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Parties underdeveloped Uganda

By Mwambutsya Ndebesa

The politics of patronage by Museveni is exactly similar to that of previous UPC governments

The Daily Monitor, Tuesday March 15, 2016 under the heading, `Don’t give opposition government business deals—NRM boss’, the NRM Chairman; a one Karangwa, warned Kayunga District officials against awarding any state contracts to opposition supporters.

Chairman Karangwa in a way was echoing President Yoweri Museveni who, sometime last year, equally directed Lira district National Agricultural Advisory Services (NAADS) and Operation Wealth Creation Government Programme Officials to distribute agricultural inputs to NRM supporters only. And indeed it was later reported that when the time came, NAADS cows were given to only NRM supporters.  Further to that, President Museveni has been publically warning voters from certain regions especially Kampala city Divisions not to vote the opposition. Museveni said if the voters do not heed his call and go ahead to vote the opposition, then they would have committed political suicide. By political suicide, Museveni meant that such opposition constituencies would be denied public and social service delivery.

Attitudes and practices that abuse competitive politics have characterised Uganda’s post-colonial politics to the detriment of development. What the NRM district chairman and President Museveni are saying and doing is exactly the previous UPC government used to do when it was in power in the1960s and early 1980s.

The period of UPC in power was the era of state-run enterprises—the parastatals as well as cooperatives.  These public enterprises, mostly under Uganda Development Corporation (UDC), were rundown by that kind of politics of sacrificing meritocracy and efficiency at the altar of rewarding supporters or renting political support. Cooperatives too were cannibalised through political patronage.

It is said that the government of Lee Kuan Yew, then-Prime Minister of Singapore, sent his officials to Uganda in the 1960s to understudy the UDC model.  The UDC model was thereafter implemented in Singapore successfully and Singapore is now more less a First World country when Uganda is still a least developed country (LDC).  Why then did the UDC model copied from Uganda work in Singapore and yet failed in Uganda its homeland?  The answer is simple. While Singapore pursued politics of meritocracy in its public service, Uganda chose the option of political patronage. While Singapore traded off democracy for efficient bureaucracy, Uganda has continued to trade off both democracy and bureaucracy for political patronage and the economy and society have paid the price.

Whereas the political leaders of Singapore and other South East Asian countries constructed and promoted efficient bureaucracies to run government and the economy, the Ugandan leaders concentrated on using state resources and power to buy political support.  Whereas Singapore political leaders recruited and promoted public servants based on merit, Ugandan political leaders of UPC and NRM recruited public service officials not based on merit but party support and loyalty to the President regardless of merit.

The qualification for heading a parastatal or a marketing institution such as Coffee, Produce or Lint Marketing Board was to be a staunch supporter of UPC regardless of professional relevance, competence, or indeed qualifications.  Parastatals and cooperative unions became enterprises for rewarding political support, a practice that compromised efficiency.  On the other hand good and efficient managers would be removed from their posts simply because they belonged to the opposition DP party.  This political behavior and policy of allocating public resources based on political support or otherwise but not based on need or competence led to Uganda’s underdevelopment.

When NRM came into power in 1986, Ugandans breathed a sigh of relief that at last a regime that promised clean and rational leadership had taken over.  That bureaucracy was to be based on meritocracy.  That political patronage was going to be a thing of the past.  But alas, the curse of political patronage and, therefore, underdevelopment has continued.

In the first decade of NRM under a broad-based government, somehow, public and police service recruitment and promotion were based on merit.  As Uganda entered the era of competitive politics, especially since 1996, meritocracy was thrown overboard. Allocation of public goods and services by the state has been subjected to renting political support and follows the logic of regime survival rather than efficiency. Public service recruitment and promotions have been securitised. For anybody to be appointed to a position of high responsibility, especially in statutory bodies in Uganda today, one must first be vetted and cleared by the political intelligence department of Internal Security Organisation (ISO) and must be a known NRM support, a practice that is not formal civil service procedure but is never the less practiced.

Democracy, which is characterised by regular free and fair elections and active free participation of citizens in public affairs and the government, is assumed to lead to political accountability, efficiency and effectiveness. Ironically political competition in Uganda has created incentives for the regime in power to resort to using its vantage position to use public resources to reward or punish political support or dissent respectively. Such regime political behaviour leads to inefficiency in economic development and service delivery.

Government programmes such as NAADS are highly politicised and therein lay their poor performance.  Local and central government tenders and contracts are awarded based on the criteria of political support and therein lies corruption and poor service delivery.  This is because some people are untouchables.  Some of these people who get tenders are the gatekeepers of votes and political support for NRM in their districts and if you touch them you lose votes.  As a result political patronage has permeated our body politic from top to bottom and hence underdevelopment.

The above political attitude, system, and behaviour as depicted in President Museveni’s political doctrine of “vote opposition and commit political suicide” and Chairman Karangwa’s don’t give contracts to opposition, leads to underdevelopment.  The solution is to reverse this political mentality.  Those holding state power are expected to serve all citizens equally regardless of one’s political support and persuasion.  To criminalise opposition and award public resources based on political support is not only politically and morally wrong but can also cause political disaffection, radicalise opposition, and lead to conflicts and further underdevelopment.


Mwambutsya Ndebesa is a lecturer at Makerere University in Kampala

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