ISINGIRO, UGANDA — News that John Baptist Kyabir had failed to secure an interview for a nursing position he had sought didn’t come as a surprise to him. It’s what he learned later that really disturbed him.
Kyabir had completed a nursing course and was looking for a job when he learned about a local government recruitment process in Isingiro district, western Uganda. He submitted his application, then waited. Later, he says his friends who were shortlisted for an interview let him in on a secret. Even with all the right qualifications — an education, certified academic documents, good grades in science subjects and a nursing license — he stood no chance.
“I was told they pay 5 million [Ugandan] shillings [about 1,345 United States dollars] and above to get the job,” says the 28-year-old.
In Uganda, district service commissions conduct the recruitment and appointment of public servants within local governments. Article 200 of the constitution established the commissions to fulfill the mandate of the Public Service Commission at the local level.
Some of these commissions have come under scrutiny over concerns about their recruitment process. Sources who spoke to Global Press Journal say levels of transparency and accountability within some of the bodies are questionable and the processes have deprived qualified Ugandans of government job opportunities.
According to the Uganda Public Service Standing Orders 2021, this hiring process should involve entry exams and tests whose content is “determined by the relevant service commission in consultation with the parent ministry.”
But this was not the case for Asiimwe, who prefers to go by his first name for fear of jeopardizing his job. He says the Kisoro District Service Commission hired him 10 years ago as a secondary school teacher, but not because he passed an exam. He knew someone in the commission who made sure his application was successful. He didn’t even have to pay a bribe.
Global Press Journal contacted two members of the Kisoro District Service Commission and two from the Isingiro District Service Commission multiple times. They did not respond to requests for comment.
Some of these cases have been brought to light by the public and are already under investigation. Munira Ali, the Inspector General’s spokesperson, says that from January 2020 to December 2022, her office — which investigates allegations of abuse of public office — received from the public 225 cases of irregularities in the hiring process within district service commissions. They included cases of nepotism, extortion, bribery and interference by politicians.
She, however, did not respond to follow-up questions about whether the Inspector General’s office has prosecuted any of these cases.
Geoffrey Mbabazi, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Public Service, acknowledges some irregularities but says the ministry has systems in place to ensure district commissioners hire only qualified people. For example, the preliminary shortlisting is handled through an online application system to minimize human contact.
“You open the exam when the time is due; you answer questions on the computer. The system then shuts you off and grades you,” Mbabazi says.
Four out of seven public servants working in four district service commissions who spoke to Global Press Journal for this article said they had to pay a bribe to get the job. Many of them did not want to be named for fear of losing their jobs.
A 32-year-old primary school teacher in Rwampara district, who prefers not to use her name for fear of getting fired, says finding a job through district service commissions based on merit has become almost impossible. There is a price to pay, and those who don’t pay stand little chance, she says.
“Either you pay in kind or give some money to get the job. Even for a small job. As primary school teachers we are considered of low value, but we must bribe to get the job,” she says.
She adds that she had tried several times to get a job as a teacher through the Rwampara district commission without much success. She was able to find a job in 2020 only after a district official in Isingiro district who was recruiting for Rwampara district agreed to help her.
But John Agaba, the chairperson of the Rwampara District Service Commission, denies that these irregularities occur in his district. Agaba says he has made it clear that he and his team are not going to succumb to interference and will hire people based only on merit.
“We can’t allow people who appointed us to turn us into a pingpong game. Our stand is very clear. We are ready to resign if they tell us to do what is not right,” he says.
But he admits that job seekers have attempted to bribe him and his team members before interviews.
“If you meet them, you carry your own cross. That’s what I tell my members,” he says.
He urges other members of district service commissions to respect the country’s anti-corruption laws.
Some applicants will go as far as taking out loans to pay bribes to secure jobs. A 27-year-old primary school teacher in Rukiga district who prefers not to use her name for fear of losing her job says she had to part with 3 million shillings (805 dollars) to secure her teaching job.
“I got a loan to pay that money,” she says. “But I was lucky I got the job.”
This is common, says the teacher, who is still paying back the loan she got to bribe her way in.
Nicholas Abola, the commissioner of communications at the Directorate of Ethics and Integrity, says the directorate is aware of corruption tendencies in public service and district service commissions.
“It has come to our attention the problem of corruption at district service commissions and in public service commission that you cannot get a job without parting with anything, that you have to part with money or have a godfather in the system,” he says.
He blames the fact that politicians who might expect kickbacks select the chairpersons of district service commissions.
To address the issue, Abola says, the Directorate of Ethics and Integrity has developed several anti-corruption policies. In 2022, the directorate investigated allegations of irregular recruitment of 300 civil servants in Ntoroko district. Many of those recruited testified to having bribed a senior administrative officer with amounts ranging from 1 million to 10 million shillings (268 to 2,688 dollars) depending on the type of job. Following this, the officer was arrested and charged with 10 counts of forgery.
Abola says the directorate has also proposed installing regional service commissions as opposed to district service commissions to reduce the number of people responsible for recruitment of public servants. His office has presented a policy paper on this to the cabinet for approval. In addition, the directorate is proposing that the central government, not politicians, appoint the chairs of regional service commissions, and that the officials shouldn’t work in their home districts. The directorate is also mobilizing the public to report and reject corrupt practices.
The cases of corrupt hiring processes have raised questions on government institutions’ ability to provide quality services. According to a 2021 report by Afrobarometer, a pan-African research network, 75% of Ugandans who sought public services in 2020 said they had to pay a bribe. Four in 10 had to offer a bribe to obtain medical care or to get a government document.
Ian Godwin, a local council 3 councilor (LC3) of Mabona in Isingiro Town Council, says this could have serious consequences for the quality of service in government institutions.
A report by the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE), a Kampala-based research group, links cases of corruption within district service commissions to the challenging working situations that some commission members endure. This includes the late release of funds to the bodies and low salaries that have compromised the commissions’ independence and pushed members to accept bribes from job applicants.
The ACODE report recommends that local governments work with the Public Service Commission to streamline the process and limit human interaction between applicants and members of district service commissions.
The government is already implementing this, says Frank Musingwire, deputy secretary of the Public Service Commission. The first stages of the interview process are online. A future plan would shift the entire process online to minimize human contact.
Miria Matembe, an anti-corruption crusader and Uganda’s former minister for ethics and integrity, has little hope that things will change. She says many government institutions are corrupt.
“What do you expect? If you are a woman and you are carrying a baby and go and steal, you are showing the baby the way to go,” she says.
She adds that during her term in office, she received numerous reports about corruption in district councils. The situation, she says, seems to have grown worse over the years.
Meanwhile, the Inspector General’s office says it is addressing the problem. Ali, the spokesperson, says officials used to engage district service commissions on how to end corruption, but the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the process.
“We want to start having those engagements again,” she says.
A 73-year-old woman who preferred not to use her name for fear of being identified served as a commissioner between 1996 and 2006 on a district service commission in southwestern Uganda. Even back then, the commissions were known to be corrupt, she says.
“They pay off the human resource personnel, even an office messenger or secretaries,” she says.
Things were different around the 1970s, she says. There were plenty of job opportunities in industries, parastatals, private companies and government ministries. She blames the irregularities and the corruption in district service commissions’ hiring processes on privatization and the scrapping of parastatals. With decentralization and no industries to absorb all the graduates from universities and colleges, jobs within local governments have become more coveted. With more competition for these positions, she says, chances of corruption increase.
She adds that when a person gets a job through a bribe, they might expect a bribe to execute their duties. It becomes a vicious cycle of corruption, she says.
Apophia Agiresaasi is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.