By Sruthi Gottipati
A group of villagers marched into their local health clinic in central Uganda and flipped open their notepads. They had a few things to ask the supervisor.
They systematically grilled the supervisor about the clinic’s facilities, resources and medicines. She eyed them warily, but carefully answered every question. The villagers jotted down her responses, verified information with the clinic’s ledger and circled back with follow-up questions. They were on a mission.
The villagers are part of a 20-member strong “village budget club” in Uganda’s Mityana district. They act as watchdogs, scrutinizing local finances, plugging leaks and holding officials accountable. They are one of 90 such clubs in Uganda, which are trained by the non-partisan organization Forum for Women in Democracy
For decades, entrenched corruption has prevented some of the most basic services, from electricity to grains, from reaching some of the world’s poorest people. The East African country ranks 139 out of 168 on Transparency International’s corruption index. Meanwhile, 38 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.
In response, modest grassroots efforts have sprouted up in small pockets of this mostly rural country, in the hope of fighting graft and boosting accountability. From community meetings and toll-free numbers for complaints to scorecards that independently rank the performance of lawmakers, the measures aim to place power squarely back in the hands of citizens.
SYSTEM OF PATRONAGE
Critics attribute Uganda’s entrenched corruption partly to its muscular system of patronage. The country’s president, Yoweri Museveni, has held his grip on power for the past three decades. Few democratic institutions in Uganda can thrive without the influence of Museveni, who won a controversial vote in mid-February to serve a fifth term in office.
“If you want anything, you must be loyal to him,” said Bernard Tabaire, a former journalist who now works with the African Centre for Media Excellence, a media watchdog. He noted that religious leaders, media and civil society are among those eager to seek the president’s goodwill.
Indeed, you would be hard-pressed to walk into a room — public or private — that did not display a photo of Museveni. In Uganda’s rural landscape, his face and trademark hat are plastered on billboards, street corners, even electricity poles.
In contrast, said Godbar Tumushabe, “the local governments have no power, no authority. They don’t have the money.” Tumushabe, who chairs the governing council of the East African Center for Democracy and Economic Empowerment, said that even minor decisions are routed back to the center, making simple fixes circuitous and slowing service delivery.
The system of patronage has led to a bloated bureaucracy and central government that render decision-making opaque. “If a teacher is missing on the payroll, you don’t know who is responsible to make sure that teacher is on the payroll,” said Tumushabe. “There’s a breakdown of the system.”
Ugandans haven’t forgotten the unspeakable violence the state is capable of and are hesitant to fight back. Uganda has never experienced a peaceful transfer of power. Former dictator Idi Amin’s rule in the 1970s was synonymous with human rights abuses. Museveni’s relentless hold on power since 1986 has been characterized by crackdowns on dissent, including bursts of election-related violence in recent weeks.
Political leaders “remind Ugandans of what happens as a matter of course,” said Tabaire. “This is not ancient history in Uganda.”
STANDING FIRM ON CORRUPTION
During this period, anti-corruption officials say that embezzlement has soared from an estimated millions of Ugandan shillings to hundreds of millions. Now it is believed to be in the billions. (A billion shillings is close to $300,000.)
But as the scale of graft has skyrocketed, so have vigilance efforts.
Rose Najjuuko, 32, a shopkeeper, remembers the day in 2012 when she rushed her daughter, sick with diarrhea and vomiting, to the sole hospital in Mityana district. She arrived, panicked, to find that there weren’t any workers in the hospital at 2 in the afternoon. Traumatized and resigned, Najjuuko stopped trying to get medical care for her family from district facilities.
With the arrival of the village budget club, she saw an opportunity to make sure others didn’t have the experience she did. “I believe that when we monitor those people, things will improve,” Najjuuko said.
The club was set up by Sarah Naakintu, a field officer for the Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE) who has immaculately coiffed hair and a no-nonsense manner. Her brief was clear: to pick people who have the backbone to stand firm on corruption and the gumption to track officials.
Villagers in two sub-counties of Mityana selected 120 people, split into six clubs of 20 members each. Each group was taught about Uganda’s constitution, as well as how government budgeting and planning works. “We tell them that these duty-bearers are in office as long as they serve you,” said Naakintu.
Club members are encouraged to attend budget conferences to ensure that funds flow in the right direction — to women, the poor, the disenfranchised. By doing so, the clubs act as pressure groups advocating for fairer distribution of resources.
If public officials are absent, they are made to “explain to the community why [they] were absent,” said Naakintu. If money is missing, the responsible official is asked about it in a meeting. The group follows up with the case. A health worker who was stealing medicines was forced to return them and resign. And a teacher who persistently skipped school despite repeated warnings was knocked off the payroll.
“We can speak to ministers and policymakers, but if we don’t educate the people who the budget really affects — the people at the grassroots — then we’re not really helping them,” said Truth Musimenta, a communications volunteer at FOWODE. “You need to go out and monitor for yourselves what services you have and what you’re supposed to be getting.”
SHORT OF RESOURCES
At one of Mityana’s health clinics, Sarah Nakelema sat on a cot with her 11-month-old baby Desire Namanda, who was sick with malaria. Although the clinic was supposed to be free, Nakelema was charged 25,000 Ugandan shillings ($7) for Desire’s treatment, which was fortunately effective.
The supervisor, Taaka Teopist, said the government funds were not enough for running the clinic. They were routinely short of drugs, she said, and patients were charged to receive them from a private clinic.
Nakalema paid the charges without complaint. “They are the only people who can help me around here,” she said. Even as residents say they’ve seen improvements at government health clinics under the hawk eye of local grassroots groups, Nakelema’s case also highlights the problems that persist.
“The issue is really resources,” said Dr. Fred Lwasampijja, the district health officer who has been working in Mityana for a decade. “Generally, the government allocates us grants through the ministry. Local tax collection goes on, but it’s so minimal that you can’t do anything.”
The village budget club knows there is truth to this. “We’re very sure it’s a budget shortage,” said Naakintu. FOWODE monitors the budget to ensure that funds from the central government reach the local government by checking bank statements. They know exactly how much the central government allocates and advocate at that level for fairer distribution of resources.
Meanwhile, Seluwagi Godfrey, an elected official in Mityana, said his budget doesn’t allow for new constructions and instead focuses on maintaining existing facilities.
CHANGE TAKES TIME
FOWODE’s village budget clubs are one of several grassroots efforts to reform Uganda’s public institutions and officials. For example, anti-graft organizations like Transparency Int’l monitors the local government in three Ugandan districts.
“We open up, we expose, we give information,” said Peter Wandera, the organization’s country director. “Most people accept corruption as a way of life. Of course, attitude change takes a lot of time, but you see more and more people reporting corruption.
They started a toll-free call center in 2012 for residents with complaints about their local health clinics. They say they received 419 calls last year, of which 45 have been fully addressed.
In addition to Transparency International, the Anti Corruption Coalition Uganda holds community forums across eight districts. If officials try to skip the meetings, the group sends letters to the federal government’s Directorate for Ethics and Integrity to force them to attend.
Another group, the Uganda National NGO Forum, launched a Black Monday Movement to fight the theft of public money and donor aid. They encourage members to dress in black on Mondays and hold awareness events on the first Monday of each month. And the think tank Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment scores elected officials in an effort to inform villagers whether their representatives are doing their jobs.
OLD EXCUSES NO LONGER WORK
Back in the Mityana health clinic, social worker and village budget club member Mujabi Christopher went through the day’s findings with fellow members. Did they get what they needed from the health clinic? Was there corruption afoot?
Having grown up in Mityana, Christopher said he felt invested in the district’s future and didn’t hesitate to join the club. In addition to monitoring local schools, he said they’ve focused on raising awareness about the importance of accessing healthcare and have conducted spot checks on the clinic and the district hospital.
In schools, he said, student enrollment is up, teacher absenteeism is down and there’s better communication between teachers and parents. Old excuses for playing hooky — like saying you’re in a meeting — no longer work because the club is willing to put in a phone call to the person who you’re supposed to be meeting to verify the alibi.
“If we use this kind of method, the country might change,” he said.
Sruthi Gottipati is an independent journalist based in Paris, where she teaches journalism ethics at Sciences Po. She was previously a reporter in India and the United States for organizations including Reuters, The New York Times and the Democrat and Chronicle. A 2016 fellow of the International Women’s Media Foundation, Gottipati holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.