foundation in Strategic and International Studies. Back in 2004 when the reform government was calling around to recruit fresh and young talent the country had to offer, Yountville offered to join.
Sitting in his daily stinky office shortly along with other fresh recruits, Yountville says they had a tiny window of opportunities to start making impact within eight months. Every official that had been elected in Georgia promised to tackle corruption. But what they ever did was to replace prejudice staff with friends and relatives. The government knew if it was to be taken seriously, they had to act fast.
The government decided to start with traffic police. Why yet it is not the most important of the Police force. The traffic police was notorious in extracting bribes. In a 420km, a driver would expect to be stopped 20 times to pay up. It was like tipping a waiter in a restaurant. How do you persuade people to change their ways if they spend their entire career working less but extracting bribes? The answer is; you don’t.
President Saakashvili decided to suspend the entire traffic police force and start from zero. Overnight Georgia sucked over 16,000 entire traffic police officers. The country did not have all anyone to regulate roads. It faced a major problem until government managed to replace them. In the end, traffic accidents went down. The government started recruiting new traffic police officials. Because the government wasn’t generating much revenue from taxes, it couldn’t even afford to pay them.
The new recruits were given proper training, new uniforms and most importantly a code of conduct to follow. The shinning new traffic police was sold to the market through television commercials. Undercover agents were placed in the city and anyone found of taking bribes was immediately dismissed. The message was loud and clear. Public consumption of police changed. The government used traffic police to transform other parts of the police force. The rest of the police were even more corrupt. They were in touch with gangsters who ruined the streets of Georgia. The new government knew that everyone had to go. In the end around 30,000 people were made redundant from the police force.
Doing these things so fast wasn’t the best decision the country made. The need for speed was a sentiment echo by President Mikheil Saakashvili back in 2005. “If reforms are made under comprise and took too long, the window of our opportunities will be shut down quiet soon,” said President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Corrupt systems are like viruses. Given time they tend to adopt to the new situations and spread. The government didn’t have to act fast but had to extend their method to all every ministry in the country. You can’t reform a single sector without touching the others. The government made thousands of people redundant. Because these reforms were pushed through so quickly and government had public support, there was little resistance. Minister, if you want to stumble out corruption, you need to tackle almost all ministries. You need to be ruthless and act very fast. But to achieve this, you need to remove administration from the public.
The no contact rule
I took a trip to Georgia to see how they had managed to significantly reduce corruption. In the most prestigious universities, students had to pay up to US$30,000 in order to be accepted on the program. Students had also to pay to get the grades that they wanted. I went with my father to see the university professor and told the professor “I am very worried that my son isn’t bright enough to pass the university exams. The professor just replied “I bet you US$30,000 that he will.
Just like in the Police force, the first step was to suck everyone at the university and rehire fewer better paid staff. The government did not stop there. It realised it needed to do something much drastic to weed out any opportunities for bribery. The government took advantage of technology to minimise points of contact between the public and state officials. When there is too much interaction, that when corruption takes places. Imagine entry into public universities is done online. Uganda’s education system would be respected since it is only that qualify are admitted into the universities.
A year and half after taking power, the country held government administered the first public entry examinations into all the universities. They employed radical modern security measures to ensure exams were fair. The exams were encrypted, sent to Cambridge University’s printing house in the United Kingdom. The exams were printed, sealed and returned to the walls of the national bank being delivered by police. At the day of the exam, all sitting centres were guarded by the police and surveillance cameras installed in all the test rooms. Parents would see this process in the waiting rooms.
This was ridiculous. Some students protested and went on hunger strike. The university exam started to have some value again.
Now that there were less contact between those in power and the public, there was no else for the money to go but straight to government. Tax collections, traffic fines and other payments to the state were done online. Revenues grew so much that the country’s national budget increased twelve folds under President Saakashvili first term.
Georgia became a functional state. The Georgian model was a huge success. Today, Georgia ranks 39th in the world economic forum corruption index above of Spain and Brazil. President Saakashvili story doesn’t end there. Though President Saakashvili lost the elections in 2013, most people in Georgia believe he gave a new life to the country. It is performing better of the reforms he introduced during his two terms in presidency.
Can a corrupt system become clean? Yes, it can. Minister, if you are still taking notes, here is what you need to know if you are to clean up a corrupt system.
A strong mandate from the people, the courage to fire every one and start. You have to create a gap between in authority and the public. You need to restore enough powers in your office to make it happen. But most importantly, you need to know when to let it go.