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
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
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.