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The paradox of Uganda’s politics

By Andrew M. Mwenda

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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