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The paradox of Uganda’s politics

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How Museveni has centralised and personalised while at the same time decentralised and institutionalised it with the help of his opponents

Last week, a very successful Ugandan businessman invited me visit a big project he is doing in collaboration with the government on one of its prime assets. He told me he is under constant pressure to pay bribes to an endless number of government officials. Yet he is so heavily invested in the project that abandoning it at this late hour would ruin him financially.

So, at every twist and turn, he has to deal with an official of some government institution with powers to approve an aspect of the project. He is frustrated that what they really care about is their bribes and not whether he is doing the right. How did we come to this?

It starts with the quality of governance - which improves through innovation. But innovation costs time, money, and skills. But Uganda, like other poor countries, is blessed; it doesn’t need to incur the costs of innovation. It can pick the best in technology and governance from the global innovations shelf. Poor countries do not need to innovate; they can imitate.

Yet imitation comes with risks. For example, many governance innovations we borrow from the West as “best practice” are a product of internal political struggles in those countries. They have specific contexts of technological innovation and structural changes in those societies. The new formations were in turn nourished by values, norms, traditions, and shared cultural understandings. Therefore, the resultant political institutions evolved organically from the dynamics of these societies. They can be counterproductive if you copy and paste them to societies with different histories and levels of development.

Among political innovations that poor countries pick from the global shelf is the conventional democratic theory that holds that to tame power, one has to restrain it. This is done by dispersing power across diffuse fragments of the state so that one institution can check another.

In Uganda’s case, we have a parliament with standing, sessional and ad hoc committees to investigate executive abuses of power. We have the Inspectorate of Government (IGG), an Anti-corruption Court, mainstream courts, and Attorney General’s chambers to approve the legality of contracts. We have a Public Procurement Authority (PPDA) and procurement and contracts committees in each ministry and government agency. These are backed by Police and its Criminal Investigations arm and the Directorate of Public Prosecutions.

To enforce particular standards for building construction in Kampala, or to develop government land, there is the Capital City Authority (KCCA), the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Uganda Investment Authority (UIA) and so many other departments of local and central government. These multitudinous government agencies are backed by a vibrant civil society largely composed of advocacy NGOs funded by donors, the mass media with its newspapers, television and radio talk-shows, and social media that have become a powerful platform for debate and information-sharing. At the top we have opposition political parties.

Today all these institutions; private and public, are involved in almost every public tender, lease, or contract. Once in a while our all-powerful president, Yoweri Museveni, may, out of his personal political interest or as a result of institutional paralysis intervene and direct things. But this is in less than one percent of the cases. Superficially therefore, Uganda is a paradise for checks and balances against the exercise of executive authority.

In reality, however, the public sector tendering process is creaking under the weight of corruption. This is not just “in spite of” but largely “because of” the existence of these various public and private oversight institutions.

The assumption behind the proliferation of such oversight institutions is that they make bribery difficult and expensive. In reality, they make it cheap and multitudinous. Rather than pay US$10 million in bribes to three persons from two government departments, the bidder or investor in Uganda today has to pay US$6 million to more than 100 persons in a dozen public sector agencies. It is easy to coordinate corruption among a few people from a small number of government agencies. That gives certainty in property rights i.e. that once Tom and Jerry are taken care of, the investor is certain of his rights even if the volume of money is much higher.

However, coordinating bribes across a dozen institutions involving 100 people is a feat of epic proportions. Even if the sums involved are smaller, the uncertainty resulting from having to convince such a multitude of corrupt hoards across a dozen agencies makes every reasonable investor nervous. This is because the investor can never be sure which government official or agency will spring-up, stake a claim, and try to deny them a licence or some legal approval. Nothing can be damaging to investment than such uncertainty.

The paradox of Uganda is that Museveni has, at once, centralised power in president’s office and personalised it in his hands and decentralised and institutionalised it across many central and local government agencies. This seems like an oxymoron. Ironically it is the decentralisation of power that has made its centralisation possible; and its institutionalisation that has made its personalisation a reality.

If power was fused in a few central and local government institutions, it would be concentrated, a factor that would make it work effectively. But it would also create alternative centres of power to rival the presidency and the president. However, if it is diffuse (or dispersed) across many individuals and institutions, it becomes ineffective in its actual application. In Uganda today, almost every institution and individual is powerful enough to check another – thus paralysing decision-making. Institutional gridlock invites and legitimises the personal interventions by President Museveni.

In many ways Uganda’s current politics mirrors that of the Roman Republic in its last days. Beginning with Julius Caesar but most especially under his heir and grandnephew Octavian (later Caesar Augustus), the Roman Senate was expanded from under 400 to 900 members. This encouraged endless and unnecessary debates which discouraged decision-making and thereby freed Caesar to rule.

Many Ugandans today ravel in the exercise of their newly given power: paralysing government work using the mass media, parliament, the IGG, PPDA, Courts, Police, NEMA, etc. This has inadvertently made Museveni all powerful; for when government is gridlocked, it justifies personalised interventions by the president to save the situation.

Ironically, Museveni’s critics are major actors in this drama, aiding the president in achieving what they don’t want him to have personal control over the state

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Comments (18)Add Comment
written by Tina, May 19, 2014
Good article. we live in a world of results these institutions are good but not necessary in Uganda because there seems to be no sense of sensitivity by leaders the best way of demanding for services now is through demonstrations coz people have run out of patience they no longer get excited with thieves being sent to prison. those who care a lot about procedures need to allow the rules to be bent coz there will never be any clean deal there are commission agents in MOST of the institutions that are to created by govt which is quite sad.
written by Musinguzi, May 19, 2014
So it would seem, the shrewd politician M7 is, knowingly 'decentralises' power by creating these institutions and appointing people to head them whom he knows are not results-oriented but there to cause gridlocks that he can come to prevail over and make decisions thereby remaining the only solution-maker Uganda has! I have always asked, if there is a decision to be made why can't NEMA, KCCA, PPDA, IGG, AG, PAC, CID sit together in one meeting and come up with a considered decision that caters for all interests. From this article, that would not serve M7's interests who wants to be seen as the only bull in the Kraal. Result? Gridlock everywhere
written by Dona, May 19, 2014
Mwenda, i beg to differ the presidential intervention is not less than one percent of the cases, it is more and it is a major cause of the paralysis. The president intervenes in petty Owino market issues and directing the CBU who to pay and not, yet he does not intervene in service delivery like health improvements. Let alone the fact that the caucus Uganda is being devoured by one major family, the end of all personalized nations is the same. The leadership has been doing the same things for 30 years but expecting different results. Once you are followed by flies you must be smelling, corruption operates in a similar manner, because a corrupt leader creates a multiplier effect, corrupting everyone in his path.
written by Andrew M. Mwenda, May 20, 2014
Dona, just imagine the decisions that central and local government institutions in Uganda make on a daily even hourly basis. Museveni has no influence on 99.999999999 percent on them. I would even dare argue that the problem of Uganda is not that Museveni intervenes in government work. It is that he does not intervene sufficiently or correctly when and where it is needed. I agree with you that he tends to intervene sporadically when his political interests are at stake. But that is in a tiny minority of cases.
written by Ambrose Kibuuka Mukiibi, May 20, 2014
Well put Andrew. Having Institutions of democracy does not necessarily translate into effective democratic governance, especially if there is a severe defficiency of a democratic mindset. Only a democratic mindset can give birth to effective institutions of democracy and not the other way. This is where your argument meets that of Kagoro in his recent article about police, society and judiciary. This corruption thing has become an internalised injustice in the mind of most Ugandans that is what is propagating it and sustaining it.
written by Musinguzi, May 20, 2014
Andrew, I think you are 99.999999 inaccurate in your assertion that M7 does not intervene enough. M7 has made it clear over the years that people he appoints have responsibilities without authority such that for example whether NFA is chasing away enchroachers, NEMA evicting wetland destroyers, UNRA removing road reserve snatchers, KCCA relocating bus operators, NHCC removing kasokoso land grabbers, UWA dealing with park poachers, mention it, without M7, no decisive action is to be taken. The problem is that he delays his intervention until the political capital that he will derive has reached its climax and usually this is when the public good, has been irrepairably damaged. M7's interests are therefore at odd with Uganda's. It doesn't have to be like this
written by namoding tecla, May 20, 2014
how did we reach were we are? what happened, why did it happen, who do we blame,what have we done??????.I was not yet even born when Obote was in power,was this the state of Uganda????????????? Can it still change for better for the common man ???? Ihave been in Kenya for the last Decade but thinks are Different why???? there,s corruption yes but the mwanaichi know what to demand from Gov't Good roads,good hospitals with drugs and mediacl workers,even with well functioning mortuary facilities at Gombolala(Subcounty Level) which is why most burials are done on weekends coz there are facilities for storage.what is wrong with our Country is it leadership for self or for the Citizens, for sure if the Fish starts rotting it STARTS FROM THE HEAD.ugandans who know who is responsible for this.
written by Musinguzi, May 20, 2014
@namoding tecla: I wouldn't benchmark kenya for a functional government. Where things work, it is isnspite of government's failure, not because of government's effectiveness. To understand incompetence in kenya you look at security in the country today. The difference in the level of perfomance in the two government in kampala and Nairobi comes down to individuals and how this happened is a question for another day. I was in Kigali last week, Rwanda remains the country we should all copy in service delivery and zero-tolerance to corruption.
written by SD, May 20, 2014
Turn this story upside down and you will explain to yourself why in Rwanda things are working. The President is everywhere even when he is absent he is presumed present. Power has been very effectively centralized to the betterment of society and given a face of institutionalized power, this isn't to say corruption doesn't exist, it does but not institutionalized corruption of the scale in this article. My only question here is how sustainable is our approach, I wonder when my Rwandan people will start doing things right not because PK demands so but because morality demands so. I always hate to think what will happen in his absence. State Paralysis....No..No...Mwenda your next article should be "Imagine a Rwanda without Kagame"........I fail to conceive this even when I try.
written by Musa, May 20, 2014
With due respect President Museveni has been such a burden and an asset in equal measure considering the total score of his government in terms of its performance or lack of it. Honestly his 30 yrs in power could have been much better. Leading Uganda and for that matter leading it to prosperity is not rocket science, it is something that can be done and Museveni should have done it. He chose politics and that is what he has done best, about leading Uganda on the real course of development to a higher level he has failed. The end will justify the means position is a course that H.E.President Museveni could have comfortably avoided, unfortunately this is where Uganda finds itself. In a tight spot stuck with Mr. President. What a shame for mother Africa.
written by Ocheto, May 21, 2014
As politically domineering a politician as Museveni is he never condemned corruption. To the contrary he pays lip service to its condemnation. For the longest time he has been president who has he ever fired or disciplined because there were found corrupt? and it is not because the culprits are not known. Instead he finds ways to excuse or reward yet again the same people that have been found to have abused the public trust. What seems like a decentralization of power in reality is a patronage network meant only to serve his and his party's indefinite continual stay in power. Corruption in Uganda has gotten worse in his reign because he is invested it for reasons of political power. When the most powerful person in the country is part of the problem how possibly could it be resolved?
written by Ocheto, May 21, 2014
Even if Museveni's dalliances amounted to only a tinny fraction of the overall corruption, their impact on the culture of corruption is so much more so that it eclipses the impact of corruption by the rest.
written by Daniel, May 22, 2014
The Independent IT team should improve the comments section by allowing readers to rate comments by fellow readers. I suggest that they add certain tools similar to the facebook like or the Times of India online 'Times points' for comments by both the reader and authors.
written by Winnie, May 23, 2014
1.Checks are nessecary in certain areas like medicine,food ,Aviation, construction,agriculture coz any errors can lead to death but these staright jacket sytems that were as a results of structral adjustment programmes by the world bank and IMF cant work in uganda besides that as xtians, we all have our punishments waiting for us in hell we just need to live a comfortable life on earth with less stress.
2. Andrew has a nice neck(typical of most batoro) and skin if he was a lady they would have paid more bride price for him.
written by brute, May 24, 2014
Away from the mind boggling debate on this forum; Winnie you must be an interesting character; I find your ability to juggle between serious discourses and humor amazing!! I
written by Lakwena, May 25, 2014
This is a typical logical confusion. How can one "personalised while at the same time decentralised and institutionalize", without ending up with an absurdity?

This is the very reason this country is F..ked up!
written by Lakwena, May 25, 2014
Is Winy a homosexual? Andrew should watch out! Winny is setting him up for marauding homosexuals stoking around.
written by Winnie, May 25, 2014
In Africa if a woman gets married to any family e.g where there are wizards and demons then you know that her value has gone down(Beyee aggudde) its the same way i see Bukenya his vaule has gone down to the extent that he is now best friends with Otunu,Semujju and the like. Lakwena on this page people have grown and reformed e.g Omeros,Ocheto,Nambi,Nsubuga,Semakula and others Lakwena, i am a full African woman(young) even men still like looking and smiling at me i dont have to prove any thing to you Andrew is something else he kiils me. (remember today is Sunday i had to edit most of my words coz i am a sensitive person.

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