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The price of politics

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Why Uganda’s large cabinet, numerous presidential advisors and new districts are politically lucrative

And so it was that inside the New Vision of Monday July 22 was a printed list of our ministers – a 78-strong cabinet – up from 71. The biggest “ministry” is the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM).

It has a prime minister, two deputies, five full cabinet ministers – for Karamoja, information and national guidance, general duties, disaster preparedness and refugees and government chief whip. Then it has five ministers of state – for Luwero, Teso, Bunyoro, Karamoja and northern Uganda. Huh!!!


The ministry of finance has six ministers – the full cabinet minister and ministers of state – for finance, planning, investment, privatisation and microfinance. The ministry for gender, labour and “social affairs” has a full cabinet minister, there are four ministers of state – for gender and culture, youth and children affairs, labour and – it gets sweeter – one for the “elderly and disability”.

President Yoweri Museveni has ruled this country for such a long time because he has a good intuition about the political pretentions, social needs (for status) and economic challenges of Uganda’s elites. By expanding the sphere of patronage to include so many political elites, he has been able to adeptly build a broad ruling coalition.

The largest expression of this has been in the creation of new districts. From 33 districts when he came to power in 1986, Uganda now has 114 districts – most of them created after the 1996 constitution. Uganda is actually not alone. Only recently, Kenya had created 254 districts by July 2009 before the High court declared them illegal. Ghana is the size of Uganda and has 214 districts serving 25 million people.

Why many districts? When you create a new district, it creates about 190 new jobs – 150 for the district civil service, 30 for councilors and about ten as the executive. The average wage bill for a district in Uganda and its municipal or town council is Shs 600 million – a bonanza for local elites.

New districts are created ostensibly to “take services closer to the people.” In reality, new districts reduce the money available for services while increasing that for patronage. For example, a new district splits the old one yet the staffing does not change.

So the government creates a new staff structure to duplicate the one at mother district. But it does not create a new budget for the new district – it simply splits the budget for the old district.

Let me illustrate: in 2010 Bushenyi district was split into five districts. In the 2009/10 financial year, the old Bushenyi had a budget of Shs 1.64 billion for UPE and Primary healthcare (non-wage) of which Shs214 million was for administrative costs.

When it was split, the mother Bushenyi got Shs482 million. Of this, administrative costs were Shs241 million (due to wage increases). Mitooma district got Shs365 million of which administrative costs were Shs201 million; then Rubirizi got Shs198 million of which administrative costs were Shs136 million; Sheema got Shs403 million with administrative costs of  Shs160 million; and Buhweju got Shs175 million of which Shs 126 million went to administrative expenses.

The total central government grant to the “region” of the old Bushenyi remained the same. But the administrative costs now grew from Shs241 million to Shs865 million – that is money diverted from providing public goods and services to citizens to paying the salaries of elites – civil servants and politicians – in these areas.

Theoretically, in an electoral democracy like ours, voters should reject this arrangement in favour of services. Yet a study by the London School of Economics found that whenever a district is created, Museveni’s support increases by 3% in the mother district and 5% in the new.

So why do voters make the “wrong” choice – lining the pockets of elites rather than demanding public goods and services? The masses are mobilised using elites. These elites use many ingenious tools to win over the local masses – like claiming that their clan or ethnic group or even village is discriminated against by the mother district.

Essentially it is like in the United States where “special interests” have subverted democracy to serve their ends rather than those of the ordinary voter.

And why do local elites act so selfishly in disregard to the interests of their voters? It turns out that actually when a new district is created it brings more money to the local area. For example, the town where the new district headquarter is located immediately becomes a Town Council.

With this status, a new administrative and political structure is created. On average, this structure gets an unconditional grant of Shs 400 million from the central government for wages and services. Add this to the new administrative costs of the new district and you have an average of Shs900 million all of a sudden being spent in and by the area as both district and town council costs.

All of a sudden, purchasing power in the new district grows. Restaurants, motels, salons, fuel stations, car washing bays, barber shops, bars, supermarkets, and brothels find new patrons in the form of the new district and town council political and bureaucratic elites.

It also begins to build a new entrepreneurial class as the politically well connected now get contracts to rehabilitate roads, renovate health centers and schools and provide stationary, pens, pencils and other supplies to the district and town council offices. Land near town that was meant for agriculture now gets subdivided into plots for new commercial buildings for the town.

A friend who has studied this trend found that political and bureaucratic wages are the money that is driving the consumption and hence economic boom in the districts.

When I was young, intelligent and idealistic, I made ferocious attacks on this growth of political patronage, focusing largely on its fiscal consequences. Now I have grown old and stupid but may be more realistic. I have also lost my belief in the wickedness of politicians.

I had ignored what I had learnt from Prof. Robert Bates of Harvard University (a man whom I owe a huge intellectual debt) that what is economically damaging could be (and often if) politically rewarding.

Uganda’s expansive political patronage machine may seem fiscally stupid but it is politically brilliant. In spite of what is being said, we are likely to see more districts, a larger cabinet, more presidential advisors, and more semi-autonomous government bodies.

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