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People Corrupt Power, Not The Other Way Round

People Corrupt Power, Not The Other Way Round

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." So said English Historian Lord Acton (1834-1902), though in our laziness, we have dropped the word "tends" from recent iterations of the great Englishman's observation, thus altering the original meaning. 


As originally stated, Lord Acton's observation meant that power had the capacity to corrupt those who wielded it, though it also implied that not all were corrupted by power. This, of course, is not news, for we have many examples of men and women who have exercised enormous power without being corrupted by it.


American Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, South African President Nelson Mandela, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew and Uruguayan President Alberto Mujica Cordano are just five recent examples of people who scaled the heights of authority in their respective lands without, as far as we can tell, succumbing to the alleged corrupting tendency of power. 


Of course for every leader who has not been corrupt while in office, there have been hundreds who have earned themselves the right to life in prison. Which raises a question that has exercised my mind for years. Why is it that some people can wield enormous power without being corrupted by it, while others metamorphose into corrupt rulers once they taste the addictive aroma of power? 


Why is it, for example, that a freedom fighter who devoted his life to the struggle for freedom, human rights and democracy became an autocrat and a beneficiary of highly fraudulent “elections” and bad governance? Why is it that the same freedom fighter, after preaching against corruption and abuse of power, and publicly despising the pomp and circumstance that surrounded the presidency of his impoverished land, became a "victim" of the same vices once he gained residence at State House?


According to Lord Acton, it was power that transformed our freedom fighter into that for which he would have given his life to fight. Though our freedom fighter may have been so angered by the repression of the opposition and the theft of an election that he was willing to go to war to restore democracy, today he unleashes vicious force against a popular musician-turned-politician who is peacefully saying exactly what he (the freedom fighter) was preaching four decades earlier. According to Lord Acton, it is power that transformed our freedom fighter from a people's liberator into a people's oppressor. 


I think Lord Acton got it wrong. It is not power that corrupts people, but people who corrupt power. In spite of his good intentions, our freedom fighter was always fundamentally corrupt and undemocratic. Once he attained power, which was his singular goal, his basic instincts of greed, control and domination of fellow human beings manifested themselves in a manner that had not been possible before. Power did not corrupt him. It simply unmasked his flaws. He corrupted power.


Similar symptoms of corruption and abuse of power manifest themselves in some leaders of mature democracies. The current president of the USA is a classic example of a corrupt man who attained power and, not surprisingly, is abusing it in the style of good old dictators. Fortunately, in these mature democracies, society has put in place enough checks and balances to ensure that such corrupt leaders do not survive in power. 


First, the citizens in those societies have the educational, social, political and economic muscle to resist any corrupt leader that turns up in their midst. Even in democratic monarchies, the citizens do not have a feudal attitude towards their elected leaders. For the most part, the leaders serve at the people’s pleasure.


Second, the people have entrenched and nourished institutions that enable them to resist the corrupt tendencies of their leaders. Donald J. Trump is learning this lesson the hard way. 

It is in an environment where there are no deeply rooted checks and balances, especially one where the citizens are highly malleable to manipulation and intimidation, that the freedom fighter soon becomes a monarch whose word is the law.


This transformation from freedom fighter to corrupt, antidemocratic autocrat is a joint initiative of the ruler and his subjects. Without help from a passive, unquestioning, highly subservient or timid citizenry, our freedom-fighter-turned-king of kings would not succeed in corrupting power. The fact is that the corrupt king "naahinga ahoorobi" [he digs on soft ground.] The citizens make it easy for the corrupt ruler to get away with murder, literally and figuratively. 


The struggle against corrupt and anti-democratic rulers must begin with the transformation of our thinking - we the citizens. As long as we refuse or fail to take control of our destiny, and as long as we allow our feudal culture to undermine our right and obligation to challenge the leaders and rulers, we shall remain at the mercy of those with the skills and drive to ruin our lives. We may succeed in replacing the current rulers with a new set of freedom fighters, but as long as society has not empowered itself to control its government, we will be back to square one. 


One already detects strong signs of this feudal mentality in some of the opposition parties. Disagree with their leader(s) or point out any hypocrisy and double standards and you will face their verbal wrath. That is before they get into power!


The political debate in Uganda should be less about the identity of the next president than the nature of politics and governance in the years ahead. Empower society through education about their rights and obligations, and entrench a culture and institutions that thwart inherently corrupt tendencies of politicians, and who becomes the next president becomes less important.





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