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Inside Uganda’s democratic contests

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The disastrous collapse of public services under NRM is a product of the way in which democracy has evolved rather than its absence

On Saturday September 24, I went to my old school, Busoga College Mwiri, to attend celebrations marking its 100th birthday. It was a nostalgic trip that was at once thrilling and disappointing; thrilling to be back “on the hill” but disappointing to see the physical state of the school.


Most of buildings have gone without paint for years. The toilets and shower rooms don’t function anymore, the compounds are overgrown, teachers’ houses are collapsing and the pit latrines emit a horrible smell that hits your nose almost 50 meters away. A few buildings have seen some paint.

The state of Mwiri, one of the oldest and most prestigious schools in Uganda, reflects the state of most of the other schools in its league – from Nyakasura to Nabumali, Ntare to Namilyango, Kisubi to Kitovu, Layibi to Kabalega, Nabbingo to Nabisunsa, Bweranyangi to Tororo Girls. It also reflects the state of the wider public sector in Uganda – our hospitals, roads, rail lines, railway stations, ships, ports, police stations and army barracks. All this also reflects the collapse of the public spirit in the public sector as public services are characterised by rampant corruption, nepotism, negligence, absenteeism, incompetence, foot-dragging, apathy and indifference.

The collapse is despite the country having enjoyed sustained economic growth for 23 years accompanied by an equally impressive growth in government revenues. Tax collections have increased from Shs 44 billion in 1988 to Shs 7.1 trillion today. Even accounting for inflation, it is a spectacular achievement. Those who claim the Ugandan economy has not been growing should wonder where government is collecting all this money from; certainly not from trees. In fact because the rich and powerful in Uganda do not pay taxes, I suspect URA could be collecting less than 60 percent of what is due to it; suggesting that Uganda’s growth could be higher than UBOS has been able to capture.

Growth in tax revenues has been accompanied by growth in inflows of foreign aid and an equally spectacular growth in the budget for public goods and services. Aid has grown from US$ 229m in 1987/88 to US$ 1.3 billion today. Consequently, from 1999/2000 to 2010/11, the budget for roads has grown from Shs 233 billion to Shs 1.2 trillion today; health from Shs 196 to Shs 800 billion and education from Shs 373 billion to 1.4 trillion. How then do we explain the incongruence of increased funding for these public goods and services and declining results in their delivery?

Many analysts argue that this is because of lack of democratic accountability. Yet Uganda today has a stronger structural basis for democracy than ever before. It is more urbanised with a larger and more educated middle class and private sector, diverse civil society, political parties, many private FM radio stations, newspapers, televisions etc. So the social infrastructure for democracy is highly developed than in 1970 when the delivery of public goods and services was at its best. It is certainly more developed than Rwanda where the state is more responsive to its citizens’ needs.

Uganda also has a vibrant civic life – witness the growth in the technology of democracy – the amount of debate on radio, television, mobile phones, social networking sites, blogs, emails, newspapers, pamphlets and magazines. We have regular elections from the grassroots to the highest office with high levels of contestation – witness how Kizza Besigye always sets Yoweri Museveni into a panic. Except for the president, 60 percent of MPs and local councilors don’t get re-elected suggesting that Ugandans are very vigilant at removing non-performing politicians.

It is possible that liberalisation and privatization, which have fostered rapid growth of the economy, could equally have undermined the public sector. This is because the most educated and articulate sections of our society, the people who sit in high councils of state, exited public schools and hospitals and took their families into private ones – robbing public services of voice. So the needs of the poor are not heard in decision making circles.

Yet the rich, powerful and articulate groups cannot exit certain public goods and services that have equally suffered atrophy like roads and electricity. Even if they can do better with four wheel-drives and private generators and invertors, these are second best options that help them avoid the depth rather than the substance of the problem. Why then are the upper classes of Uganda silent on public sector dysfunction and why is the democratic process with its high levels of contestation not solving this problem in spite of a high turnover of MPs and local councilors during elections?

It seems that most debate on democracy in Africa tends to focus more on its procedures than its substance; thus giving disproportionate attention to contestation and ignoring participation. Africa’s poor may not be excluded from the political process. However, they are integrated into it not as rights-bearing citizens but as clients of their powerful co-ethnics. Thus a Munyoro politician is able to rally his/her Banyoro tribes-mates behind the ruling party and the president largely on tribal appeal.

It is always elites who benefit from ethnic politics, not the ordinary people who rally behind them. Ethnic appeals concentrate on a shared language or culture and in the process obscure the economic differences and even tensions between the poor and the rich. But they are also very cost effective: It is cheaper to win an election by appointing a few powerful opinion leaders from a given tribe than to build roads in their area or an effective and functional healthcare and education system.

Therefore, increasing democratic contestation in the context of an ethnically diverse society with a few rich people and many poor voters may be a sign of a vibrant civic life. But it may also belie a political pathology where a government gets continuously elected, not for serving the public good but for placating elite interests. The disastrous collapse of public services in Uganda under the NRM is therefore a product of the specific way in which democracy has evolved rather than its absence. Museveni has built legitimacy largely by co-opting powerful ethnic elites and paying only lip-service to service delivery. It has worked for a while. But is it sustainable? For how Long?

amwenda@independent.co.ug

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