Meet Your Local Government

A key feature of Uganda’s governance system is its decentralization that splits power between the central and local governments. While bound by the same laws and constitution as their national counterpart, local governments operate at a distinctly ground level, with their smallest administrative units formed as village councils. But what exactly do local governments look like and more importantly, what do they do?

Where in urban settings, the local government takes the form of a council at the city, municipal, division/town, ward or cell level, in rural areas, there are district councils, counties (which are administrative units without a council), sub-county councils, parish councils and village councils.

The rural councils are typically led by an executive committee comprised of a Chairperson, directly elected by the people for a term of 5 years, a speaker and their deputy, two youth councillors and two councillors for the disabled, one of each required to be female, and an elected woman councillor who represents each electoral area in the district. While the county administrative unit is staffed by civil servants who assist the district council in executing and/or coordinating the business of lower levels, the sub-county council structure mimics the district structure, and the parish council also includes secretaries for information, education, security, finance, production and environmental protection.

Village councils are unique in that they are ideally composed of all citizens in the village who are 18 years or older, and then take on a form similar to the parish council.

These councils serve as the planning authorities for their respective units. For instance a district council is recognized as the planning authority of a district and — in addition to the procedures it establishes for itself — works according to the guidelines established by the National Planning Authority to prepare a comprehensive and integrated development plan, incorporating plans of lower level local governments for submission to the aforementioned national body.

District councils also have the power to levy and collect taxes including rates, rents, royalties, stamp duties, and registration and licensing fees. Its legislative powers allow a district council to make laws (where those laws are not inconsistent with the Constitution or any other law made by Parliament) and this is done by the passing of local bills into ordinances by the council and signed by the chairperson. Such a local bill, once passed by a district council, is forwarded to the Attorney General through the Minister to certify that it is not inconsistent with the Constitution or any other law enacted by Parliament before the chairperson signs it into law. A bill enacted by the district council and signed by the district chairperson under this section shall be an ordinance of the council and shall be published in the official Gazette and in the local media, giving the public access to it.

The lower level local governments follow similar procedures meaning a sub-county or village council (in the rural setting) or an urban or division council (urban setting) can make bylaws which are then forwarded to the district council for certification that they are not inconsistent with the constitution.

The mandate of the parish and village councils is to assist in the maintenance of law, order and security; initiate, encourage, support and participate in self-help projects and mobilise people, material and technical assistance in relation to self-help projects; at the village level, to vet and recommend persons in the area who should be recruited into the Uganda Peoples’ Defence Forces, the Uganda Police Force, and the Uganda Prisons Service and local defence units; to serve as the communication channel between the Government, the district or higher local council and the people in the area; to monitor the administration in its area and report to the higher or district council; to monitor projects and other activities undertaken by the Government, local governments, and nongovernmental organisations in their area; and to carry out other functions which may be imposed by law or incidental to the above.

Bolstered by the Local Governments Act 1997 (Cap. 243), which also provides for a 30% minimum of seats to be held by women, these local governments exist as foundational governance structures that hold the next level structures in place, providing support and direct feedback from the lowest level upwards. Local government elections are held every five years with candidates elected on a party ticket, and while still much smaller in scope compared to their national counterpart, local government expenditure in 2014 was cited as 15.1% of total government expenditure.


The Evolution of Uganda’s Local Government

Uganda was in turmoil.

In the late 1800s, the British had salivated upon finding a centralised African kingdom they could take over with ease, instead of the disconnected societies they’d had to mould together in other parts of the continent. But hopes for swift colonisation of Buganda were soon dashed as the Brits encountered warring missionary factions (Catholics Vs Protestants) who divided support of the people amongst themselves, while simultaneously fighting off Muslim traders and deposing the anti-Christian Kabaka Mwanga, setting off an intense succession war for the throne of Buganda.

It was the heat of the “Scramble For Africa”, a roughly 40 year period in which European powers brutally overran the continent in a race to plant their imperial flags and consolidate militaristic and economic dominance. And the Brits had their work cut out for them in the territory they wanted to carve out as British East Africa.

It wasn’t until the dawn of the 20th Century that an agreement was finally settled upon, an ostensibly softer stance than the failed treaties and uneasy alliance of the preceding years that had nevertheless resulted in the Brits conquering other kingdoms in the region. Signed by Sir Apollo Kaggwa, Buganda’s Katikiro (Prime Minister) on behalf of the Kabaka, and Sir Harry Johnston representing the British Colonial Government, the 1900 Buganda Agreement promised each side wealth, land, power and most importantly stability.

What neither side realised was that it also included a clause that would gradually sprout and, over a number of decades, coupled with various other factors, lead to the dismantling of both Buganda’s sovereignty and Britain’s Colonial reign over Uganda.

It was the clause that established the formal structure of Uganda’s local government.

Defined as consisting of 3 tiers, the saza (county), the gombolola (sub-county) and the muluka (parish), the local government was set up to run off of chiefs appointed at all three levels by the Kabaka, who was forced to send the names of his picks to the British Resident in Buganda for approval from 1907 onwards, thus diluting his power.

This was not lost on the citizens of his kingdom, “…in whose minds the chiefs gradually came to be seen as mouthpieces of the British administration rather than repositories of tradition…”, and building frustration with native authorities was only compounded by the Ordinance of 1917 in which the British district commissioner (DC), the most important official in each district, gave himself full control of the hierarchy of appointed chiefs.

To quell brewing discontent, councils originally consisting of these chiefs were created at each level in 1930, which ultimately led to the birth of an indirect electoral system in 1945, whereby a proportion of parish chiefs were elected by popular vote. They, in turn, would amongst themselves elect several sub county chiefs, and up the ladder it continued to the county level.

Eventually, districts were designated as local government areas (and the basis for a separate administration), thus splitting administrative power in Uganda between central (British) and district (local) government officials. The final straw came through the establishment of elections to district council in the 1950s. The central government retained the power to control most council decisions, and as such set the stage for kingdoms to be fully abolished in 1967 by the Obote government.

A little earlier however, at the time of Uganda’s independence in 1962, the country consisted of 10 districts, 4 kingdoms and one special district (Karamoja). The newly drawn up constitution required nine-tenths of district council members to be directly elected, further whittling away the kingdoms’ direct influence and strengthening central control. When the formal and inevitable dissolution of kingdoms entirely was announced in 1967, it was quickly followed by the Local Administrations Act of the same year which gave the central government direct control over local administration in each district.

Buganda was no more and its territory was separated into four districts. Deeper still, each district was named for its capital, to minimise ethnicity’s significance in politics. A revolving door of presidents saw the number of districts increase from 14 to 18, to 38 during Idi Amin’s presidency and continue to climb throughout the ’90s and 2000s.

And with them so too did the number of counties and municipalities and authorities continue to skyrocket. Initially limited in their reach, handling mainly primary education, road construction, land allocation, community development and tax collection, local governments continually saw their power increase. While Obote’s progressive measures didn’t have a chance to take hold before being disrupted by the bush wars, it would be the incoming NRM government in 1986 that gave us the structure we recognise today.

Initially setting them up as Resistance Councils (RC’s), the NRM from the get-go saw the usefulness of empowering local government structures and formalised the five-tier structure of District > County > Sub-county > Parish > Village. All citizens were automatically considered members of their local resistance councils and the number of popularly elected posts was increased, strengthening democratic control. This essentially maintained the NRM’s power network at the local level, even after electoral party politics was legalised again in 2005.

The launch of the Local Government Decentralisation Programme in October 1992, initiated financial decentralisation in thirteen districts and that number soon spread to the remaining and all future districts. Thus, while the centre retained responsibility for security matters, national planning, defense, immigration, foreign affairs and national projects, all other obligations fell to the DRCs.

The money, the power, the responsibility for stability all trickled down to the local level. Kingdoms would later be re-established, but influentially they would remain mere shadows of their former selves. Resistance Councils would be remodeled as Local Councils, and the number of districts would continue to explode, hitting 87 by 2009.

As of 2021, there are 146 recognised districts, each with a multitude of counties, parishes and an infinite number of villages.


  • Data as of December 1990, Source CIA Fact book and Library of Congress Studies
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100 years of the Ugandan Parliament; A history hoax

By Jackline Kemigisa and Mutesi Sekaziga

The Parliament of Uganda recently celebrated 100 years since its inception. This celebration raises three interesting questions; firstly, whose history are we celebrating? Secondly, is it possible to celebrate 100 years that include colonisation’s epistemic violence without legitimising it?

Thirdly, can a once colonised people genuinely celebrate an era riddled with legislation tenure (ordinances) aimed at imposing British tyranny upon its lands without erasing the different freedom struggles of Bunyoro, Buganda and other communities?

What exactly is this history?

Scrolling through the Parliament website, the ‘History of Parliament’ page lists 1888 as the foundational year of a legislative organ’s first elements in Uganda. Tracing it back to when the Imperial British East African Company (IBEACO) started its coercive economic administration in Uganda and imposed taxes. This historical blurb fails to mention the violence and strongarming that followed these British economic hitmen as they implemented the ordinances they passed.

The Parliament website further lists the Orders- In- Council of 1902 as the first constitutional framework in Uganda that provided for Uganda’s administration. However, the devil is in the details; the so-called Ordinance Articles legitimised colonisation’s violence. Such as the introduction of vampire-like taxes, seen in Article 12 of the Ordinance, which empowered the Commissioners to make laws for Uganda’s governance.

This British administration of Uganda destabilised the already existing administrative systems within the different kingdoms without consulting the affected masses. It also introduced a legislative system whose sole benefit wasn’t the Ugandan but rather the British empire.

Economist Vali Jamal in his article Taxation and Inequality in Uganda, 1900-1964, demonstrates and maps the extent of inequality in Uganda in those times. Through this mapping, he focuses on the government’s tax policy, pivoting on tax ordinances (laws) like the poll tax and hut tax. The taxation policy demanded that Ugandans forcefully grow cash crops that directly benefited the colonisers and boosted their economy at the cost of Ugandans’ wellbeing.

Justice George Kanyeihamba, in his book Constitutional and Political History of Uganda, describes the legal leadership-backed ordinances to have “reeked with paternalism based on the assumption of the superiority of the imperial race over the subjugated peoples”. Kanyeihamba writes of the myth of superiority being a necessary instrument for keeping a small minority, the colonial masters, in complete domination over a large majority, the colonised people.

The history displayed on the Parliament website is therefore revisionist. It is akin to what Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak terms as “Worlding” in her essay Worlding;  a concept she describes as a  process of how  colonised space is transformed (worlding) for the natives by their colonial masters through acts such as cartography, writing, where the native begins to see his own home as belonging to his master.

The parliament website frames the purpose for these Order- In- Ordinance as “raising of revenues and generally for the peace, order and good governance of all persons in Uganda”. In the same spirit, the Parliamentary history worlds Ugandan legislative history so that Ugandans can see that history through their former master- Britain’s eyes.

The history further dives into establishing the Legislative Council (LEGCO) in 1920, whose membership was purely European until the 1945 swearing in of the first Africans.

The body’s leadership remained in the hands of the colonisers until January 1958,  with Sir John Bowes Griffin’s appointment as the first Speaker of the LEGCO. 

Again, what the Parliament website terms as critical landmarks are still a stark white- colonial centred governance. Even with some Africans on the LEGCO, the power and interests still lay with the coloniser. Historian Uzoigwe, G. N. describes the LEGCO best, calling it ‘a colonial body that was hardly an object lesson in democracy’ in his paper titled ‘Uganda and Parliamentary Government.’

It was not until 1945 that the first Africans were allowed into the Legislative assembly. The late 1950’s political atmosphere demanded a global end to colonialism in Africa, pressuring  the British to end its illegal occupation. At the same time, it was too expensive for them to maintain the empire.  This led to a series of constitutional changes, especially as Uganda geared up for “self-governance” in preparation for independence by introducing an electoral law to the Constitution, providing direct election to the legislature leading to the first-ever general elections in 1961.  

Even after independence, the speakership was still in the hands of colonisers, mainly Sir John Bowes Griffin recognised as the first Speaker of the first Parliament from 1962 – 1963 before handing it over to Narendra M. Patel in May 1963, notably a Ugandan of Indian descent.

Colonial Laws undermining the sovereign rule of societies

During the colonial governance period of 1888 to the 1940s, the British laws such as the Native Authority Ordinance of 1919 violently imposed the Buganda administrative model on the rest of Uganda.

The Local Government Ordinance of 1949  set up district council powers that effectively destabilised the existing administration forms of the country’s different communities. Numerous ordinances sought to tax the already exploited Ugandans of their land; these taxes also redefined gender roles as only men paid the hut tax additionally engineering a taxation inequality and belittling women’s labour, thus creating a category of underlooked, unpaid work and shifting gender relations as Professor Tamale explains in her book Decolonisation and Afro- Feminism.

Uganda’s 1890-1920 history is marked by unforgettable resistance movements that sprouted up against the unfair land taxes introduced by the British colonists led by the Omukama of Bunyoro, Kabalega and the Kabaka of Buganda, Kabaka Mwanga defending their people against the white man’s injustices. It would therefore be impossible to celebrate the colonial history of Parliament without watering down these struggles.

If we embrace the 100 year celebration as the beginning of Uganda’s Parliament, we not only endorse the revisionist history as told and taught through the coloniser’s lens but we also perpetuate the narrative that our history as a people starts with colonialism, a grave misconception that mars our identity as communities that had successfully led orderly lives prior to the epistemic violence that was visited upon us through colonisation.

In a book titled The Complete Guide to Uganda’s Fourth Constitution, David Mukholi writes about a pre-colonial Uganda with no written constitutions spelling out laws. Instead, each society had a set of conventions, customs and traditions which regulated behaviour and social relationships that ensured rules ensured harmony and stability.

In theory, parliaments are critical institutions of democracy, playing a crucial role in legislation, oversight and representation. However, in the Ugandan context, the foundation of Parliament is rooted in a dictatorship and colonisation. To celebrate the entire 100 years of its existence is to legitimise the violence of the British Empire. Like the history blurb on the Parliament’s website applies a colonial filter, applauding those years under occupation equates to exempting the British empire from the crimes committed against the people of Uganda during their violent dictatorship.


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