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The trouble with Uganda’s democracy

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Finally, we are coming to the coronation of Yoweri Museveni as a presidential monarch. First, it was amendment of the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency so that he can run for president in perpetuity.  It turns out that is not enough to ensure his job security. So now the NRM plans to amend the constitution so that the president is elected by parliament as was the case in 1980 (and in South Africa today) rather than by universal adult suffrage. Also, the NRM wants to amend the constitution to remove the age limit on a person running for president ‘ currently 75 years ‘ in time to allow Museveni continue in office when he hits that ceiling.

These changes puzzle many observers of Uganda’s politics. Many liberal-minded Ugandans are at a loss to comprehend this situation in part because Museveni has used constitutional and democratic means to achieve many of his objectives. Many people argue that it is the lack of democracy that explains Uganda’s descent into personal/family rule. I want to argue that it is not the absence of democracy but rather the peculiar way it has evolved that explains our nation’s dilemma.

Compared to many African countries, Uganda has a rich democratic culture, atmosphere and traditions. We have a fairly strong press that offers lively debate on national issues. We have entrenched political parties and interest groups that bring pressure to bear upon the political process. We have strong ethnic/cultural and religious institutions that somehow restrain how power is exercised. Our judiciary is fairly independent while our parliament ‘ whatever its weaknesses ‘ is somewhat vocal compared to its contemporaries in most of Africa.

Yet in spite of all these, Museveni has gotten his way ‘ whether it was to absolve himself from charges of electoral theft or to remove constitutional safeguards on how he uses and/or abuses power. One way he has achieved this has been to undermine the institutionalisation of the state. For example, in more functional systems, the delivery of public goods/services is done on relatively objective administrative criteria ‘ a mandated government body decides how to allocate resources basing on an institutionally generated agenda.

In Museveni’s Uganda, however, the delivery of public goods/services depends on who the recipient is connected to or their ability to get audience with the president. Thus, as he moves around the country, Museveni personally and directly promises clinics, power lines, boreholes, etc. He carries cash on him to distribute to groups and individuals whose support he is courting. Equally, politicians who support the ruling party can easily negotiate for services/goods to their constituencies. Those in the opposition have nothing to offer to the electorate.

When access to public goods/services depends on supporting the incumbent president/party, then citizen electoral choice is highly proscribed and citizens have less ability to exercise choice. Therefore, even if people in a given area actually support the opposition, they will vote for Museveni/NRM in order to get access to state patronage.

Secondly, Museveni has retained power by forming specific coalitions ‘ ethnic and otherwise. He has proceeded to use power to dispossess those who have not joined his coalition; businessmen who have not supported him have had to pay the full value of taxes while those supporting him can evade them. Regions that don’t support him do not get roads, power lines and clinics. This has led to the emergence of many factions competing to offer support to him ‘ a factor that has freed the president from the restraints normally associated with political accountability.

One way this has worked is the proliferation of districts. Local elites seeking to cash in on the revenues that have come with decentralisation form factions that demand an own district ‘ from the president. Yet the benefits created at the local level are outweighed by the losses they induce at the national level i.e. they have facilitated the consolidation of one-man rule. Therefore, the competition for state patronage may appear like a sign of vigorous civic life. But it is a political pathology allowing government to answer democratic demands at the local level with the aim of achieving undemocratic outcomes at a national level.

Indeed, Uganda’s problem is not one of bad politicians getting elected to office and clinging there. Our nation enjoys a strong anti-incumbency bias because over 35% of MPs are not returned to parliament after every election. Yet the August House tends to get worse rather than better after every election. So we cannot explain the failure of parliament to perform its oversight functions as a result of ‘entrenched interests.’

To win parliamentary elections, politicians need to raise huge tonnes of money and state patronage. An average parliamentary campaign requires over Shs 500 million. Without strong party financing, the burden falls squarely on the individual candidate. Yet an MP earns about Shs 500 million in the five years they spend in parliament. So if they invest as much as they will earn over the period of their term, how do they expect to recoup their investment? Through bribery and corruption!

This structure of incentives has crowded honest people out of electoral politics and left opportunists (those looking for a quick pay-off from their legislative function) to dominate the political process. As a result, parliamentary oversight committees have become bribe-collection centres rather than checks on how the executive exercises power. It also explains why many MPs are crazy about becoming ministers; a ministerial appointment creates opportunities for greater stealing and patronage.

One lesson from this experience is that this type of democratic politics in Uganda (and I would say many African countries) tends to exacerbate rather than reduce corruption and patronage. It also undermines the development of autonomous state institutions that can promote impersonal exchange based on established administrative criteria. Instead it encourages personalised ways of provisioning public services as the best way to build political constituencies.

Short of a catastrophic exogenous or endogenous shock to force elites to change, democracy will continue to replicate rather than transform this kind of politics. There is therefore no contradiction between the ‘democratic’ character of the Museveni regime and the bonanza of theft and embezzlement over which it presides.

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