As he was electioneering for votes in December 2015, President Museveni seemed, for the first time, to have reached consensus with his eternal nemesis and former physician, Dr Kizza Besigye, who said Resident District Commissioners (RDCs) were useless.
Dr Besigye had traversed the country sticking to one of his famous promises that once he assumed power, he would deal away with RDCs, together with presidential advisers such that billions of shillings that he said was wasted on maintaining the operations of “useless RDCs” and presidential advisers every year would be directed to serious sectors such as health, education and agriculture.
Every month, RDCs earn Shs2.2m, while their deputies earn Shs1.8m while assistant RDCs earn Shs817, 216.
Dr Besigye sought a lean but effective government without them.
While addressing an assembly of the 2016 NRM flag-bearers (district chairpersons and MPs) at State House, Entebbe, in 2015, Mr Museveni conveyed his agreement with Dr Besigye as he took a swipe at the RDCs.
“For the first time, I agree with Besigye…. I may not agree with him on other things, but some RDCs are useless, we spend money on them but they don’t add anything…. They don’t explain government programmes and they don’t guide people on how to fight poverty,” Museveni is quoted by Daily Monitor of December 7, 2015, as saying.
Four years later, Mr Museveni has changed tact and put RDCs at the centre of fighting the novel coronavirus, which causes Covid-19 disease, springing them back to relevancy but yet again bringing in question their role in light of next year’s general elections.
When President Museveni declared a national lockdown last month, and in the process banning the use of both public and private transport except for essential workers. He said those in swift need to use a private vehicle to transport sick people to hospitals will have to get clearance from RDCs.
The RDCs, who also head each district’s Covid-19 taskforce, have since been overwhelmed by hundreds of people who have either called them or turned up at their offices seeking clearance to travel.
Samuel Mpimbaza Hashaka, the Abim RDC, in a telephone interview recently, bragged about their newly found relevance.
“Now people can see the role of RDCs,” Hashaka said, adding: “I want to thank the President for entrusting us with this function. We are not politicians and that is why we can do this job without fear or favour.”
“If the district chairpersons had been given our role during this Covid-19 era, they would have been compromised because they need votes but we can’t be compromised,” Hashaka added.
Prof Sabiti Makara, a senior lecturer in Makerere University’s department of Public Administration and Political Science, agrees that the position of RDC, which has always been misunderstood by several people, including the office bearers, has now gained pertinence as result of the Covid-9 pandemic, which has ravaged every corner of the world.
“They are now in business. They are normally underfunded and not taken seriously in areas where the Opposition has the majority of the elected leaders,” he says.
“For a very long time, they seemed not know their role. They operate as NRM functionaries yet they are civil servants, who are supposed to be neutral,” Prof Makara adds.
Whilst the law is clear that RDCs are civil servants and are supposed to be neutral, they have been co-opted in the NRM structures and it is normal to see them either donning the ruling party colour yellow and campaigning for the party, or violently crushing Opposition gatherings.
Early this year, Eric Sakwa, the Jinja RDC, caused the arrest of Dr Besigye, who was in the district as his FDC party was preparing to celebrate 15 years of existence. Without showing where he got his powers, Sakwa later declared how he had banned Dr Besigye from ever setting a foot in the eastern district again.
The same RDC is accused of torturing Andrew Muwanguzi, one of the coordinators of political pressure group People Power headed by Kyadondo East MP Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine.
At times, RDCs have went beyond being partisan and have engaged themselves in outright criminality. Last year, for instance, Richard Tabaro, the Hoima
RDC, was captured on video whipping an FDC supporter during the Hoima Woman MP race, which was eventually won by NRM’s Harriet Businge.
“They don’t know their role,” Mr Makara emphasises, and adds: “They think since they are appointed by the President, then they must support his party. That is not their role. They are supposed to promote government programmes.”
In a move that showed perhaps that some RDCs might not know their roles, last year, government spokesperson Ofwono Opondo authored a dossier directed to RDCs, in which he tried to refresh their minds and the public of their specific functions.
“They represent the President and central government, respectively, and as such are expected to exhibit a high level of personal and official dignity, and knowledge on government policies and ongoing programmes. Apart from representing the President, their day-to-day duties include monitoring and supervising the implementation of public services in their areas of jurisdiction. RDCs chair the district security committees comprising the police, intelligence services, army, prisons, Chief Administrative Officers, Resident State Attorneys, and the district chairpersons, among others,” he wrote.
“They also coordinate the administration of government services in the district, advise the district chairperson on matters of a national nature that may affect the district or its programmes, and particularly the relations between the district and the central government. They monitor and inspect the activities of local governments and where necessary, advice the district chairperson. And they may from time to time be assigned other functions by the President or ministries. Furthermore, RDCs conduct sensitisation to the population on governmental policies and programmes, and in so doing shall liaise with the district chairpersons, council and the civil service,” Opondo further wrote.
He added: “With regard to monitoring central and local government projects, more attention should be paid to profiling households, their economic undertakings, and all government programmes running in the districts and funds allocated to each of them. RDCs should take lead and coordinate with elected leaders and civil servants in explaining government programmes and allocated funds to the people in their districts and guide them on how to access programmes like universal education and health, Operation Wealth Creation, Youth Livelihood Fund, and women empowerment funds.”
RDCs have also been at the centre of land grabbing scandals, forcing their supervisor, the Minister for the Presidency, Esther Mbayo, to warn them.
“Do what you are supposed to do. Whatever you do reflects the Office of the President. I will not hesitate to take action against RDCs involved in land grabbing. I will not hesitate to write a report and suspend you,” Mbayo said at an NRM party conference last year.
With such checkered record, Mr Museveni’s move to integrate RDC’s into the anti-Covid-19 taskforce has done them a lot of public relations.
The RDCs have seized the opportunity to redeem themselves to the extent that there was pandemonium across the political divide when James Ategeka, the Bunyangabu District chairman, slapped Jane Asiimwe the district’s RDC early last month.
The two rumbled when Ategeka had gone to enforce Mr Museveni’s anti- Covid-19 directives. The President directed that all government vehicles at the districts be reassigned to the anti-Covid-19 activities. However, when Asiimwe went to collect the vehicle, Ategeka would have none of it, causing a fracas that culminated into the slapping of the RDC.
RDCs have been at the heart of government’s programme of distributing food to the urban poor, who have been exceptionally affected by the lockdown.
The elected Opposition leaders, who had since embarked on distributing food relief to the same group, have been reduced to onlookers.
“In a democratic arrangement, the district chairpersons, who are directly elected by the people, should be overseeing these activities,” Makara says, adding: “But since the RDC have now been given powers over vehicles and food distribution, it is clear now the President has positioned them as service providers and this is something he is going to use in the upcoming elections.”
Nevertheless, RDCs seem to be taking advantage of the crisis as they position themselves to campaign for Mr Museveni in the next elections.
“Even before the President ordered that pregnant women should be allowed to go to hospitals without requiring permission from the RDCs,
I was doing it. They were going to hospitals unhampered since we mobilised vehicles for them. And now here in Abim District, many newly born children are named after me,” Hashaka chest-thumped.
What some of the key players say...
Samuel Mpimbaza Hashaka, Abim RDC. “I want to thank the President for entrusting us with this function. We are not politicians and that is why we can do this job without fear or favour. If the district chairpersons had been given our role during this Covid-19 era, they would have been compromised because they need votes but we can’t be compromised.”
Prof Sabiti Makara, senior lecturer at Makerere University. “They are now in business. They are normally underfunded and not taken seriously in areas where the Opposition has the majority of the elected leaders. For a very long time, they seemed not know their role. They operate as NRM functionaries yet they are civil servants, who are supposed to be neutral.”
Esther Mbayo, Minister for the Presidency, during an NRM party conference at State House in Entebbe last year. “Do [RDCs] what you are supposed to do. Whatever you do reflects the Office of the President. I will not hesitate to take action against RDCs involved in land grabbing. I will not hesitate to write a report and suspend you.”