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What type of federalism does Uganda want?

By Norbert Mao

At the outset let me congratulate the Kingdom of Buganda for organising this national conference. This conference is timely because we need a new consensus on how to govern ourselves as Ugandans.  We need a consensus based on democracy and respect for diversity. We need a consensus that compels the government to be accountable. We need a consensus based on truth and justice. We need a consensus that recognises that change and continuity go together.

Our previous attempts at national consensus – 1962, 1980 and 1986 – have largely been unsuccessful; ending in treachery and betrayal. This is not the time for lamenting over the mistakes of past.

We cannot change the past but we can learn from it. It is important to learn from history but we must not become perennial prisoners of history.

Politics, it is said, is the gentle art of getting support from perceived rival groups by promising to protect each from the others.

In Uganda the eve of independence saw the ill-fated alliance of KY and UPC whose glue was a common fear of the Catholics. In 1980, the UPC galvanised support by promising to protect the country from a resurgent Buganda. In Gulu the UPC leaders told the public that if they make the mistake of electing Dr. Ssemogerere, they will be forced to carry bricks and stones all the way to Kampala to rebuild the Lubiri which had been ransacked in 1966.

This trend of using fear rather than hope has continued. The NRM has circled the political wagon in the south of the country by dangling the so-called ‘northern bogeyman’ at every election. The horrors of our violent history are deeply etched in our national pysche and these are the scars that are manipulated to lock out potential leaders and groups associated with them.

The NRM rhetoric has been the rhetoric of divide and rule. The NRM had endeared itself to most of the south by claiming that it’s mission is to prevent the northerners from returning to power. It is true that many political and military leaders originating from the north bear responsibility for certain atrocities visited upon innocent people, and it is right that we should not just sweep things under the carpet.

But we should not get paralysed by our memory. We should remember these horrors but we should overcome and rise above our dark past.

I believe in individual responsibility for individual crimes. I don’t believe in impunity. But something in my soul rebels against the politics of assigning collective responsibility upon an entire ethnic group for crimes committed by individuals.

We do not choose our tribes. Above all I know that all ethnic groups have bad people and good people. Virtue is not a monopoly of a particular ethnic group and neither is evil. In the north, we feel besieged by the post-1986 politics of heaping the collective guilt for all the historical wrongs upon the people of northern Uganda.

Yet the record is different. There are bright moments in our common history. In times of danger, faced with colonial repression our traditional leaders have always sought refuge with their allies. History is full of these examples.

Furthermore it is the core of Ugandans from all corners of this country that laid the foundation for the development of Uganda. Let us not play politics with history. Ugandans from south, east, west and north have contributed to nation-building.

If anything, we are currently witnessing highly destructive tendencies where terror is projected as security, manipulation is projected as politics and corruption is projected as enterprise.

Between 1962 and 1985 Uganda received about US $2.2 billion in loans and grants. Between 1986 and 2008 Uganda received US $22 billion in loans and grants. In which period do we have more to show in terms of public investments for the money received?

In the wake of privatisatiom (some call it grabatization) some 150 enterprises were put up for sale. We were told that Uganda would earn 900 billion shillings from the sale. My research has shown that after selling 145 enterprises, the privatistion process had instead cost more than it had earned. The accounts showed a deficit of Shs 16.5 billion!

I bring these examples to show that politics is about ensuring good stewardship of public assets. I bring these examples to show that we have to re-examine our history and find out where we made the wrong turns. It is going to be tough but we have no choice.

There are many prescriptions for the New Uganda.  I can only speak about the prescriptions put forward by the party to which I belong – the Democratic Party. The 2006 Democratic Party platform stated that “…several features of the constitution have proven weak and inappropriate.  The question of federalism and the structure of local governments has not been resolved by the new regional administration set up”.

In northern Uganda, the misery brought about by war and the realisation that the region has most of Uganda’s arable land and lots of mineral wealth including oil, has led to a debate about what system of government can give the people a fair deal. Even the talk about secession and the fictitious Nile State is all part of the quest for greater regional autonomy.

Federalism is being considered seriously as the highest form of decentralisation.  There are four main reasons why federalism is considered more attractive.  First, it devolves power to the people. Second, it takes services closer to the people.  Third, it democratises society, and fourth, it provides an additional layer of checks and balances thus deepening democracy.

The unitary system of government has failed Uganda and is partly responsible for the zero-sum politics which has turned our politics into a life and death struggle for the capture of power which largely lies at the centre.  Changing the underlying system of governance through federalism will help solve the persistent social, political and economic problems that afflict our country.Â

In answer to the demands for greater regional autonomy, the government has come up with the proposal for regional tiers.  The purpose of this is not to devolve more power to regions and to democratise the centre but rather to deal with the controversy arising out of the never ending demand for federalism especially from Buganda. The proposed regional tier is thus a pain killer intended to provide temporary relief for those clamouring for greater regional autonomy.  In a way the government is trying to treat a cancer using Vaseline.

We are now at that stage where we have to ask the right questions in order to get the right answers: Who fears federalism? Who fears an overbearing central government? Who fears strong sub-national governments? We have to deal with these fears. We in northern Uganda do not fear federalism.

In order to make the case for federalism we have to start from the premise that decentralization is necessary but not sufficient. Federalism has been defined as an arrangement where the central government draws its authority from the consent of the people in the localities – not through elections but through the constitutional delegation of limited decision making power. In other words, it is the localities to decide what the centre is permitted.  In our current arrangement, it is the centre to decide what the localities are permitted!

So currently the localities are told to collect the taxes that are most difficult to collect – local service tax, hotel tax. We need localities that can also benefit from a portion of VAT and sales taxes. That is where the real money is.

Let’s face it; federalism actually draws power away from the centre. It gives more power to second tier governments whether they be kingdoms, States, or regions. What is the problem with the current arrangement?

Let’s start with the economics: What we have now is nominal decentralisation.  That is why most districts are not financially viable. This situation exists even after 15 years of decentralisation. The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) is the alpha and omega of any serious tax collection. Taxation largely begins and ends with URA.

All local governments depend on transfers from the central government.  Even the most basic expenditures like the cost of administration cannot be funded by local revenue.  Under the current arrangement, the local governments are dependent on the centre for survival.Â

One possible exception to this, potentially, is Buganda. The fact that Kampala and other major urban centres are located in Buganda, allows Buganda to benefit from concentrated political and economic activity. Buganda would thus be in a class of its own under any system that allows more power to sub-national governments.Â

Another problem of the current arrangement is lack of institutional capacity.  This problem is most glaring in the new districts and at the sub-county and parish levels. Currently, local governments have budgetary power but lack the resources to meaningfully exercise that authority.

Any arrangement that leaves the revenue shortfalls intact will only create ineffective local governments.  Â

Our current political climate also deserves careful study.  As 2011 approaches, there is a clamour by various individuals and parties to seize control of state power. The question is, do these individuals and parties seek to seize the government in order to restructure it or do they want to wield power without changing the current constitutional architecture.

Besides the politicians, the cultural leaders/traditional leaders and the traditional institutions are also in vigorous negotiations with the government.  The aim of these negotiations seems to be not to change the system but to get as much as possible under the current system.

But if we agree that the current system does not work, then our common agenda should be to tear down the current arrangement instead of seeking to take charge of it the way it is. Horse trading and wheeling and dealing will simply lead to the same old vicious cycle of betrayals and broken promises.Â

If we want real federalism, we must not aspire to take the current undemocratic power structure at the centre and reproduce it at the local levels.  If federalism is about deepening democracy, then power in the federal units should not be concentrated in a few hands.

As federalists, our challenge is to lead by example. Let us ensure local devolution in our own localities. Let us reject totalitarianism by any name and at any level.

This approach is in our interest.  Unless our demand for federalism is built on a foundation of democracy and cooperation rather than hegemony and rivalry, we shall only have local dictatorships each jostling with others. This will play into the hands of the powers that be at the centre.  The centre will then come in as a mediator of conflicts. This is what happened in what I would call the Kayunga Circus. The central government opportunistically increased its power as the arbiter of an artificial conflict.

In conclusion, let it be known from today, here and now that the quest for federalism in Uganda is national. It is not a Buganda affair. Let it also be known that the primary problem of Uganda is dictatorship.

The other problems are secondary: tribalism, corruption, xenophobia, militarism, etc are all children of dictatorship. They are tools deployed by a dictatorship as means of survival.

Today we must draw the line and say enough is enough. I call upon all of us to put our brains, our energies and yes, our votes, together to dismantle the edifice of dictatorship that is blocking our way to a better future. Let us leave this place with a resolve to struggle in solidarity against dictatorship. And so your brother, your sister your friend is not just the one who speaks your language but one who is fighting dictatorship and offering a democratic system based on truth and justice. It will take sacrifice. We may get killed. We may be tortured. We may be imprisoned. But as the Baganda say “engabu y’omuzira ogilabira ku biwundu”.

Thank you and God bless Uganda.


This is a slightly edited version of Gulu LC-V chairman Mao’s speech at the Buganda Tabamiluka Conference on December 18.

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