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Have I ever paid a bribe?

April 6, 2014


Have I paid a bribe when here in Uganda? I don’t know.

I think most people reading this would agree that bribery is wrong. If you’re a Christian, you’d probably be quick to point out how bribery contradicts Biblical imperatives such as honesty, humility, care for the poor and love for one another. But even from a secular perspective, bribery is clearly not smart for the good of the country. It betrays any confidence outside investors might have in Uganda, it skews market economics, it slows down or reverses development, it breeds resentment and unhappiness in society and works against equality, fairness and justice.

Given how clearly unhelpful bribery is for Uganda, it still surprises me how many expats (i.e. people who can afford to not pay a bribe and still get on well in life) we’ve met who are happy to do so. These are otherwise good people – development workers, NGO operators, aid workers  – people who have given their lives to trying to improvement Uganda, but who regularly take part in a culture of corruption that seems to undermine so much of what they normally stand for. We know many who don’t, but we’re surprised at how many do. We’ve heard different justifications for this – mostly that it just makes getting things done easier (that’s true), but even then it seems to me that you have no right to then complain about large-level mass corruption if you’re willing to encourage it on a small-scale.

We openly get asked to pay bribes regularly, usually by traffic policeman who catch you doing something (or sometimes nothing) wrong. Sometimes it’s open (“Give me some money and I’ll let you go”) and other times it’s slightly more coded (“What can you do for me?”, “I’m very hungry sitting out here all day” etc.)

We came here with high-minded ideals to never pay a bribe. And, fundamentally, we’ve tried to stick with that. What has surprised is though is what a large grey-area there is between what is a bribe and what isn’t. For example,

  • If you want the police to come out for something to help you, even to collect a criminal you’ve caught in your own garden, they would expect to be paid “transport”…an unofficial cost in theory to cover their fuel to get to you but in practice much more than that. Most people say the police simply will not come unless you pay that, and it seems to be talked about quite openly. You’ll never get a receipt for it though. Is that a bribe?  Some say yes, some say no. I’m not sure.
  • Another grey area is whether the asking comes before or after they do you a favour. When I’m caught doing some wrong driving by the police, 9 times out of 10 a bit of humility and lots of talking can get you out of it. But on several occasions when they’ve ‘forgiven’ me, they then ask for something as a thanks for forgiving them, and when you suggest you can’t do that, they look very upset and annoyed that you’re not fulfilling your part of the bargain. Is that a bribe?
  • This week I had to go to our local town council to start the long and arduous process of trying to get a birth certificate for Chloe. It was accepted by all that, to get the signature for this would be 5,000 shillings. I didn’t even ask for a receipt – that would be embarrassing for them as it clearly was an unofficial payment, albeit a commonly accepted and societally-entrenched one with a set-price each time and paid by absolutely everyone. Is that a bribe?
  • There’s another incident I’m slightly less proud of: to get Danny’s birth certificate was about 100,000 (a clearly publicised price list on the wall of the government registrar’s office) but I was asked to pay 120,000. He gave me this long and elaborate reasoning (about saving me the hassle of going to another office blah blah blah) why it was more than the advertised price, and why he was unable to receipt the extra. I knew what was going on, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to get anywhere without this. He had the potential to make it incredibly difficult, and he was the senior person in the office! I capitulated. Was that a bribe, even though the word was never mentioned? Yeah, probably.

So. What’s the moral of the story? I’m not sure. Maybe that being moral in Uganda is not always simple, clear or easy. There’s a common saying here: “There’s nothing free in Uganda”. If you do a favour for someone the expectation is that you’ll be paid for it. Even if you’re wearing a suit or a policeman’s uniform. So if bribery just a natural part of culture here that keeps things moving? I think that would be charitable, but undoubtedly there are grey areas.

Have a black and white day, wont you?



From → Uncategorized

  1. Leah permalink

    Hmmmm. . . How true that our world today is filled with so much grey as opposed to the much preferred black and white. My prayer in all the grey is that God may help me to show Him off even in the grey.

  2. Yes, a very difficult one. Had similar experiences in Tanzania- like when to replace my stolen driving licence I went to the police station with my Tanzanian colleague who told me I needed to pay a dodgy sounding ‘fee’ (no receipt, slightly secretive!). Didn’t even realise it was probably a bribe at the time, just doing what I was told by my colleague, expecting them to know and follow my moral values… Mind you, wouldn’t have wanted to upset the police or hang around the police station long- was very uncomfortable in there, wanted to get out as soon as I could! Made me angry after though, particularly as all the policemen and women seemed to be doing was reading the paper while a lot of people waited in a queue.

    Worst is when it gets into the hospitals, so that people with money get priority / treatment which the poorer desperately need. Our friend, who had worked in Mbeya with street kids for a while, described the local government run hospital as a ‘cesspit of corruption’ 😦

  3. Charles permalink

    My friend is trying to set up a school in Northern Buganda, which I hope to be able to help with when things are up an running. When I was there he had everything in place… He’d worked with a local (honest!) politician to get everything in place. A local landowner had donated land, and governors had been appointed, consisting of a lawyer, a nun and the politician… Funds were in place to start building… all he had to do was get permission from the local government.
    Thing is, he refuses to pay any bribe at all. This was almost a year ago and he’s still waiting. Considering that the area is still reeling from AIDS, and supporting refugees from the civil wars, I think more good would be done by paying the damn bribes, and being able to help as many children in the area get an education.

  4. I sympathise greatly! However I guess we must ask whether it is better to make short-term losses like this in order to then try and eradicate bribery for longer-term gain for all of Uganda? The “Oh just go and pay it” attitude has been going on for years, and look where Uganda is now?! However, as i say, many sympathies for this situation…it’s a tough one of course!

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