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Re-thinking our democratic institutions

By Andrew M. Mwenda

The pathologies of Uganda’s LC system and the need for a new conversation on how to reform it

On the temple of Apollo at Delphi is inscribed the motto “meden agan” (nothing in excess) in honour of the ancient Greek statesman, Solon (circa 638 to 558 BCE).  Solon understood that too much of anything is always bad. For example, if you disperse and constrain power through myriad checks and balances, you make it dilute and ineffective. If you concentrate it too much, you make it arbitrary and destructive. In designing a constitution for Athens (594 BCE), he balanced the power of popular assemblies with property qualification. Aristotle understood Solon and saw both democracy and aristocracy as dangerous extremes. So he favoured a timocracy i.e. rule by honour – a mixture of democracy and aristocracy. This insight was lost when the NRM was designing the current LC system.

In 2000, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi finished his PhD at the London School of Economics titled “Decentralisation and Development Administration in Uganda”. It is a stinging indictment of the depredations of a misguided faith in grassroots democracy in a poor country. Golooba-Mutebi’s thesis is that the NRM failed to balance the aspirations for popular participation with needs for administrative functionality.

Before the NRM came to power in 1986, the lowest levels of local government in Uganda (the village, parish, sub-county and county) were governed by state appointed chiefs as administrative heads. Prof. Mahmoud Mamdani has criticised this structure as a “clinched fist” – the fusion of administrative, judicial and legislative power in the chief – which he refers to as “decentralised despotism.” And he has a point: The chief had power to assess you for graduated tax, to collect that tax, decide the punishment if you failed to pay, and execute it by detention or a fine or forgive you. There was no check or balance on the powers of the chief.


However, (and Mamdani seems blind to this aspect of chiefly power), the chief was also tasked to ensure that citizens cleaned their wells, dug and maintained clean pit latrines, built shelf-stands (akatandaro in Runyankore) for drying crockery, cleaned their compounds etc. – all of which improved public hygiene and protected the local community from epidemics like cholera. The chief also ensured that local people grow cash crops for income (during colonial times), keep a granary (for food security), send their children to school, and participate in the maintenance of public works like local roads, schools and health centres (bulungi bwansi in Luganda).

To curb the powers of the chief, the NRM introduced elected popular councils and made the chief subordinate to the elected representatives.

Since institutions help to structure incentives, each time the chief asked people to do public works, they ran to their elected leaders for protection. The LC officials, depending for their positions on the goodwill of these voters and using their power of oversight over the chief, responded by calling him and stopping him from “disturbing” the people.

Before the NRM’s LC, the administrative actions of the chief helped secure the community’s good at the price of personal inconvenience to individual citizens in the local community. When curbed, local roads fell into disrepair, community hygiene declined (worsening public health conditions while increasing clinical health costs) and food supply became precarious. With UPE and free basic health, people stopped contributing free labour or money to improve or maintain their local schools and health centres. Now democracy was protecting individual interest at the price of the public good.

It had also been assumed that these democratic structures would help local communities hold government officials to account for public services such as health, education, roads, water etc. But Golooba-Mutebi found that all too often, teachers were absent from school, medical workers showed up late for work and left early (if they showed up at all) or sold medicines meant to be given free to local people etc. Road rehabilitation contracts went to campaign managers and financiers of elected officials who in turn did a shoddy job. In all these cases, local people complained to their elected leaders, but no improvements were forthcoming, the matter died.

Thus grassroots democracy had destroyed the administrative functions of the state without creating the promised accountability dividend. LC officials colluded with doctors and head teachers to share the “loot” from government procurement contracts. In exchange for these, LCs repaid their voters by liberating them from onerous obligations of an intrusive state, which actually served the common good. Electoral democracy was not promoting the institutionalisation of power but its corruption and the use of public office for private gain.

This experience at the local level reflects the pathologies of our democracy at the national level. For MPs to be elected, they have to literally bribe voters with money and other gifts. To raise campaign funds, candidates borrow heavily from banks and private moneylenders. Today, more than 70% of the MPs in Uganda do not earn even 50% of their salaries. Their wages are collected as source to pay banks and loan sharks. How does anyone expect such heavily indebted MPs to hold corrupt ministers and civil servants accountable? MPs need corrupt officials whom they can threaten with censure to induce them to share their loot.

Again, the lesson here is simple but powerful. The corruption and brigandage we see in Uganda is not a product of the absence of democracy. It is a result of the institutional architecture we have developed and the structure of incentives this creates on our politicians. Rwanda (I cannot avoid using it as an example) avoided this pathology by balancing administrative functions against participatory aspirations. The result has been democratic decentralisation and oversight with effective administrative functions. This has been possible in part because accountability in that country is not a result of demands from below but supply from above.

In Uganda, there is inertia in both NRM and the opposition to have a conversation on how to restructure our democratic institutions. But that is the small part of the problem. Relying on neo-utilitarian logic, I used to think entrenched political and business interests that profit from the status quo are the drivers of resistance for reform. However, I have realised that all too often, those who criticise me the most for my exposes of the dysfunctions of our democracy are not beneficiaries but losers from the existing arrangement. The problem therefore is not self-interest but mind-set; what Douglas North called “Path Dependency”. Many of our intellectuals have their minds fossilised in anachronistic theories. They cannot think afresh.

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