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New districts debate

By Agather Atuhaire

How politics defeated financial logic

In the run-up to the last presidential and parliamentary elections in 2011, Irish Times reporter Jody Clarke wrote a story under the headline “How to keep winning elections –Uganda style”.

It reported on the frustration caused by last-minute demarcation of new electoral areas to some aspirants, including Mukono Municipality MP, Betty Nambooze.

“I have 10,000 posters, billboards and banners that say ‘Vote Betty. Mukono North’ but now I’m standing in Mukono Municipality because it was decided six months ago to subdivide the constituency – again,” Clarke quoted Nambooze saying.

Nambooze had a year earlier wrestled the constituency from the decades-long grip of Rev. Bakaluba Mukasa, a ruling party stalwart. It was a tough contest that involved President Yoweri Museveni campaigning for her opponent, and ended in the Supreme Court and a by-election. Based on that outcome, President Museveni’s NRM were certain to lose the election in Mukono North. But they devised a plan not to lose – they created new districts and new constituencies.

For a start,  the government chomped Mukono into three districts; Mukono, Buikwe, and Buvuma.

Then Nambooze’s constituency was carved up based on its natural rural and urban divide. The rural part, where Nambooze was weakest retained the name Mukono North. The calculation was that if she clung to it, she could lose.

The urban part was renamed Mukono Municipality. Here too, Nambooze was no longer a sure win. Come Election Day, a new entrant, Ronald Kibule won in Mukono North.

Since a top NRM MP and cabinet minister, Janat Mukwaya, was bowing out of elective politics, Bakaluba Mukasa switched to her constituency and also won easily. Despite the gerrymandering, Nambooze also won in Mukono Municipality.

To Clarke, however, this shuffling of constituencies and looking at the voting record, allow Museveni to gain considerable political advantage from creation of new districts and constituencies.

Museveni wins in new constituencies

Clarke shows that in the new constituencies created in 1996, Museveni won 89.2 per cent of the vote against a Ugandan average of 74.3 per cent, according statistics from the Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (ACODE). The statistics show that in 2006, Museveni won 73.6 per cent in the new districts, against a Ugandan average of 59.3 per cent.

Five years later, as we head into the 2016 election, Museveni and the NRM are at it again. Nambooze appears safe this time, but other threatened opposition politicians are scurrying for survival gambits too.

The government has already passed 19 new municipalities and has tabled a motion to create 25 more districts. When, not if, it passes, it will push the number of districts in the country to 137. That is 100 more districts than the 34 that Museveni found when he came to power in 1986 and unleashed his big government agenda.

But some things have changed this time.

For a start, even the Ministry of Finance is showing its disapproval and the Minister of Local Government, Adolf Mwesige looks like a horse that is being pushed to the river and being forced to drink.

A soft-spoken man with a twinkle of honesty in his eyes, Mwesige appears to have been forced into the unusual unconvincing role of acting without conviction. At least that is how his fumble in tabling the proposed new districts to parliament is being interpreted by some.

Mwesige’s fumbling was first seen on Aug. 13 when he rushed to parliament seeking to withdraw the motion on the creation of the 25 districts. It was not lost on MPs that the Bill had been gathering dust in parliament since 2012 and many wondered why he was seeking to withdraw it.

Mwesige reeled off a well-rehearsed answer. The government does not have money to sustain the new districts since each requires Shs17 billion annually. In addition, Shs59 billion is needed in the first year of operation. In total, districts require Shs1.5 trillion to set up and the money was not in the budget.

Mwesige also reminded MPs that the cabinet had in 2013 imposed a moratorium on creation of new districts after due consideration of the cost implications.

Even President Museveni has spoken out publicly against the creation of new districts as they had become unsustainable.

But Mwesige’s move to withdraw the motion sparked a furor which, it appears, the government had not anticipated.

Parliament had to be prematurely adjourned when one MP after another stood up to demand that the government “keeps its promise” to create the new districts. As a result, three days after Mwesige attempted the withdrawal, on Aug. 17, Museveni met with his cabinet over the issue.

Finance Ministry ignored

The next day, on Aug. 18, Mwesige was back in parliament with a major flip-flop. This time he was urging the MPs to pass the new districts. He said they were necessary for effective administration and for bringing services closer to the people.

But not many were either convinced or fooled. Most MPs were already aware that although the minister, to properly table the Bill, needed a document called “Certificate of Financial Clearance”, he did not have it.

Instead, Mwesige had earlier that day written to the Ministry of Finance frantically requesting the Certificate of Financial Clearance.

Instead, Keith Muhakanizi; the tough-talking Acting Permanent  Secretary in the Ministry of Finance which is mandated with allocating resources had replied by cautioning Mwesige against creating new districts.

Muhakanizi noted that costs triggered by the creation of a new district include, creation and operation of district offices of Electoral Commission, police headquarters, internal security, and district hospitals, among others.

He referred Mwesige to his earlier communication of July 27 which spelt out how the costs of creation of new administrative units “have become excessive”.

“The purpose of this letter therefore, is to inform you as above and to advise against the creation of   more administrative units,” Muhakanizi told Mwesige.

However, after perusing both Muhakanizi and Mwesige’s letters to each other, an analysis well-versed in the operation of Museveni’s government made an ominous conclusion.

“Finance is going to lose this one,” the analysts said, “This is election time and the creation of districts is politically advantageous for Museveni.”

Even some cabinet ministers have told The Independent that they are surprised that despite the Ministry of Finance advice, Parliament went ahead to debate the motion to create the districts.

One minister who did not want to be named told The Independent that he did not understand the government’s change of positions.

“We sat as cabinet and agreed that what the people need is not districts,” he said, “what people need are roads, hospital, and electricity which you won’t provide if you channel all the resources to running new districts.”

But the political calculation Museveni was making became clear in parliament on Aug.19. A day after Mwesige resurrected the new districts, the Shadow Minister of Finance, Geoffrey Ekanya, who is also an opposition MP for Tororo County caused a stir when he was called to speak and instead clawed at his tie and made gestures of someone attempting to strangle-himself.

“Hon. Speaker,” he said dramatically, “I feel like committing suicide on this floor because this matter is serious. What is the use of me being a Member of Parliament if my people cannot get a district? How? For 20 years. How can that be?”

As Deputy Speaker Jacob Oulanyah said, all that Ekanya’s skit in parliament was worth is a slot in the national theatre, but its political value among voters could be big.

Ekanya comes from district-hungry territory. In 2005, a resident of Ekanya’s constituency, while at a rally called by President Museveni ahead of the 2006 elections, put a live rat into his mouth and bit into it to protest for creation of new districts in the area.

Although the area has a multiplicity of ethnic groups, the Japadhola and Iteso are the dominant ones and want the area carved up into two districts, one for each, to be called Mukujju and Kisoko. But intermarriage, demarcation of boundaries, and sharing of resources have proved to be major stumbling blocks.

Political calculations

Ekanya is aware, therefore, that clamouring for a new district is a popular campaign plank in Tororo. However, he is also keenly aware that in reality, it could make or break some politicians including, himself.

In an area of heavy tribal politics, Ekanya is the son of an Itesot father and a Jopadhola mother. Depending on where the tribal winds blow, Ekanya could win or lose an election on that point.

But when Ekanya and other opposition politicians appeared set to exploit the demand for a new district and set-up Museveni as “a person who promises and does not deliver”, the government would not let him. That is how Mwesige ended up fumbling and withdrawing a Bill only to retable it the next with contradicting arguments.

Mwesige named the proposed districts as Kagadi, Kakumiro, Omoro, Namisindwa, Pakwach, Butebo, Rukiga, Rubanda, Kitagwenda and Kyotera.

Others are Kyadondo, Nabilatuk, Bugweri, Kasanda, Bunyangabu, Kwania, Kapelebyong, Obongi, Kazo, Rwampara, Kikuube, Madi Okollo and Kihiihi.

But some MPs said that the criterion followed in creating them will create more issues and leave many disgruntled. Many agreed with Ekanya saying that there has been discrimination in the granting of these districts.

“We demand to know the criteria that was used to determine some areas as districts while others were left out,” said opposition Budadiri East MP Nathan Nandala Mafabi.

Opposition Serere Woman MP Alice Alaso asked the minister to go back and amend the motion to address the issue of Tororo saying that it has been coming up over and over again.

“For as long as the criterion of creating new districts is not known,” Alaso said, “tempers will remain high in this House.”

But Mwesige said Tororo will have to wait. He said he cannot amend the motion because of Tororo when the ministry of Finance is saying it does not have funds for even those on the motion.

The debate was so hot that some members of Museveni’s cabinet broke ranks – possibly with an eye on re-election. The Minister of State for Local Government, Alex Onzima, opposed his senior minister.

He asked parliament not to approve all the 25 districts saying that the ministry of Finance had cleared only four districts (Kagadi, Kakumiro, Omoro and Rubanda) that will be effected in the next financial year.

He read the letter that Muhakanizi wrote to his ministry to the House

“I cherish honesty in the interest of my country,” he said, “we must do right things all the time.”

He continued despite other members of cabinet, including ministers Henry Banyenzaki and Chief Whip Ruth Nanakbirwa criticising him for going against “the decorum of cabinet”.

The Leader of opposition, Wafula Oguttu, agreed with Onzima.

“Why are we creating districts which are not viable?” asked Oguttu, “We have a letter allowing the creation of only four districts, lets pass only those that have the certificate of financial clearance because that’s what the law allows us to do.”

But Mbarara Municipality MP Medard Bitekyerezo said even the four should be approved. He said creation of new districts is not Ugandans’ most pressing need. “As we talk,” he said, “people don’t have salaries but we are here creating districts! What has happened to you Members?”

Nambooze is now the Shadow minister of Local Government. She has written a Minority Report to parliament opposing the new district

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