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The failures of Uganda’s democracy

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Local councils have undermined the effectiveness of public administration without fostering the expected accountability dividend.

In 2000, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi gave me a copy of his PhD thesis written at the London School of Economics titled “Decentralisation and Development Administration in Uganda.” It is a sobering account of how Local Councils (LCs) in Uganda have undermined the administrative effectiveness of the state without promoting accountability of government officials in the delivery of public goods and services.

Here is Mutebi’s thesis in brief: Previously, the administrative agent of the state in local government in Uganda was the chief. He fused administrative, judicial and legislative powers in what Prof. Mahmood Mamdani has pejoratively called “decentralised despotism.” Yet in spite of this despotism (even with Mamdani’s overstatement), the chief ensured that certain basic administrative functions of the state were implemented in rural Uganda.

For example, the chief assessed and collected graduated tax and punished defaulters. This made local governments fairly self sustaining in revenues. The chief promoted the public good – ensuring that every homestead was clean with a properly maintained pit latrine and well (for hygiene) and a granary (for food security). He mobilised residents to do one day’s labour every month to maintain local roads in what was called “bulungi bwansi” (for the good of the nation).

In fact, Mamdani’s criticism is based largely on the formal powers conferred upon the chief by the colonial state rather than the actual exercise of those powers. So it ignores the informal controls that restrained the chief’s tendency towards despotic rule. Some of these informal restraints were cultural – for instance the chief had to exhibit personal generosity and mercy to his subjects lest he lost the legitimacy to lead. Others were political expedience – arbitrary or cruel leadership tended to invite rebellions. These were costly (in economic and human terms) to quell. So neither the colonial government nor the local native administration desired such a situation.

The NRM sought to democratise political life in rural Uganda by introducing elected councils. The chief’s administrative work would henceforth be subject to popular control by the masses through elected representatives. This, it was hoped, would undermine despotism and promote accountability at the lowest unit of local government. Mutebi’s thesis sought to find out whether this promise was coming true.

The research found that people in rural areas were using LCs not only to reign in the “despotism” of the chief but also to weaken his administrative role. For example, whenever the chief demanded they dig pit latrines, build granaries, clean up their wells or help maintain bulungi bwansi roads, people complained to LCs who intervened to restrain the chief.  Thus, people were able to effectively use popular democracy to avoid the personal inconvenience aimed at securing compliance with their public obligations. The result was deterioration of the public good.

Were people using LCs to hold government officials to account for serve delivery? Mutebi found that whenever people went to local hospitals or clinics, they were made to pay for medicines they knew they were supposed to get for free. Most of the time medical workers were either absent or late to report for work, making ordinary citizens wait for hours or even days without service. It was the same with schools and local roads.

People often complained about these problems to their elected leaders. However, Mutebi found no evidence that government officials changed their corrupt or incompetent ways in response to these complaints. Elected councils were not holding government officials to account where it mattered most – delivering of public goods and services to ordinary people.

Mutebi’s findings are both saddening and illuminating. They show that people have been able to effectively use their voting power to avoid the specific form of personal inconvenience that actually delivered the community’s good. Yet they have been unable to use this same power to force institutions of government to deliver public goods and services. Democracy had undermined the effectiveness of public administration without fostering accountability.

The results of this perverse democratisation are manifest in key indicators. The country has 2.3 million malnourished children largely because the enforcement mechanisms for public hygiene collapsed at the local level. Corruption in both central and local government is perverse because electoral competition is not driving accountability. Rural roads that were once well maintained are now impassable.

This crisis is not only manifest in rural Uganda where local councils are the vehicles for democratic participation. It is also manifest in cities where political parties, the mass media and civil society groups underpin democracy. In both cases, democratic mechanisms have undermined the effectiveness of the state especially in public administration without delivery expected accountability benefits.

While in rural areas democracy is used to avoid individual inconvenience that used to deliver the community’s good, democratic platforms for expression are used by elites in cities to negotiate for positions of power and privilege. Elites use the mass media and political parties to build a public following. This entices the ruling party to buy their silence or collaboration by giving them official jobs in government and unofficial opportunities to profit from corruption. True to form, many of the leading critics of Yoweri Museveni have over time joined him in government – Miria Mutagaba, Milindwa Muwonge, Omara Atubo, Aggrey Awori, etc.

This reciprocal assimilation of elites in government has been achieved at the price of increasing corruption and undermining the coherence and autonomy of government institutions. Political considerations have overwhelmed the state thus undermining technical considerations. While it is vital to be sensitive to the political feelings, Uganda needs to address the issue of the administrative effectiveness of the state. To have a competent and effective state demands that some groups have to suffer personal inconvenience in order to secure the public good.

For instance, some have to pay taxes, others be made to respect traffic rules and construction regulations, peasants have to be evicted from forest reserves and wetlands, etc. These decisions cannot be subjected to the consent of the affected parties. The state is the expression of our collective will. To realise this will may again and again demand inconveniencing one group or another. There is no way to protect the institutional integrity of the state without destabilising some vested interests.

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