Monday, March 9, 2015

Andrew M. Mwenda — Re-thinking our democratic institutions

The pathologies of Uganda’s LC system and the need for a new conversation on how to reform it

On the temple of Apollo at Delphi is inscribed the motto “meden agan” (nothing in excess) in honour of the ancient Greek statesman, Solon (circa 638 to 558 BCE).  Solon understood that too much of anything is always bad. For example, if you disperse and constrain power through myriad checks and balances, you make it dilute and ineffective. If you concentrate it too much, you make it arbitrary and destructive. In designing a constitution for Athens (594 BCE), he balanced the power of popular assemblies with property qualification. Aristotle understood Solon and saw both democracy and aristocracy as dangerous extremes. So he favoured a timocracy i.e. rule by honour – a mixture of democracy and aristocracy. This insight was lost when the NRM was designing the current LC system.

In 2000, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi finished his PhD at the London School of Economics titled “Decentralisation and Development Administration in Uganda”. It is a stinging indictment of the depredations of a misguided faith in grassroots democracy in a poor country. Golooba-Mutebi’s thesis is that the NRM failed to balance the aspirations for popular participation with needs for administrative functionality.

Before the NRM came to power in 1986, the lowest levels of local government in Uganda (the village, parish, sub-county and county) were governed by state appointed chiefs as administrative heads. Prof. Mahmoud Mamdani has criticised this structure as a “clinched fist” – the fusion of administrative, judicial and legislative power in the chief – which he refers to as “decentralised despotism.” And he has a point: The chief had power to assess you for graduated tax, to collect that tax, decide the punishment if you failed to pay, and execute it by detention or a fine or forgive you.

There was no check or balance on the powers of the chief.