By Melina Raquel Platas
When the NRA marched into Kampala in January of 1986, the new President, Yoweri Museveni, faced a daunting challenge: How to lead a country that had been in political turmoil for 15 years. Between independence in 1962 and the arrival of Museveni in 1986, executive power in Uganda had changed hands nine times, not a single one of them peacefully.
Twenty-four years later, Museveni’s government is the paragon of patronage. The number of districts has grown from 33 to 114 and growing, the size of parliament has grown from 80 in 1986 to 375 now and perhaps most impressively, Uganda is now home to the world’s third largest cabinet, with 70 cabinet members.Museveni was intimately aware of the threat rebel groups, and even his own army commanders, could pose to his hold on power. The strategies Museveni has used to consolidate his power are in response to and reflective of the challenges he faced coming into power.
The next largest cabinet in sub-Saharan Africa is found just next door in Kenya, though with 43 members it is still less than two-thirds the size of Uganda’s cabinet. By contrast, the United Kingdom has 23.
What explains the magnitude of Uganda’s patronage state? Is Uganda under the NRM an anomaly, or does the lumbering patronage state fit within a more general pattern of governance on the continent? The answers to these questions are not simple. The sheer scale of patronage may be indicative of idiosyncratic governance by the NRM, and by Museveni in particular, but the phenomenon of patronage is lamentably commonplace in Africa.
Patronage generally describes a system in which private goods, such as government appointments or lucrative contracts, are strategically and personalistically distributed in exchange for political support. This is to be contrasted with a system in which the basis of support for a regime is government policy, and particularly policy concerning the distribution of public goods such as infrastructure, healthcare and education.
To stay in power, leaders garner support by providing some combination of public and private goods. While the NRM has provided some public goods, including universal primary education (UPE), the size of government, and size of cabinet in particular, suggests that the regime is highly dependent on patronage for its continued support. Why is this?
To start, Uganda is an extremely ethnically diverse country. In fact, it is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world. Diverse countries, at least in Africa, tend to have larger cabinets than do homogenous countries.
In more diverse countries, a leader or ruling party may need to accommodate or include representatives from more ethnic groups than would be necessary in a country with fewer ethnic groups. In the case of Uganda, a look at cabinet demonstrates that most major ethnic groups are represented in cabinet, although western and central Uganda are overrepresented when compared to the north and east. This particular distribution of patronage is no accident.
After coming to power, Museveni needed to demonstrate that his was an inclusive, coalition government, not one run exclusively by his small circle of his kith and kin. Had he given top positions exclusively to his fellow westerners, he would have isolated himself and become vulnerable to attempts to grab power by those groups who were marginalised.
The potential threat from Buganda was particularly strong. As the largest ethnic group in Uganda and one located at the political and financial heart of the country, the Baganda were not a group Museveni could afford to exclude. As a token of goodwill, he restored kingdoms and appointed Baganda to some of the top government positions.
Still, rhetoric notwithstanding, his coalition government did not need to be all-inclusive. Northerners were conspicuously underrepresented or absent altogether from top government positions and easterners were similarly scarce. Museveni did not require an all-encompassing coalition to remain in power; all he needed was a minimum winning coalition. It was a careful balancing act. Include too few and risk being deposed, include too many and remain standing with a tiny piece of the national cake.
It was relatively easy to build a coalition of those from the west and center. After decades of tumultuous rule by northern-led governments, uniting the south with the implicit threat of northern domination, came easily. The fortification of the west-center coalition, and the north’s exclusion was aided by civil unrest in northern Uganda.
Having delineated coalition members, Museveni then needed to secure their future cooperation and support of the regime. How to secure support? There were two options available. Provide public goods to win the support of the masses, or provide private goods, and win support of the elites. With the support of the elites he could more easily win the support of the masses who could organise their communities in support of the regime, or at the very least not mobilise their communities to oppose the regime.
Though Museveni used the distribution of both public and private goods to reinforce his support, he relied heavily on private goods. The reason is simple: Private goods, in the form of cabinet appointments, parliament seats, and the like are much cheaper and easier to distribute to supporters than is establishing and sustaining an efficient and effective public health system, or high quality government schools, or durable paved roads.
Moreover, for two decades donors have shown themselves more than willing to provide funding for public goods, allowing Museveni to devote his time and money to the distribution of private goods. To compound the problem, the very contracting of public services can be a private good in and of itself. The contracting of a road, for example, offers a gold mine of rents to the official overseeing the project.
All this has led to the mushrooming of the civil service, comprised at the central level primarily of those from Museveni’s minimum winning coalition – those from the west and center.