The LC1 office of Katabi-Kitubulu Sub-ward in Entebbe is, perhaps, representative of the last 11 years in which village level elections have not been held. There are only four chairs and a stool in the room.
A ragged and dirty curtain separates the office from the other part of the room – which is a sparsely stocked shop. The wall of the office is taken up by dilapidated shelves. The door is wooden and the floor is uneven. A space in the corner of the office is reserved for the merchandise of the tailor who rents the verandah.
Gerald Kasujja, who has been LC1 chairperson since 2001, when the last elections were held, is presiding over a case involving land fraud. The wrangle seems to date from the time when the land was purchased in 1978.
“People who sell land no longer have shame,” Kasujja laments, continuing, “The land opposite this office has been sold to three different buyers. The original owner did not inform me of the first two sales. He only introduced me to the third buyer and I signed off the transaction. Now, the other two buyers are up in arms, accusing me of fraud.”
And while the long-awaited LC elections had been scheduled to take place this month, the High Court on Monday issued an interim order restraining the Electoral Commission from conducting the elections. This was after a concerned citizen, Mr James Tweheyo, challenged holding the elections in the absence of Senior Six students who will be sitting their examinations until December 8. This means until the court process is concluded, there will be no elections in the foreseeable future.
In 2011, Mukono Municipality MP Betty Nambooze filed a lawsuit seeking declaration that the LC1 posts were illegal since the government had failed to hold elections as required by the Constitution. The Constitutional Court declared the local councils as null and void.
However, in the absence of an alternative, Ugandans continue to use LC services as the first point of call whenever they are in distress.
Kigandazi Zone in Bweyogerere, Kira Town Council, has about 6,000 people. Every one of them must register with Abu Baker Kitandwe, the LC1 chairperson before they take up residence or operate a business.
“I have records, including land transactions that date back 15 years. Every record is accompanied by a passport photograph. By the time the police began community policing, we were far ahead, because I know every single person in this community.”
Kitandwe, who entered the local council as a youth counsellor in 1986, assumed the chairmanship in 2006, even though no elections were held. “I think it was wrong to say that the LCs are illegal because all these years, we have been giving out recommendation letters for loans or bail applications and none of those letters have been rejected by the relevant institutions.”
Challenges of operating in an illegal regime
Since the LC system has been technically illegal, some committee members in different locales have absconded from duty. In fact, in many villages only the chairperson, vice, and secretary for defence are known.
In Kigandazi Zone, the committee has only four people. In Katabi-Kitubulu Sub- ward, the council had only two people for more than seven years. It was only after the 2016 general election for the LC3 councils that two more people joined Kasujja’s council.
“The other members shifted over the years,” Kasujja says, continuing, “Now, with the four-member committee, we sit once a month to discuss pertinent issues, although I cannot afford to pay them sitting allowance.”
Selevest Tumwesigye, LC1 chairperson of Kelezia Zone, Wabigalo Parish, Makindye Division, is lucky to have seven members on his committee.
“They should have been 10 but the other three shifted a. We do not have an office because we cannot afford to pay rent, but we have a small enclosure where we hold our meetings,” he says.
Tumwesigye, who has been chairperson since 2002, conducts village council business on the verandah of a shop, where residents in need of his services are welcome to sit on a rickety bench. He joined the local council in 1986 as a youth councilor.
Local council operational funds
Ideally, local councils are supposed to share a portion of the revenue collected in their areas of jurisdiction. “We get 25 per cent of the total collection of taxes,” Kitandwe says, adding: “Of that 25 per cent, five per cent is sent to the LC2. Our portion is used to pay rent for our office and mobilise residents to support government programmes, such as, immunisation.”
However, the 25 per cent is not really much. For instance, in October 2017, Kitandwe received Shs250,000. The monthly rent for the office is Shs200,000. The office is an extension of a storeyed building and is well furnished with two sofa sets, two office tables, a television set and fan.
Because of the little money available to fund their activities, local councils have had to devise ways to survive. Kitandwe’s fee for signing a recommendation for a letter for a loan is Shs5,000, a letter for a passport costs Shs10,000, a letter permitting one to transport animals through the zone costs Shs20,000, a letter permitting a tenant to shift out of the area costs Shs20,000, and a letter of recommendation for a death certificate costs Shs10,000.
“That is not a lot of money,” he says, adding, “We need money to buy stationery and pay for electricity. When a member of the community dies, we are asked to contribute towards the burial expenses. The 25 per cent we receive from the district cannot cater for all these expenses.”
Before landlords began making land transactions using lawyers, the local council used to get one per cent of the sale amount.
“Nowadays, if the buyer is a good person, he might come to the office and introduce himself to us with a gift. We only come into the land sales when there is a dispute. Even then, we do not intervene unless the parties drop Shs1 million in our office.”
In Kelezia Zone, Tumwesigye only charges for recommendation letters for “luxury activities. I consider opening a bank account and obtaining a passport or loan as luxuries. We used to get money from land transactions but nowadays people use lawyers. We only wait for the new buyer to introduce himself to us with a contribution of at least Shs20,000.”
Kasujja does not charge for his services in Katabi-Kitubulu sub ward. “We only get a percentage when someone sells a kibanja. For instance, if someone sells their land at Shs30 million, they can give us Shs300,000 as an appreciation fee for signing the transaction papers.”
Many of the funds the village councils are able to glean off their residents go to facilitate the secretary of defense and his team with torch batteries and heavy coats to carry out night patrols, since local councils in urban areas no longer charge security fees.
“We used to charge a security fee of Shs500 per home but we realised that residents expected us to stand at their doors and guard them during the night, so we scrapped it,” Kasujja says. In Kelezia Zone, the little money collected is used to facilitate village meetings by buying refreshments for the attendees. In Kigandazi Zone, while most of the money goes to equip the defense team, according to Kitandwe, there are months when the committee decides that the money should be used to “wash off our poverty. Committee members are not paid by government so I have to give them some kind of allowance once in a while.”
Community service jobs
The government, through the Ministry of Local Government, gives the LC1s a monthly stipend of Shs10,000, which is given to them at the end of the year (Shs120,000). In 2013 and 2015, they did not receive the money.
To survive, most of the chairmen do other jobs. Kitandwe is a teacher at Mukono High School and runs a groundnut grinding business on the verandah of the local council office. Tumwesigye is a matooke retailer, while Kasujja is a land broker.
“Those LCs who do not have other jobs, ‘milk’ the residents because they demand a lot of money for the services they offer,” Kitandwe says, adding, “They look at the local councils as a source of income, yet some residents do not have money for services.”
Kasujja uses the local council office to widen his contacts base. “When residents are selling their land, I am the first point of call, both because I am a broker and because I am the area chairperson. This gives me an edge over other land brokers.”
The way forward
Before the LC1 elections were halted it was expected that with the election authority will return to the position. Where before, LC1 chairpersons did not have the legal authority to direct residents on community work or to settle cases to a final conclusion, with the elections, it was hoped that village councils will be vibrant once again. “I have been told many times, in courts of law, that my position is illegal and my signature does not carry weight,” Kasujja says, continuing, “Surprisingly, even police officers tell me I do not have any authority, yet when they are looking for a criminal, their first point of call is my office. At least, with the elections, this undermining of our authority will come to an end.”
All the three chairmen this newspaper spoke to had offered themselves for reelection. “People should remove politics from the LC elections because none of us works exclusively for one political party,” Kitandwe says, adding, “We are performing a community service to everyone.”