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Weapons of the weak and policy failures

By Mwambutsya Ndebesa

Why the Banyakole say ogwakijungu gwita  otagireyo,  meaning the white colonial master only punishes those who do not show up

Uganda has some of the best designed policies in Africa but some of the worst implementation record on the continent. Whether it is agricultural, fiscal, decentralisation, health, name it, Uganda’s policies are the envy in sub-Saharan Africa. Uganda has recently even led in restoring the National Development Plans in Africa, a practice that had been abandoned in favour of the short-term Structural Adjustment Programmes. Why, therefore, is there a missing link between policy design and policy implementation?


Some argue that Uganda lacks technical, managerial and financial skills.  Others say that the well-designed policies are not suitable to our peculiar conditions and context. Yet others opine that there is lack of policy ownership by the citizens. All the above may be correct but are not sufficient explanation for the implementation deficit.

President Yoweri Museveni argues that policy implementation deficit is due to lack of NRM cadres in the public service. At times he blames interference and sabotage from the opposition, media, foreign interests and the political class in general. His latest scapegoat for policy implementation failure is Civil Society Organisations.

The main problem in my opinion need not be sought in any of the above scapegoats.  The problem is political patronage. The  problem is  not  to be sought  from policy  agents  but from  the system  of personalised  relationships  in governance.   Unless Uganda  transits from personalised  rule to  institutional rule we shall  continue  designing  good policies  but  remain  with an implementation  deficit.

The difference between  the Countries of  South  East  Asia   such as  South Korea,  Taiwan , Malaysia , Singapore  etc which have made a breakthrough in spite of the western dominated World and Uganda, is  that,  the bureaucracy in  the former is  hired, supervised and  promoted  on merit. In Uganda it is Mwana Wa Ani – whose child is he? Does  he come  from the  right tribe , region , party , social  class or  in one  way or the  other connected  to the President’s  office? There  may  be formal  policies,  mechanisms  and  procedures  of  recruitment , remuneration and  promotion in the public service  but there are very many subtle  methods  of side stepping the official and known procedures.

In Uganda, formal rules and procedures are sometimes mere smokescreens obscuring patronage. You get  a  case of  a public servant  who formally and officially occupies a high post in a ministry or  department  but he  cannot exercise his  authority on  his subordinate  simply  because  the latter  has the  right connections. It was even rumoured that a certain Vice President used to feel inferior to Presidential Assistants.

You find   a scenario  where a junior  officer in  a ministry, statutory  body or  police  has  more  powers  than his superiors because of personal  connections with the president’s  office  or  it could be  that the junior office has  some  powerful  connections  as a good  NRM cadre  or is perceived by his colleagues in the ministry  to be  an intelligence  operative  tasked to report on his  colleagues  to the  appointing  authority.  When  a senior  officer  feels  helpless  before  his  subordinate, there is  paralysis  in policy  implementation. The  senior  officer  will just  keep  reporting  to office  as a  matter  of  routine.

This case scenario was common during colonial period.  The subjects of colonial rule were not organically connected to the state but never the less they feared to be punished.   So they used “the weapon of the weak” so to say; merely report to work in the morning and go back home in the evening. This weapon of the weak practice was called in Runyakole  ogwakijungu gwita  otagireyo meaning, the white colonial master only punishes those who do not show up. Working meant you merely showed up to avoid punishment but not to work.

Another moral dampening practice in Uganda’s public service is the embarrassing big gap in salary pay. The latest example in the public is the case of the KCCA Director who earns a whopping Shs 36 million per month.

What message does the KCCA scenario send to all public servants?! Does it mean such officers are more important than others? Is KCCA more important than other strategic state departments say Mulago Hospital, Makerere University, the Judiciary, the Police, the Army, Finance etc?  Doesn’t this salary inequality affect service delivery and policy implementation? Ugandans have complained about this salary inequality but their voices have fallen on deaf ears and some have now resorted to the weapons of the weak either by voting with their feet and seeking greener pastures or staying put, aloof, indifferent, cynical and watching as things go wrong.

Related to the issue of salary differential is the aspect of nonwage benefits. You get a scenario where say a Permanent Secretary in Ministry X who largely depends on his official basic salary but his subordinate who  is  attached  to a  lucrative  donor  project earns  a lot more than his boss in terms  of special  allowances  and other nonwage benefits  such as free transport, housing, trips abroad  etc.  This lowers the morale of the PS who at times has to endure the embarrassment of begging transport and fuel from his subordinate who is attached to the donor project.

There is also another public service disincentive that arises out of the syndrome of expatriates. In some government ministries, say agriculture, you find an expatriate who cannot tell whether coffee berries are ripe or not coming here to advise on how to grow coffee. This expatriate earns sometimes ten times more than his local counterpart.  This is not to talk about the nonwage benefits the expatriate gets over and above the huge salary.

Yet another morale dampening practice in the Ugandan public service is in promotions.  You find some individuals by virtue of their good connections to the ‘godfather/mother’ get “fast-tracked” to use the common slang while others are left stagnant. Others get onto lucrative donor projects while others are left out.  In some instances you find a case where when a public servant who works extra hard he is punished for supposedly poking his nose in areas that are not his concern.

Therefore, when governments and development partners are reviewing aid effectiveness or policy implementation, they should not focus on   technical capacity   factors alone but should also focus on policy    governance factors that arise out of political patronage.

Prof. Mwambutsya Ndebesa is a lecturer of History and Development Studies at Makerere University in Kampala

Email: ndebesam@yahoo.com

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