About me.

Andrew M. Mwenda is the founding Managing Editor of The Independent, Uganda’s premier current affairs newsmagazine. One of Foreign Policy magazine 's top 100 Global Thinkers, TED Speaker and Foreign aid Critic

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The pathologies of Uganda’s democracy

How it has facilitated a politics that has undermined the ability of public institutions to serve the common good

To explain the dysfunctions in the public sector in Uganda, we need to understand how political power in our country is organised, how it is exercised and how it is reproduced. For example, how does President Yoweri Museveni build his electoral coalition? How do other elected officials – members of parliament and local councils – build successful political careers? Often, our debates tend to moralise, praise, pontificate and condemn but they rarely analyse and illuminate the salient issues that shape politics.

Uganda’s politics is managed through the institution of a winner-take-all multiparty system. Political competition takes place in the context of an ethnically diverse, less educated, superficially religious, largely poor agrarian society with a small but growing middleclass and private sector. What are the implications of this?

It means winning a presidential election requires pleasing powerful religious clerics, influential pillars of opinion among our different ethnic and occupational groups and by co-opting traditional leaders like kings and chiefs. Museveni does this by giving these leaders state jobs/money and some business deals or allows them unofficial opportunities to profit through corruption. In turn, these leaders mobilise their followers behind him. There is little reason to believe that any other leader in his position would act differently. However, this strategy has powerful implications on the performance of the public sector.

For example, boda boda and taxi drivers constitute a small but highly organised and vocal voting block in Kampala. Because of their atomised nature as businesses, they face severe intra industry competition. This makes them struggle viciously for passengers, a factor that drives them to disregard traffic rules. So taxi drivers stop in the middle of the road to pick passengers while boda bodas drive through red lights and on any side of the road. They inconvenience other road users and driving all of us mad. Yet every attempt by police to rein them in has generated serious political contestation, often simulating strikes that paralyze transportation in the city.

Politicians everywhere are afraid of antagonising such well-organised and vocal groups. This is especially so when they have to depend on the whims of voters to keep public office. Therefore, in exchange for their support, Museveni has not only tolerated but also encouraged the impunity of boda bodas by restraining police from enforcing the law. And Museveni is acting like any rational human being would. Kizza Besigye and Erias Lukwago would most likely act in similar fashion. Of course someone can legitimately ask how I get to this conclusion.

In 2011, I was hired as a consultant by the World Bank to do a study on the political economy of Environmental and National Resources (ENR) sector in Uganda. I drove across the entire country – from Karamoja to Rukungiri, West Nile to Mbale and Gulu to Masaka. I interviewed local politicians from LC1 to LC5, MPs and the president. I also interviewed civil servants at local and central government levels. My findings were both saddening and also illuminating.

Across the country, I found a pattern of abuse and violations of our environment and natural resources laws. People build in wetlands, occupy national forests and forest reserves, cut trees and are squatters in national parks and game reserves. The abuse is not just by the fat money cats in Kampala and other towns who pay off public officials to build homes and shopping malls in wetlands. In fact the worst and most widespread abuse is by large groups of ordinary poor peasants who take over forest reserves and other protected areas and turn them into their private property. They succeed because they use their voting power to block any sanction from the state.

It did not matter who controlled the district councils – whether it was NRM, UPC, DP or FDC the pattern was the same. People encroached on public land. Civil servants in NEMA, NFA, UWA, or the local councils tried to get them out. The encroachers appealed to the area MP, LC officials or the president. In almost all the cases, these elected officials responded by sacrificing law and public policy at the altar of voters’ favour. In northern Uganda where UPC and FDC controlled the local councils and their executives, I was shocked but not surprised to find that opposition politicians there allied with Museveni to defend the rights of encroachers on public land. In Kampala, the city council and executive controlled by DP and FDC was just as bad.

Out of curiosity, I broadened my interviews to go beyond the ENR sector to cover other areas such as creation of new districts. I found that new districts reduce funds available for spending on public goods and services. Yet new districts are a popular demand and it would be suicidal for any politician to oppose their creation in an area. Why? New districts create job and business opportunities for elites in the towns. And politics is controlled by elites who may trade a forest reserve or wetland to win over the masses.

I realised that the deals politicians make at the local level to win electoral advantage tend to actually undermine the ability of the state to serve the common good. The benefits gained at the local level (in form of a new district, or a wetland that is destroyed, a forest that is cut, a game reserve that is taken over) are outweighed by the environmental or public service losses they induce at the national level. In 4th Century BC, Socrates, through Plato, concluded from the pathologies of Athenian politics that democracy should be abolished. Yet I am not calling for a dictatorship as Plato did.

For Uganda, one solution is to end winner take-all politics so that we have a system like that of Rwanda where it is mandatory for all political parties to share power. This may tone down politician’s rhetoric especially given that they all lack any serious agenda other than being in power.  The other is to eliminate geographical constituencies based on individuals so that it is political parties that run elections and allocate seats to MPs. I do not have all the solutions. But I know that from this analysis, our nation can begin a conversation on how to structure our institutions so as to create incentives for public officials, especially elected ones, to serve the common good.


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