History of Local Government

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The Colonial Period

In the aftermath of the 1900 agreement, the Buganda local government system consisted of the Saza (county), Gombolola (sub-county) and Muluka (parish). A local chief, as appointed the Kabaka was in charge at each level. By 1907, the Kabaka was required to send the names of newly appointed local chiefs to the British Resident in Buganda for approval.  

Consequently, mistrust of the chiefs grew among the public who now considered their leaders a mouthpiece of the administration, rather than custodians of tradition. This frustration with native authorities would ultimately lead to the creation of an indirect electoral system in 1945, where a proportion of non-appointed Muluka chiefs were elected popularly. These would go on to elect other Gombolola chiefs among themselves, who would then elect the Saza chiefs.

At district level, the District Commissioner (DC) who also doubled as a representative of the governor, was the most important government official in each district. Until 1967 when  the Obote Government abolished kingdoms, each kingdom had a local government made up of chiefs who reported to the king, and a central government official who was an adviser to the king. 

Staying true to their laws, the British introduced the 1919 Native Authority Ordinance which gave the district commissioner responsibility for a hierarchy of appointed chiefs at village, parish, sub-county, and county levels. Councils, originally consisting of these chiefs, were created during the 1930s at each level.

 After 1949, local administration in Uganda was shared by central and district government officials. The Local Government Ordinance of 1949 established the district as a local government area and as the basis for a separate district administration. 

In the 1950s, elections to district councils were introduced, and the councils were given responsibility for district administration. Still, the central government retained the power to control most district council decisions. Chiefs were salaried local government officials, also accountable to the central government through DC, to proper administration of their areas.


At Independence

By independence, Uganda consisted of 10 districts, 4 kingdoms, and 1 special district (Karamoja). The 1967 constitution abolished the kingdoms and made them districts as well. The kingdom of Buganda which was separated into four districts, and in total the country had  eighteen(18) districts. 

In 1974, President Amin further increased the number of districts to thirty-eight(38) and grouped them into ten provinces. After he was overthrown in 1979, the number of districts was reduced to thirty-three(33). Moreover, each district was named to minimize the significance of ethnicity in politics. 

Later in February 1989, however, the addition of Kalangala (the Ssese Islands) brought the number of districts back up to thirty-four(34), and the number of counties increased to 150.

There were also 65 urban authorities, including Kampala City Council; 14 municipalities, 27 town councils, and 23 town boards.

The 1962 constitution had required that nine-tenths of district council members be directly elected. In keeping with its overall emphasis on strengthening central control, the 1967 constitution gave Parliament the right to establish district councils and their offices, to decide whether some or all of their members would be elected or nominated, and to empower a national minister to suspend a district council or to undertake any of its duties.

 The 1967 Local Administrations Act and the 1964 Urban Authorities Act created a uniform set of regulations that gave the central government direct control over local administration in each district. 

District councils were limited to specified areas of responsibility–mainly primary education, road construction, land allocation, community development, law and order, and local tax collection. When district councils were revived in 1981, their members were again nominated by the central government. Chiefs and local officials continued to be appointed based on the 1967 act until 1986.


Under Obote’s second presidency

The government remained top-down as it had been since 1967. Nonetheless, in late 1983 and early 1984 when it appeared that the NRA rebellion might be quashed, Obote did try to improve local government administration through such measures as making local taxes more progressive. However these measures were quickly overshadowed by other events as the NRA revived itself in 1984 and 1985, sending the Ugandan economy into a tail-spin.


The Museveni Bush war and Present Uganda

Since 1986, the NRM has invested much effort into completely transforming Uganda’s local government system. One can’t overstate how much emphasis the NRM put on its local government program’s success upon taking power. According to its chairman, Mahmood Mamdani (Mamdani 1997), the 1987 Commission of Inquiry into the Local Government System ‘considered it the kernel of the agricultural revolution brought to rural Uganda by the NRM’. The NRM altered the formerly top-down local government system by instituting local democratic control through an increased number of popularly elected posts, while also making all citizens mandatory members of their local government.

Resistance Councils/Local Council I-s

As Golooba-Mutebi (1999: 149) writes, ‘much of the applause heaped on the RC system in its juvenile days was precipitate. Ten years after the system had been established countrywide, it had begun to show signs of atrophy and possibly terminal decline’. More recently, Tripp(2010: 113-20) has noted how the LC system has served to maintain the NRM’s network of power at the local level, even after electoral party politics was legalized again in 2005. 

The Commission of Inquiry into the Local Government System in 1987 resulted in the 1987 Resistance Councils and Committees Statutes. The 1987 law set up a five-tier structure that consisted of the RCI (village), RCII (parish), RCIII (sub-county), RCIV (county) and RCV (district) with the additional offices of District Administrator (appointed by the President) and District Executive Secretary (appointed by the Minister of Local Government) at the RCV level.

However, the NRM continued to reform and adjust the local government system. The first significant change to the Resistance Council System came with Museveni’s launch of the Local Government Decentralization Programme in October 1992, which initiated financial decentralization in 13 districts in 1993, and another 13 the next year. 

While the center retained responsibility for ‘security matters, national planning, defense, immigration, foreign affairs and national projects among others, all other activities become the responsibility of the DRCs’ (New Vision 6 April 1993).

To monitor this financial decentralization, the National Parliament passed the Local Governments (Resistance Council) Act of 1993, which transferred power from central government representatives to the elected members of the RCV. 

Specifically, the Act replaced the District Administrator (DA) ‘s position as chairman of the local District Development Committee with the RCV chairman, while making the District Executive Secretary (DES) responsible to the RCV rather than the Ministry of Local Government (Golooba-Mutebi 1999: 116-17).  The Act also created the Local Government Finance Commission (LGFC), designed to consider and recommend local government grants to the president, who appoints the LGFC’s seven members every four years. 

There are three types of grants given to local governments, namely unconditional (mostly for government salaries), conditional (for specific projects) and equalization (for underprivileged districts) (1995Constitution of Uganda, Chapter 11, Clause 193). Yet the members of the LGFC were not appointed until 1995 when the new constitution changed the name of the RCs to Local Councils (LCs) while also mandating direct elections at all local government levels, including that of the district chairman, every four years. 

The constitution also detailed the roles of the District Chairpersons, District Speakers, District Executive Committees (DECs), Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs), District Service Commissions (DSCs) and Resident District Commissioners (RDCs). The Chairperson and Speaker were to function mainly like the President and Speaker at the national level, during the DECs function as an executive sub-committee within the LCV.

Finally, the DSCs function like the Public Service Commission at the national level in that they hold power to appoint, discipline and remove district officers. 

The constitution also mandated that one-third of all LC members must be women and that the district chairman must be between 30 and 75 years old(1995 Constitution of Uganda, Chapter 11, clauses 176-206).

In 1997 the Local Government Act (LGA) of 1997 increased the local governments’ powers while formalizing the distribution of district revenue to be allocated to the various LC levels. The sub-county (LCIII) would collect revenue and 35% to the district (LCV). Of the money kept by the sub-county the county (LCIV) and parish (LCII,) each received 5% and villages (LCI) received 25%, thereby leaving the sub-county with the other 65%. Thus, by the late 2000s, some 31.1% of all government revenue was spent by local governments, up from 19.8% in 1998 (Lindemann 2011: 407).

The NRM government significantly altered local administration by introducing elected resistance councils (RCs) in villages, parishes, sub-counties, and districts throughout the nation. The original RCs had been created during the early 1980s to support the NRA during its guerrilla war. But after 1986, the introduction of these new assemblies sharply curtailed chiefs’ powers and provided an indirect channel for widespread influence at the district level and above. 

Creation of the RCs was in response to the first point of the Ten-Point Program, which insisted on democracy at all government levels. In no other respect during its first four years did the NRM government achieve as much progress in implementing the political program it had adopted before taking power.

By September 1987, the NRC had established both district administrations and a hierarchy of RCs. All adults automatically became members of their village resistance council, known as an RC-I, and came together to elect a nine-person resistance committee, which administered the village’s affairs. An RC was given the right to remove any of its elected resistance committee officers who broke the law or lost two-thirds of the council’s confidence. 

  • The nine officials on the resistance committee elected by the RC-I joined with all other village resistance committees to form the parish resistance council, the RC-II. They elected the nine officials who created the parish resistance committee. 
  • The committee members assembled with the other parish committee members in the sub-county to form the sub-county resistance council (RC-III) and elected the nine officials who created the sub-county resistance committee. 
  • County resistance councils (RC-IVs) were established in the statute but functioned only intermittently as governing bodies, principally for election purposes. 
  • The district resistance council (RC-V) contained two representatives elected from each RC-III and one representative for women elected from each RC-IV and each municipal RC. 
  • At all RC levels, heads of government departments serving that council, including chiefs, were made ex officio members of their respective RCs but without the right to vote. 

In 1989 the NRC determined that each RC-III would choose one representative for the NRC, and each district resistance council (RC-V) would choose a woman as its representative on the NRC. 

Thus, direct RC elections and widespread recall existed at the village level only. The term of each RC was two years. The local government minister could suspend the RC for disrupting public security, participating in sectarian politics, engaging in smuggling, obstructing national plans, or diverting commodities its members’ private use. However, the NRC was given the power to overrule the minister.

The NRC also replaced the DC with a new official, the district administrator (DA), appointed by the president as the district’s political head. In addition to providing political direction to the district, the DAs were responsible for overseeing central government policy, chairing the security and development committees, and organising RCs. 

Providing political direction included organising courses in political education for officials and ordinary citizens.  A second new post that of district executive secretary (DES) was filled by former DCs. The DES was required to supervise all government departments in the district, integrate district and central administration, oversee the implementation of district resistance council policies, and serve as the community’s accounting officer.

In 1990 the exact duties of the RCs and their relation to the chiefs had not been entirely determined. During the guerrilla war, the purpose of RCs was far more comfortable to establish before the NRM took power. Besides, continuing civil war and the sheer effort of electing RCs in every village, parish, sub-county, and district drew attention away from the business of the RCs. RCs were new to Uganda, and it took people time to understand how to use them. 

In 1987 the NRC had given the RCs the power “to identify local problems and find solutions.” During shortages of essential commodities, such as sugar in June 1986, the RCs were effectively used as distribution centres. 

But because RC officials below the district level received no compensation, they were reluctant to manage local affairs too much. Besides, the position of the chiefs remained ambiguous. Chiefs still reported to the Ministry of Local Government. 

Many chiefs were uncertain how much power they had under the new system, or even whom to obey when the Ministry of Local Government and the RC disagreed over the proper course of action a chief should follow.