How Museveni has centralised and personalised while at the same time decentralised and institutionalised it with the help of his opponents
Last week, a very successful Ugandan businessman invited me visit a
big project he is doing in collaboration with the government on one of
its prime assets. He told me he is under constant pressure to pay bribes
to an endless number of government officials. Yet he is so heavily
invested in the project that abandoning it at this late hour would ruin
So, at every twist and turn, he has to deal with an official of some
government institution with powers to approve an aspect of the project.
He is frustrated that what they really care about is their bribes and
not whether he is doing the right. How did we come to this?
It starts with the quality of governance - which improves through
innovation. But innovation costs time, money, and skills. But Uganda,
like other poor countries, is blessed; it doesn’t need to incur the
costs of innovation. It can pick the best in technology and governance
from the global innovations shelf. Poor countries do not need to
innovate; they can imitate.
Yet imitation comes with risks. For example, many governance
innovations we borrow from the West as “best practice” are a product of
internal political struggles in those countries. They have specific
contexts of technological innovation and structural changes in those
societies. The new formations were in turn nourished by values, norms,
traditions, and shared cultural understandings. Therefore, the resultant
political institutions evolved organically from the dynamics of these
societies. They can be counterproductive if you copy and paste them to
societies with different histories and levels of development.
Among political innovations that poor countries pick from the global
shelf is the conventional democratic theory that holds that to tame
power, one has to restrain it. This is done by dispersing power across
diffuse fragments of the state so that one institution can check
In Uganda’s case, we have a parliament with standing, sessional and
ad hoc committees to investigate executive abuses of power. We have the
Inspectorate of Government (IGG), an Anti-corruption Court, mainstream
courts, and Attorney General’s chambers to approve the legality of
contracts. We have a Public Procurement Authority (PPDA) and procurement
and contracts committees in each ministry and government agency. These
are backed by Police and its Criminal Investigations arm and the
Directorate of Public Prosecutions.
To enforce particular standards for building construction in Kampala,
or to develop government land, there is the Capital City Authority
(KCCA), the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), Uganda
Investment Authority (UIA) and so many other departments of local and
central government. These multitudinous government agencies are backed
by a vibrant civil society largely composed of advocacy NGOs funded by
donors, the mass media with its newspapers, television and radio
talk-shows, and social media that have become a powerful platform for
debate and information-sharing. At the top we have opposition political
Today all these institutions; private and public, are involved in
almost every public tender, lease, or contract. Once in a while our
all-powerful president, Yoweri Museveni, may, out of his personal
political interest or as a result of institutional paralysis intervene
and direct things. But this is in less than one percent of the cases.
Superficially therefore, Uganda is a paradise for checks and balances
against the exercise of executive authority.
In reality, however, the public sector tendering process is creaking
under the weight of corruption. This is not just “in spite of” but
largely “because of” the existence of these various public and private
The assumption behind the proliferation of such oversight
institutions is that they make bribery difficult and expensive. In
reality, they make it cheap and multitudinous. Rather than pay US$10
million in bribes to three persons from two government departments, the
bidder or investor in Uganda today has to pay US$6 million to more than
100 persons in a dozen public sector agencies. It is easy to coordinate
corruption among a few people from a small number of government
agencies. That gives certainty in property rights i.e. that once Tom and
Jerry are taken care of, the investor is certain of his rights even if
the volume of money is much higher.
However, coordinating bribes across a dozen institutions involving
100 people is a feat of epic proportions. Even if the sums involved are
smaller, the uncertainty resulting from having to convince such a
multitude of corrupt hoards across a dozen agencies makes every
reasonable investor nervous. This is because the investor can never be
sure which government official or agency will spring-up, stake a claim,
and try to deny them a licence or some legal approval. Nothing can be
damaging to investment than such uncertainty.
The paradox of Uganda is that Museveni has, at once, centralised
power in president’s office and personalised it in his hands and
decentralised and institutionalised it across many central and local
government agencies. This seems like an oxymoron. Ironically it is the
decentralisation of power that has made its centralisation possible; and
its institutionalisation that has made its personalisation a reality.
If power was fused in a few central and local government
institutions, it would be concentrated, a factor that would make it work
effectively. But it would also create alternative centres of power to
rival the presidency and the president. However, if it is diffuse (or
dispersed) across many individuals and institutions, it becomes
ineffective in its actual application. In Uganda today, almost every
institution and individual is powerful enough to check another – thus
paralysing decision-making. Institutional gridlock invites and
legitimises the personal interventions by President Museveni.
In many ways Uganda’s current politics mirrors that of the Roman
Republic in its last days. Beginning with Julius Caesar but most
especially under his heir and grandnephew Octavian (later Caesar
Augustus), the Roman Senate was expanded from under 400 to 900 members.
This encouraged endless and unnecessary debates which discouraged
decision-making and thereby freed Caesar to rule.
Many Ugandans today ravel in the exercise of their newly given power:
paralysing government work using the mass media, parliament, the IGG,
PPDA, Courts, Police, NEMA, etc. This has inadvertently made Museveni
all powerful; for when government is gridlocked, it justifies
personalised interventions by the president to save the situation.
Ironically, Museveni’s critics are major actors in this drama, aiding
the president in achieving what they don’t want him to have personal
control over the state