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Uganda’s Competition Act: Even the cocks that crow today were once eggs

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Writer: Phillip Karugaba. PHOTO/COURTESY/FILE

As the Baganda saying goes, even the cocks that crow were once eggs, meaning that humble beginnings can still produce great and mighty outcomes.

The story on Uganda’s new competition regime ‘Without a watchdog, how will competition law bite?’ in Sunday Monitor of June 2 brings to mind this old proverb. 

The writer was worried that the New Competition Act, 2023, did not have an independent authority to administer it and would be run by a new technical committee on competition and consumer protection in the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Cooperatives. 

The article also warned of challenges the committee may face in conducting investigations and hearing of complaints against government entities. 

Uganda faces significant challenges. The Competition Act was birthed amid a rationalisation project of disappearing independent government bodies and returning their functions to their line ministries. Consequently, the government did not create an independent competition authority.

The pressing issue lies with President Museveni whose actions have greatly impacted the competition space. As the Competition Act was awaiting presidential assent, the President issued a directive giving a monopoly over bus operations in Kampala.

How can a civil servant stand up to the full force of Uganda’s Executive authority, exercised through presidential directives or Executive orders? Public service rules prohibit civil servants from directly addressing the President.

Thus, a civil servant cannot challenge the recent uncompetitive appointments of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces construction brigade or the Special Forces Command to fix Kampala roads, the football stadium or the airport.

Our Parliament was alive to this and advocated for an independent body. The Parliamentary Committee on Tourism, Trade and Industry that considered the Competition Bill, redrafted it and provided for an independent authority. 

However, this was rejected by the President citing that the legal process to create the authority had not been followed. An independent authority was promised to be established later and this remains a fervent hope.

As was said at the recent ENS event ‘The dawn of a new competition era in Uganda’, the highly regarded Kenya Competition Authority started as a department. Domestically, the Uganda Revenue Authority functions were also initially run by the Ministry of Finance. Is statutory independence possible in the face of stronger Executive authority?

So how does the fledgling technical committee grow to crow and beat its wings in a mighty way to make us proud? Just as a chick grows under the protective wings of its mother and the hen-keeper’s watchful eye, our technical committee must operate under the oversight of Parliament and the watchful eye of us, the citizens and beneficiaries of the competition law.

The writer, Phillip Karugaba, is a lawyer.  [@Phillip Karugaba]