As Uganda heads towards the 2011 elections, we are seeing the creation of more districts. I had exaggerated in a 2003 article that in ten years, Uganda will have 100 districts. The NRM has beaten me again turning what I used as hyperbole into reality; in six years, we will have 104 districts.
Although the justification is “taking services closer to the people”, these new districts are ways through which the NRM takes care of its supporters and opponents. For every district created, many jobs are created both at the local and central government level.
Locally, you get the district chairman whose office has a secretary, a driver and a personal assistant (4 jobs). The chairman presides over a cabinet of six persons. The district also has a council of about 30 elected members who earn sitting and other allowances during the performance of their legislative functions.
According to the official structure, a district bureaucracy comprises: Office of the Chief Administration Officer (3 people), Department of Administration (24), Statutory Bodies (9), Finance Department (19), Education Department (10), Production and Marketing Department (16), District Agricultural Training and Information Centre (16), Works Department (19), Community Based Services Department (8), Natural Resources Department (18), Planning Unit (6), Internal Audit (6) and a Department of District Health Services (9). Total political and civil service jobs in a new district: 204.
There are also opportunities to hire teachers for primary schools and nurses, medical assistants and lab technicians for health centers. The district also comes with a budget; to buy books, to build or rehabilitate classrooms, feeder roads, bridges and health centers; to supply stationery, cars, fuel and cleaning services. These tenders and contracts are awarded by and to those who control local politics. Because it is Museveni/NRM that gives the new district, this bolsters their support among local elites who benefit from it.
Yet districts are not always created in pro NRM areas alone. Even regions dominated by the opposition like the north get a piece of the pie. It seems the legitimacy of new districts in Museveni strongholds depends on the NRM’s ability to project their creation as a national project, which explains their creation everywhere.
But these new districts serve another political purpose: Museveni wants to tighten his personal grip on power in Uganda. New districts subdivide big administrative units that can become strong and independent centers of power and even challenge the president. The new districts, small and non-viable, have no ability to survive on their own – hence the tendency to seek personal favors from the big man. For Museveni to rule for life, he needs a Uganda divided and subdivided into small and non-viable units he can easily control.
Another purpose served by many districts is to “decongest” the center. By throwing resources at local units, Museveni has succeeded in diverting elite attention from the center to the districts. This way, he and his allies can appropriate the public treasury in Kampala while allowing elites at the ethnic or clan level to do the same at the new district. This is a perfect bargain.
Museveni’s major triumph therefore has been to decentralise and democratise corruption. Through creating a plethora of institutions and multiple layers of local government largely enmeshed in NRM, his long arms offer patronage from the center to the village level. In return citizens reward him with loyalty.
Opposition is quashed by a combination of two things: firstly by simply refusing to fund projects and programs in their areas; secondly, through violence from the security services. As a result, one by one, we have witnessed opposition politicians cross over to the ruling party in order to get a road, bridge, school, dispensary or a power line to their area: Aggrey Awori, Steven Malinga, Omara Atubo, Ephraim Kamuntu, Philemon Mateke, Maria Mutagamba, the list goes on.
Corruption is not just an element of this system but is “the system”. Its most insidious form is patronage and nepotism which extends from the top levels of government and the ruling party right downwards as a reciprocal arrangement: politicians extend patronage through jobs and giving bribes to voters because they view the public not as citizens but as clients.
The public in return give them support because they realize that no one else but those already in power has the capacity to continue to offer them “something” – a project, a job, a clinic, a road etc. Therefore to stand in opposition to the NRM is to fall at the first hurdle: you cut yourself from the campaign financing and the circles of patronage that make it possible for public funds to reach your area. But you also suffer violence at the hands of the security services.
What is intriguing is that this system has always been partly financed by donors. Their apparent inability to either recognise what is happening, or, when they do, to do something about it should trouble every Ugandan. Donors are mostly western: they have a general belief in a couple of broad principles such as decentralisation of democracy and strengthening of institutions.
However, many donors know that the system in Uganda manipulates these principles to produce a highly personalised and corruption-ridden system of rule. How come that even in the face of this, they remain silent? The answer to this vexing question lies in how donors often structure their relations with governments especially ones that have initially been reform-oriented.
In Uganda’s case, donors were anxious to produce a success story in an otherwise distressful African continent. Museveni’s Uganda initially offered the promise of success. On the other hand, Museveni’s success at building this vast neo-patrimonial system was also predicated upon his ability to retain access to large and systematic foreign aid inflows to the treasury.
These factors led to the development of mutual dependence between donors and Museveni. Donors need Uganda to remain successful to show the fruits of their engagement; Museveni needs them for legitimacy and for money to service his patronage – until he gets oil. Mutual dependence has led to mutual vulnerability: If donors pulled out, their success story would collapse; without them, Museveni would find it difficult to finance his vast patronage.