Broad new reform agenda: Decentralisation - Part 3

Monday February 22 2021

Emilly Comfort Maractho

By Emilly C. Maractho

When I suggested that we should revisit our form of decentralisation in areas where it has gone wrong, I strongly believed that without sorting out decentralisation, any attempts to try and fix democracy and development would be wasted effort.

In fact, even if we deal with decentralisation alone, we may afford to address some of the issues in both democratisation and development, seeing the two reinforce each other, and are both deeply affected by it.

We need to understand the current limits of decentralisation and its consequences for democratisation and development.
Decentralisation was formally entrenched in Uganda by the 1995 Constitution and the 1997 Local Government Act.

Uganda promoted decentralisation with the promise to improve the quality of governance and delivery of services. Indeed, for close to three decades now, decentralisation has been at the centre of democracy and development.  The promises of decentralisation for governance were broadly captured in the goals for popular participation in democracy and grassroots involvement in development planning and practice.

Local governments became the vehicles through which democratic and development aspirations would be delivered. It held the key to socio-economic transformation of our society with power sharing forming a big part. As is often the case, power sharing is challenging most of the times.

The near ‘death’ of decentralisation and its promises for good governance is more pronounced each year.   What has gone wrong with decentralisation has been the subject of many studies. I doubt that policy makers pay attention to outcomes of research and the evidence relevant to inform policy review.


There is consensus that Uganda’s decentralisation has failed in the areas of resource allocation and maintaining the autonomy and independence of local governments. It also did not enhance popular participation as envisaged, except perhaps in the beginning.

More so, the participatory and empowering nature of decentralisation has withered. As such, decentralisation became the single most important instrument for entrenching the National Resistance Movement (NRM) in power.

As Kristof Kiteca writes in Decentralisation and patronage, the most important goal of decentralisation is no longer to introduce popular democracy but to be an instrument to entrench the power of the regime, taking away power from potential opposition support base.

The major shift in policy goal and other challenges of decentralisation have been manifested in the growth of districts without real power, declaration of cities without resources to make them functional or enhanced capacity for autonomous decision making, recentralisation of district leadership to the centre through the Chief Administrative Officers and extended role of Resident District Commissioners, dependence of local governments on the centre for fiscal health having been deprived of their sources of revenue by the abolition of graduated tax without meaningful alternatives for local economic development, and the general weakening of institutions and service delivery systems.

Whatever its faults, decentralisation still holds better promises for good governance, given a chance to function as is visualised in the policy.

As Merilee Grindle suggests in her book ‘Going local’, good governance is not simply a function of intergovernmental relationships. It is, rather, the consequence of new opportunities and resources, the impact of leadership motivation and choices, influence of civic history and the effect of institutions that constrain and facilitate innovation.

We may wish to acknowledge that our local governments cannot facilitate meaningful innovation, and have turned into spaces for top down policy implementation rather than the ‘new arenas for politics, policy decision making and governance’ as Grindle suggested.

What we need now is a comprehensive review of our decentralisation policy and its impact on democratisation and development.

Experience has shown that while decentralisation may work to entrench popular democratic groups, it could jeopardise opportunities for deepening democracy and expanding development. This proposed review would do well to focus on ordering the administrative structures.  

Given the number of districts and cities, we may need to discuss regional governments or form new administrative structures in order to reduce the burden of public administration without taking services (or power) away from the people.

 There is need to look at resource mobilisation and autonomy of whatever administrative units are agreed on more critically. And, attempt to de-link local governance structures from existing NRM machinery in districts. The immediate outcome of such a review, informed by evidence would work for all groups.

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media Studies at UCU.