OP-ED: The Complex Cost of Uganda’s Breakdown in Honesty

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Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, Makerere University
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OPINION: Uganda seems to be at a point where dishonesty and scheming to cheat or take advantage of others have become almost cultural.

This problem has infiltrated families, religious institutions, government offices, and other aspects of social life. Recently, I discussed this issue with family and friends after I discovered that a worker I had trusted had disappeared with two bags of cement – yes, just two. It made us wonder whether this behavior is driven by necessity, habit, or a combination of both.

We all shared similar frustrations with workers who require constant supervision to prevent cheating or theft. Our discussion highlighted the fact that as a society, we have become entangled in a web of dishonesty, where we are all suspicious of one another, never entirely trusting that we won’t be cheated.

This lack of trust extends to online orders for goods, where we find it hard to believe that a stranger, like a Japanese seller, can receive our money and deliver a car. This anxiety reflects our new normal – that honesty has become an exception rather than the rule.

My brother, a medical doctor, shared an experience with a patient who, after giving birth, asked him to bill her husband Shs 1,500,000 instead of the official Shs 700,000. She saw it as an opportunity to make extra money from her spouse.

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The culture of what we call ‘enjawulo’ is essentially normalized cheating. It seems like everyone now wants enjawulo from whatever they do: the child you send to buy groceries from the shop; the student regarding their school fees; the maid regarding money left at home; the foreman regarding building materials; the procurement officer; the mechanic; the lawyer; the head teacher – each of them sees their client as a potential target.

It’s not uncommon for someone to buy goods and ask for a receipt, only to be asked by the attendant: “How much do you want me to receipt for you?” Sometimes they even ask if you want a blank receipt or a filled one. Working within this mischievous setup appears to be the norm, as not doing so makes life harder.

Construction plans can take years to be approved if you insist on maintaining integrity. Formal processes seem intentionally complicated to force you to give up on them. They keep adding requirements, scrutinizing every millimeter on the plan, and finding faults until frustration drives you into your wallet to expedite things.

You might want to purchase land from someone, but a member of the selling family, who is also the broker, insists on you factoring their cut into the price. After payment, they ask you to declare to the rest of the family members a lower amount by four million. Otherwise, they threaten to interest another buyer, even if it means the family receives less than your offer. To secure a contract, it’s almost standard practice, both in the public and private sectors, to offer kickbacks for services, even if it means compromising on quality.

Kickbacks are demanded without hesitation, much like asking for an entitlement. The explanation is: “We are many to eat on this. I also have to ‘feed’ all my bosses with that little money to expedite things.” Meanwhile, the boss also has to ‘feed’ their boss to keep their job – and that boss might have a higher boss to appease. It’s a complex web of giving and taking, so dense that it becomes inescapable if one wishes to avoid going mad.

We have created a society where honesty is punished with inconvenience, sabotage, frustration, and exclusion. The message is clear: ‘Be honest at your own risk. Trust at your own risk.’

But what is society without trust? What can be achieved without trust? What business can thrive under mutual suspicion? It’s not just the government that we don’t trust; it’s each other as well. That’s why you only lend what you can afford to lose, or you keep demanding until your friendship fades away.

That’s why you can’t entrust builders with cement and instead focus on your own business. In a blink, a couple of bags might disappear. Many office workers spend their work time on the phone, monitoring what’s happening at their homes, businesses, and construction sites.

One of the biggest risks to doing business in Uganda is dishonesty. You either start a business that you can supervise closely or one that doesn’t require supervision.

Even if you hire someone to harvest ten bags of coffee in your absence, you might be lucky to get eight. If you run a bar, they may replace the beer they’ve sold with new stock and claim no sales were made.

Once, at a washing bay in Wandegeya, I returned to find all my fuel siphoned out of the car. I thought it was a random misfortune until I watched an investigative feature on TV explaining how this theft is executed.

So, you might have to sit and watch as your car is cleaned. The same caution applies when visiting an auto garage, possibly having someone camp there until repairs are done. Otherwise, they might replace some of your car parts, or they’ll exaggerate the repairs, confusing you with technical terms that you can hardly decipher. It’s theft, but they euphemistically call it ‘kuyiiya’ (innovating).

Cry 😭 for the beloved country.

Written By Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, Makerere University

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