Uganda ranks number one in Africa, and number four in the world, among countries with the highest sub-national administrative units per state. Each district in Uganda has an average of 375,000 people compared to 3.5 million people in each state in Nigeria. Even then, there are districts with population far less than the average number.
In 1962, Uganda had 17districts, by 1995 it had 39 districts, and in less than a decade ago, they have shot up to over 80.
Many have mushroomed under the guise of decentralisation which aims at empowering local governments to make independent decisions in some areas regarding the welfare of their people. Uganda began the decentralisation policy in 1993. This was aimed at increasing opportunities for citizens to democratically determine how they should be governed, and to make choices regarding the type and quality of public services. Through this policy citizens were empowered to elect on a periodic basis, persons whom they thought could serve their interests on local councils. These changes have caused a major re-alignment in central-local relations.
Critics immediately reacted with claims that the creation of new districts that hardly raise enough revenue to finance their activities, defeats the logic of service delivery. It instead, creates a dependence on handouts from the Central Government which renders the essence of decentralization meaningless.
New districts promisedÂ
Serere - East
Ngora - East
Lamwo - North
Budiope - East
So it came as a surprise to many when President Museveni, while campaigning for an NRM candidate running in a recent by-election in Buikwe South in Mukono, promised the area a district status.
Museveni insists that it is important to grant people of the same culture a district, if they want it.
To show his determination of creating districts, the President, has promised to grant Serere County a district status.
â€œSome people say there are many districts, I am told in Tanzania, there are 130 districts,â€ he said while touring Teso sub-region on August 27 at a rally at Olio sub-county. Tanzania has an area of 945, 087 sq km and over 40 million people compared to Ugandaâ€™s 30 million people occupying 235,040 sq km.
The result of Museveniâ€™s penchant is that over 30 applications for new districts have been received by the local government ministry for consideration. But Local Government minister Kahinda Otafiireâ€™s announced recently that there would be none created for a while. If these applications were approved this year, Uganda with an estimated population of 30 million would have 110 districts; the highest number in the region.
Areas in the queue for district status include Ngora in Kumi, Lamwo and Budiope. Ntoroko though, has already received it status and is the latest.
Ministry of Local governmentâ€™s annual assessments of district performance have consistently shown that new districts are performing badly in fulfilling the minimum conditions of governance. In 2004, for example, only 50% (8/16) of districts created since 1997 passed these minimum standards, with an even lower score of 45.5% (5/11) for those created since 2000. Despite an overall improvement, in 2007, 81.5% (38/44) of older district governments were able to meet minimum conditions while only 66.7% (22/33) of the districts created since 2000 were able to do the same.
Early this year, 75 of the 80 districts appealed for financial assistance from the central government after many had failed to meet their running costs. Many of them could not afford simple expenses like the cost of clearing garbage from their towns besides failure to deliver services to the people. 26 districts could not pay for council meeting allowances. Plunged in the struggle to survive, the local government ministry is pushing for the Local service tax to salvage the cash stripped districts.
July 2005 saw the largest creation of districts in Uganda amounting to 22. Ten of the 22 districts were from the east. The districts were created ahead of the February 2006 presidential and parliamentary elections and their curving out in areas perceived to be opposed to the ruling party was seen as another tactic used by government to win support.
Their creation appeared to bear-out London School of Economics Prof. Elliot Greenâ€™s view that districts are sometimes created for gerrymandering, patronage, and as a source of votes during elections. They are also created because of the inability of the central government to resist local demands for new districts and to remove regional opposition.
Elliot, however, also acknowledges that the creation of districts could improve service delivery and manage ethno-linguistic conflict.
The latter echoes the commissioner of Local Councils in the Local Government Ministry Patrick Mutabwireâ€™s argument that since the NRM government started ruling the country when it was a sort of a failed state, people need administration closer.
But critics of the creation-of-more districts scheme say districts have been created to create jobs; both technical and administrative. They point out that the government spends between Shs685 million and Shs1.3 billion on each of its 80 districts on wages alone per year.
The financial burden of new districts is so grim that some analysts have posited that their creation is designed to fiscally undermine the older districts so that they can rely on the central government for their economic survival and have no independence from the central government.
This, they say, is advantageous to the ruling NRM Party in times of elections. District leaders have themselves admitted that the creation of new districts creates more logistical and administrative problems than it solves. For instance, 26 districts that could not raise more than Shs100 million in revenue in the 2006/2007 financial year are either newly created or old ones such as Iganga that have had several smaller districts carved out of them. Bugiri, Mayuge and Busiki were created out of it.
Newly created Abim District collected a laughable Shs6 million in 2006/2007, Nyadri a trivial Shs8 million, and Bukwo a mere Shs9 million.
Minister Otafiire has vehemently opposed the curving of new districts from his home district (Bushenyi) and yet he is responding to other peopleâ€™s requests for districts in other parts of the country. Experts are warning that counties may soon be made districts if the idea of responding to every request for a district status is not scrutinised for the availability of resources to sustain them.Â Instead of creating more districts, analysts say, the regional tier should be implemented in areas that like it; there should be no granting of district status without minimum conditions of governance fulfilled; and assessing the economic viability for meeting administrative costs before creating districts.
Recently MPs on the Local Government Accounts committee raised concerns over the swelling numbers of districts in the country and questioned the criteria the government is using to form districts.Â They urged the government to halt the creation of more districts and seek guidance from the National Planning Authority in examining the viability of putting in place new districts that are otherwise creating a strain on the limited resources at the local level.
MP Anthony Yiga, the chairperson of the parliamentary Committee on Public Service and Local Government, said the contention is on funding of the new and old districts.
â€œMost districts are inadequately funded and depend on the centre for survival. There should be a mechanism of sharing and rising resources between mother districts and new ones.â€Â He adds: â€œSplitting districts leaves the mother district retaining all liabilities as the new one begins on a new clean sheet. This is the case with Tororo district which has accumulated up to Shs2 billion in debts. Government should capitalise districts just like they do with privatizing companies otherwise we shall not achieve much by creating districts without sorting out liabilities and adequate funding.â€
The central government gives each new district Shs125 million as start-up capital for the first year. Some Shs25 million is for the town council automatically created when a new district comes into being. Many new districts end up spending this money on rent for the district headquarters, furnishing offices and on a few other activities.
Grants from the central government to districts are uniform but may vary depending on the population of a district. On average, however, each district gets Shs1.785 billion a year. Kalangala District, which gets the least amount, pockets Shs547 million while Kampala bags the highest at Shs2.96 billion.
Districts share assets such as vehicles, furniture and cash at the time of split. The mother district foots the burden of all the liabilities including all ongoing projects in the areas that have been cut away. The high numbers of administrative offices, both political and technical, eat away a lot of the money at the districts.
For example, each new district must replicate the common bureaucratic set up that includes an RDC who earns a consolidated figure of between Shs1.5 million and Shs2 million a month.Â
Tororo county MP, who is also, the Chairperson of the Committee on Local Government Accounts, Geofrey Ekanya, sees no problem in creating districts but is concerned about their cost.Â â€œCutting down the administrative costs like removing deputy RDCs, women MPs and assistant chief administrative officers will help a lot,â€ says Ekanya, â€œWomen MPs should represent a district basing on a certain standard number of people in the district to reduce on the size of parliament.â€
Commissioner Mutabwire accepts there are inadequate resources in the districts particularly the new ones to sustain them economically. He attributes the failing of new to deliver services to the people to leadership problems. â€œIf district leaders view their leadership as being about the welfare of the people, creation of districts will be good. But if they focus on selfish issues, there wonâ€™t be delivery of services and no development for that matter. We need leaders who are more pro-people,â€ he said.
Unfortunately, since their creation, some districts like Kayunga and Abim have been more embroiled in disputes of splitting into extra districts and disputes of where to put the district headquarters than delivering to the people. Unless that changes, the camp against the creation of new districts appears to make sense.