Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Between Rhetoric and Political Conviction: The Dynamics of Decentralization in Uganda and Africa

Academic journal article The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies

Between Rhetoric and Political Conviction: The Dynamics of Decentralization in Uganda and Africa

Article excerpt

Decentralization reforms in Uganda and generally in Africa initiated since the 1980s have received international recognition. This perception has largely been based on its elaborate policy and legal framework, institutional design, and the pace at which these reforms were implemented. Thus, in theoretical terms, the National Resistance Movement's (NRM) government is deemed to have shown political commitment to decentralizing power. Nonetheless, the process and results of over twenty years of decentralization have revealed deep-seated flaws. Power in Uganda, as in Africa in general, is being recentralized and local authorities have been turned into grassroots partisan instruments to serve the interests of the prevailing regime. This article attributes these flaws to the vested interests that influenced the NRM leadership to decentralize power. The motives, which varied from regime legitimacy to political consolidation and personal entrenchment, have seriously compromised decentralization reforms. The article contends that the effectiveness of decentralization reforms should not be judged on the basis of the formal-legal structure and rhetoric being showcased in Uganda, or by other governments elsewhere in Africa, but on actual progress in the transformation of state power relations.

Key Words: Uganda, Authoritarian government, Corruption, Decentralization, Ethnic conflict, National Resistance Movement (NRM).

The quest for decentralization has become part of the international and local policy agenda because of its assumed benefits (World Bank 1999; Manor 1999). More specifically, decentralization is credited with promoting good governance and development (World Bank 2000). Although the benefits of decentralization are sometimes overemphasized, less focus has been put on the actual politics of decentralization (Boone 2003: 355). Despite the institutional reforms undertaken, results of decentralization in the last two decades have not produced the desired effects in many African states (Crook and Manor 1998). Hence, there are substantial gaps between the rhetorical advocacy and practical results of decentralization in African states (Ndegwa and Levy 2003: 29) (and when we speak of 'Africa' in this article, what we have in mind is all of Africa, not just the sub-Saharan states). Decentralization has changed from being an instrument of local democracy and service delivery to being an instrument for advancing political motives (Boone 2003).

The major explanatory factor is that decentralization has been used opportunistically to pursue narrow or partisan advantages such as the entrenchment of regime interests (Manor 1999: 38). Many African leaders embraced decentralization reforms not because they genuinely wanted to transform state/society power relations but because they desired political self-preservation (Lancaster 1988: 33). In a desperate situation characterized by economic and legitimacy crises, many African regimes had no other viable choices to make except to resort to homegrown public sector reforms and/or accept donor-driven goodgovernance reforms in order to get or reinvent political legitimacy. This view is shared by Haruna (2001: 47) who argues that decentralization programs empower communities to participate in national decisionmaking, thereby enhancing grassroots participatory democracy.

Uganda, which was one of the African states that experienced socioeconomic and political crises during the 1970s and 1980s, vigorously carried out policy reforms. Decentralization constituted one of the public sector reforms that were pursued by Museveni's NRM government immediately after ascending power. Whereas the NRM government was initially enthusiastic and promised to put in place a democratically-oriented local governance system, especially during its 'no-party' political dispensation, the change to partisan electoral politics since 1996 has not only reversed the initial gains of decentralization but has recentralized power. …

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