The local government arrangement was a compromise for federalism as was popularly demanded in the Constitutional Review Commission that resulted in the 1995 Constitution. Then, some Ugandans had desired for Federal governance while Buganda clung on a less understood and historically divisive “Federo.”
For decades, local government flourished with the hope that it would unite Ugandans, bring services closer to the people, make people’s voices visible in decision making at the local levels, and make local government leaders to be accountable. The way Hon Bidandi Ssali articulated local government was such that it is a bottom-up policy approach that made administration and governance truly pro-people.
The central government ceded much of the public service administration to the local government through the Local Government Act, 1997 (as amended). Schools, hospitals, education, water and sanitation, cultural ceremonies, local infrastructure, urban planning, and security among others, became the responsibility of the local government. The central government would finance the districts through its ministry of finance and economic planning.
For decades, the balkanisation of districts in Uganda as an entrenchment political strategy for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) created more pseudo-districts that are not viable through their tax generation. Consequently, the quality of public service has generally declined instead of improving, and the people are more alienated from decision-making than intended.
The lapse in districts’ performance has caused a political crisis that gave now makes the high-earning Members of Parliament become the new government in the place of local government.Being an MP attracts a decent earning and in poor districts where there are four or more MPs, the collective monthly or annual income of their MPs outstrips such a district revenue collection. Further, districts such as Kitgum have repeatedly failed to absorb central capitation grants.
Consequently, the local people have abandoned seeking services from the local and central government only to turn their gaze of helplessness at their MPs.
Being an MP in Uganda means running the everyday life of all constituents such as paying fees, acting as a husband to widows and father to orphans; being a health worker – providing ambulances and building health centers as well as pharmacies; being a chief mortician, paying for burials and body relocations.
It also includes being a chief witness at weddings and marriage counsellor, a local conflict arbitrator, a counselor of widowers and the terminally ill; agents of witchcraft, funder of flimsy business propositions, a chief mourner at funerals of people who die from a purely preventable deaths, a transporter, teacher, priest, road builder, and even a cattle rustler in some districts. The central government has reneged on its duties to fund local governments appropriately and the ministry of Finance’s micro-management of local government accounts for some of these lapses.
However, the central government has insisted on lavishing MPs with resources in ways that undermine local government and consequently, the legislation have gradually inherited much that local governments should do. This way, the MPs are constantly under duress from their insatiably needy constituents and their performance is judged not by the legislative requirement, rather by how they solve service gaps that the local and central government should have performed.
This also explains the rise in perpetual corruption, decline in legislative deliberations, and decline in the quality of leaders at all levels of governance.
Additionally, the high commercialisation of politics and its violent nature speaks to the level at which the MP transmits state tyranny, escapes credibility scrutiny, and evades accountability. At the end, when an MP is defeated at an election, they quickly depreciate physically, mentally, and financially. Most look up to a concession with the giver – Museveni – for fringe benefits or appointments.
The cost of public administration must be addressed to ease resources for local government to operate. The ministry of Finance should harmonise how it transmits funds to the local governments and ease up on micro-management which humiliates local leaders. Practically, the Parliament is bloated and needs reducing drastically.
Morris Komakech and Enoch Tumwine are Ugandan political associates based in Canada.