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He is insensitive to a failed decentralization policy, patronage and horizontal inequalities
Uganda News

Typical of Africa’s big-man “liberators”, Yoweri Museveni is unlikely to handover power to another leader. He has reached a point where he believes he alone is qualified to rule Uganda. Contrary to his self-glorification, Museveni is not in power because Ugandans love him. Rather, he has carefully manipulated national politics to enable him to rule for life.


In a recent interview with the Doha-based Al-Jazeera TV, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni lied to the “young man” interviewing him, to Ugandans and to the Al-Jazeera audience worldwide. He also looked calm as he lied all through the interview, and that was scary! He dodged the numerous questions about the rationale (or irrationality) of clinging to power beyond his legitimate mandate. He insincerely justified his 31-year stay in power as a constitutional right while aware of the way the law of the land was desecrated two decades ago to remove term limits.

There are rumors he is bent on removing age-limits and stand again in 2021. He couldn’t say it openly, but it was obvious he has two deceptive self-convictions: One, that he is the only Ugandan (out of 40 million) who can meaningfully lead the country (and the East African region) to its God-given destiny: And two, that he has the right, as a liberator, to rule for life. He also told the world that any other aspiring leaders should content themselves with district (and other administrative units) leadership.

Never mind that the decentralization drive that has created over 130 districts (from 33 in 1986) is crumbling under the weight of patronage. He gave false reasons for keeping any serious contender to the presidency, such as Besigye, on the edge. He didn’t seem bothered by the death of over 100 people in Kasese at the hands of his security forces even when he was challenged on the irrationality of holding only one side of the confrontation in detention. He accurately quoted the Oxfam (2016) appraisal of 19.7% of the population below the poverty line by 2014 as opposed to nearly 56% in 1992. Nevertheless, he didn’t (and wouldn’t) acknowledge the fact that the Oxfam report in question was actually focusing on the sad reality of gross horizontal inequalities in a country where the richest 10 per cent of the population enjoy 35.7 per cent of national income; the poorest 10 per cent claim a meagre 2.5 per cent, and the poorest 20 per cent have only 5.8 per cent.[1]

Decentralization gone wrong

The current National Resistance Movement (NRM) government has over the years made efforts at decentralisation by increasing the number of districts from a mere 33 in 1986 to 116 to date,[2] with six more to be born on July 1, 2017.  Six and seven more will become effective on July 1, 2018 and 2019 respectively. Thus by July 1, 2019, Uganda will have 135 districts.[3] The rationale was to empower the people and bring services closer to them. However, just like the Local Council (LC) system, the initial NRM administrative model which had originally “won the admiration of a large section of the population, especially in the rural areas where the poorest and most exploited live,”[4] the decentralization model has been overtaken by politics. In this model, power vaguely lies in the hands of politically appointed administrative personnel who are accountable only to the appointing authority.

The creation of an unprecedented number of districts and the subsequent increase in electoral constituencies has been criticized by political observers as just a tool for consolidating political support for the ruling party prior to an election.[5] Critics see this as a distinct strand of neo-patrimonialism based on a culture of rewarding and mobilizing for political support.[6] They also see it as far from being capable of ensuring sustainable integrity for the local units – their identities, cultures and traditions. “The result is that local government’s capacity to deliver services effectively is being seriously compromised. This inability to deliver services is leading to growing public disenchantment that could ultimately lead to the undoing of Uganda’s attempt to achieve democracy through decentralization.”[7]

Moreover, the new districts, and subsequently big numbers of National Assembly representatives, are not only an added financial cost and supervision burden,[8] but they also fall short of the desired sizeable, freely elected and population related criterion. On the outset, there is no denying the theoretically positive reasons for creating new districts, main among them being making social services more accessible to millions of rural people who feel marginalized. However, such a progressive increase, as an editorial in a local newspaper lamented, “has had no meaningful impact on the lives of the local population because they have always been created as a result of presidential pledges prior to or during elections.’’[9]

Critics argue that the current NRM Government has survived the three decades of her regime by rewarding political loyalists and entrenching economic inequalities. They would argue that both the oversized body of elected representatives and the extremely big size of government are detrimental to national development and transparent governance. For the five-year term beginning 2016, President Museveni appointed 31 full cabinet ministers and 49 ministers of state. Given the big body of local administrators mentioned above in the government’s drive towards decentralization, this looks like a big contradiction in terms and practice. One would think that such a big number of local representatives would require only a small cabinet to enable quick decision-making at the central level, and subsequent quick implementation of policies and services at the ground.

In his early years (the late 1980s and early 1990s), President Museveni was well aware of this. The NRM government then actually gave up control of most economic activities and drastically reduced the size of cabinet. However, when Museveni joined electoral politics in 1996, he adopted the strategy of political patronage by rewarding areas and individuals in exchange for support. And as Mwenda observes, “Museveni’s success at consolidating his power and stifling democracy flows from his knack for integrating large chunks of the political class into his vast patronage empire … patronage, typically in the form of government contracts, tenders, and jobs, is his preferred tool and the one that he used to render parliament ineffective.”[10] There is particularly strong evidence that President Museveni has indeed used the creation of new districts to create “a raft of new jobs, each one a patronage opportunity.”[11] This is the very reason, many other critics argue, why many countries across the world, especially in Africa, and in this particular case Uganda, have created many new local administrative units.[12] Museveni’s obvious intentions therefore are contradicted by his allegations on Al-Jazeera.

It can also be argued that the unprecedented multiplication of districts out of the existing ethnicities is intended to weaken the historically existing political structures of these ethnic units in order to bring them closer to the grip of political power from the central government. It will be recalled that one of the major political reforms of the Museveni era was the creation of a new constitution which allowed, among other things, the restoration of Uganda’s traditional kingdoms and chiefdoms as cultural institutions. These were strictly restricted from any political activities, and they are largely no threat to centralized state power.

Another major reform, as explained above, was the introduction of the Local Council (LC) system of local government by which the central government “had both created a system of regular and direct elections at the local level and reassigned local government power from centrally-appointed technocrats to locally elected politicians.”[13] One can assume that these people-chosen local leaders, unlike the restored cultural chiefs and kings, eventually became a threat to the centralized power of government. This could be the possible reason for the diminishing powers of the LCs and their being usurped by government-appointed Resident District Commissioners (RDCs) and Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs). The constitutional highlight of reassigning local government power to locally elected politicians had been reversed. Now the most powerful persons in the district are answerable to the most powerful man in the country, not to the people. District leadership jobs, Mr. President, are not truly democratically competitive.

It can be argued that such political patronage affects government institutions, and the values of the people at local and national levels. The net institutional effect is that state institutions have become “personalised” or “privatised”. “Power and authority are situated in the person, not in the office.”[14] There are also cases where the creation of districts in Uganda has split one ethnic group into four or more districts for the first time,[15] “with the consequence of psychological separation of people and in some cases conflict, as was the case of the undecided location of the headquarters of Tororo, Terego and Maracha districts in the Bugisu region. In both cases the creation of districts re-shapes the local people’s perceptions of socio-cultural values and loyalty. The districts also become more dependent on the central government, and the client-patron relationship is created and re-enforced.[16]

Entrenching horizontal inequalities (HIs)[17]

In plural societies, such as Uganda, it is inevitable that equity among the various cultural groups is guaranteed for people to have a grip on their destiny, and for the country to avoid the danger of violent conflict. Nevertheless, neither the overly strong central government nor the patronage-driven decentralization policy described above can guarantee such equity. Cultural autonomy for the different ethnic groups has been assaulted over the years; political HIs are being entrenched with certain groups being overrepresented in government and military service compared to their share of the total population; and these current policies have the effect of increasing socio-economic disparities.

Aili Mari Tripp has argued, for instance, that “to understand the balance of power in Uganda past and present, it is necessary to look at the configuration of all the security services … Most of Museveni’s closest associates since 2005 have been top military leaders, all from the west – including his son, Major Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who was promoted in 2008 to the rank of lieutenant colonel and commander in charge of Special Forces …”[18] Muhoozi has since been promoted to the rank of Major General and appointed Special Presidential Advisor on Operations.

Indeed, according to the 2016 cabinet list, “western Uganda got the most ministerial jobs, 27 in total. The west has 14 cabinet ministers and 13 ministers of state picked from Ankole, Rwenzori, Kigezi, Tooro and Bunyoro sub-regions. Central region follows with 20 ministerial slots; eight cabinet ministers and 12 ministers of state. Eastern also got 20 cabinet slots with six cabinet ministers and 14 ministers of state. And northern got only three cabinet ministers and 10 ministers of state.”[19]

There is, in other words, a concentration of political power in the southern part of Uganda, which has also laid the foundations for economic and political exclusion, especially of the Acholi minority in northern Uganda, which has further cemented the grievances that define north-south, and which arguably fueled the creation of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group.[20]

In the absence of empirical evidence, it is hard to make a clear link between the dominance of particular ethnicities in the senior echelons of the Uganda government and socio-economic inequalities. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to conclude, even from anecdotal evidence, that there are inter- and intra-ethnic tensions and debates on whether political HIs in Uganda today do lead to policy outcomes that advance the interests of the ethnicities with a dominant share in government. It is not unreasonable to conclude that these debates are due to perceptions of social inequality as operationalized by the United Nations into six explicit categories:  (1) inequalities in the distribution of income, (2) inequalities in the distribution of assets, (3) inequalities in the distribution of employment, (4) inequalities in access to knowledge, (5) political inequalities, and (6) inequalities in access to medical services, social security, and safety.[21]


Back to President Museveni’s Al-Jazeera interview. It is interesting that he referred to the Holy Bible repeatedly to conveniently answer some key questions. But with the Bible you cannot be selective. Philippians 2: 6 would be food for thought for Mr. Museveni as he stubbornly dodges the two most important questions from the interview: how long will you cling to power? And how will history judge you?  But I don’t think at this point in his political life Museveni is really serious about the Bible as we know it. Jesus the Liberator of all Liberators (Mugabe of all Ssabagabes as we say back home), “who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage.” Jesus did whatever the “young man” interviewing the President wanted him to admit he is refusing to do: ‘You have done a good job, groom others, let them take over, and go!” But that’s not the logic of “liberators” in Africa, unless they are Mandela! Museveni has been widely quoted to have said almost a decade ago: “It’s me who hunted and after killing the animal, they [the Opposition] want me to go. Where should I go?”[22] He has, therefore, been down this road for a while now. He knows exactly what he is doing. He knows the world knows it too. It is embarrassing sometimes when he is paraded and exposed on world TV, but only to “sophisticated Ugandans” and not to “men in uniform”, as Onyango-Obbo noted at the time.[23] It is no longer embarrassing to Museveni himself, either, probably because, I guess, like the Mugabes of Africa, he has reached a point of no return.

* Vick L. Ssali is a lecturer in English language and the cultures of English-speaking countries, Aichi Gakuin University, Japan, and a PhD candidate, Graduate School of Global Studies, Doshisha University, Japan.

End notes

[1] Oxfam. (2016). Who is growing? Ending inequalities in Uganda: a study of the drivers of inequality in Uganda. (

[2] In effect, there are 115 districts plus the Kampala Capital City Authority.

[3] Parliament of the Republic of Uganda (

[4] Mutiibwa, 1992: 181.

[5] JICA, 2008; Muhumuza, 2008.

[6] World Bank, 1998; Tangri and Mwenda, 2001, 2003, 2006; Mwenda, 2007; Manyaka and Katono, 2910.

[7] Manyaka and Katono, 2010: 17.

[8] Idem, 6.

[9] The Acholi Times, July 16, 2012.

[10] Mwenda, 2007: 29.

[11] Ibid. 31.

[12] Green, 2008; Manyaka and Katono, 2010; Sasaoka and Nyangoro, 2013; Mbabazi, 2015

[13] Green, 2008.

[14] Titeca, 2006: 43.

[15] Traditionally bigger ethnic populations have, on the other hand, been used to the split since the 1967 abolition of the status of the kingdoms and the division of Buganda into four administrative districts.

[16] Green, 2008.

[17] Horizontal Inequalities (HIs) refer to inequalities in economic, social or political dimensions or cultural status between culturally defined groups (Stewart, 2008: 3).

[18] Tripp, 2010: 52-53.

[19] The Observer, June 20, 2016.

[20] Butale, 2015.

[21] International Forum for Human Development. (2006).

[22] Onnyango Obbo, East African, February 19, 2008. See also Mari Tripp, 2008.

[23] Ibid.



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