Decentralization in Uganda

There’s a new post at the Monkey Cage by Guy Grossman and Janet Lewis about decentralization, based largely on a recent article they’ve published on the subject. The piece is an overview of what happens as states (esp. African ones) decentralize at the regional level, in light of the fact that the DRC’s long-awaited redistricting may happen soon. In particular, they note that:

Creating new provinces creates new provincial leadership positions. As a result, more aspiring local leaders – especially those from previously marginalized areas – can enter politics, widening the talent pool from which local political leaders are drawn. This pattern, in turn, makes national politics more competitive. The larger the pool of governors, the greater the likelihood that at least some of them will use their offices to mount a credible challenge to the president. This greater competition in national politics often forces the incumbent president to rule more responsibly.

But there’s one exception that they mention: Uganda.

Our research in Uganda suggests that extreme fragmentation also can allow the central government to consolidate power vis-à-vis the local governments. Power struggles are common between central and local governments, and when more units are created, the power of localities as a whole diminishes. The larger the number of local governments, the more onerous it is to coordinate with one another to present a united front against the central government. In Uganda, the creation of more and more districts has coincided with less policy and fiscal autonomy for each individual district.

So, what’s the deal with Uganda?

I haven’t read Grossman and Lewis’ scholarly article on decentralization, so I’m not sure how much they go into the Ugandan exception, but it’s worth exploring here just how crazy the decentralization of government is in Uganda. The country is divided into districts, and each district is then divided into counties, sub-counties, etc. When Yoweri Museveni first came to power in 1986, Uganda was divided into 33 districts – today it stands at a whopping 111. Despite being less than 1/10 the size of its Congolese neighbor and holding less than half as many people, Uganda’s government is divided on a whole other level than the Congo’s 11 provinces and the proposed 26.

The proliferation of districts in Uganda far outpaces other countries, and it is a part of Museveni’s effort to simultaneously dispense patronage while also gaining support for elections, undercutting opposition at the local level, and impress the international community. A great source for this is Elliot Green’s 2008 working paper [pdf] on district creation in Uganda (he’s also written articles about it here and here).

The new districts in Uganda create support for Museveni through patronage. District creation accelerated after Uganda’s Movement (no-party/one-party) government opened up to multiparty democracy. Shifting to multipartyism helped Museveni push opposition politicians out of powerful seats, but it also limited his ability to curry favor through local government positions. Each new district created a new representative, a woman MP, local staff, and new district capitals. All of these allowed Museveni to gain favor through job creation, women’s movements, and patronage for new officials. However, while leaders gained new positions of power, the general populace didn’t necessarily benefit – many local leaders told Green that they faced logistical and administrative obstacles with their new district governments that they hadn’t faced before.

In addition, most of the new districts created in Uganda have been in the north and east of the country, regions where Museveni has enjoyed less support than his primary base in the southwest.  By fracturing districts where he had little support, Museveni has been able to render opposition politicians with smaller bases where they have trouble financing campaigns and begin to compete against each other rather than unify against the NRM.

In new districts, the creation of jobs and apparent support for more local governance also served as a boon to Museveni, gaining him support in places where he had little before.  In some elections, he even promised to help certain areas become new districts if they voted for him. This new form of patronage through decentralization proved an effective tactic for Museveni, who increased district creation efforts in the years prior to elections.  Looking at specific election results, Green found that newly created districts supported Museveni more than the average for the rest of the country in 1996, 2001, and especially in 2006.

District creation and decentralization are just one of Museveni’s tools for keeping power in a toolbox that includes many other tactics, including buying votes, military repression, and political bargaining (introducing multipartyism in exchange for removing term limits comes to mind). [See also, another of my posts riffing off of the Monkey Page, this time on durability of dictatorships] Decentralization in Uganda has helped to bolster the regime, something not often seen in other parts of the continent.

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