The Evolution of Uganda’s Local Government

August 1, 2022

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.


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