Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
President Yoweri Museveni’s plans to introduce a regional system of government in Uganda have provoked the wrath of the political opposition, with critics saying the measures could exacerbate tribal tensions.
The new layer of administration, commonly known as the regional tier, will transfer power to the regions, establishing local governments based on ethnicity by 2010, ahead of general elections scheduled for 2011.
But Kampala will retain overall control of the regional administration units, and this has upset some groups who favour a fully federalist system of government.
The Kingdom of Buganda in central Uganda has been particularly vocal in calling for the latter. As the largest ethnic group in the country, it would stand to benefit from any devolution of power from Kampala.
During the review of Uganda's constitution several years ago, the Buganda Kingdom published a proposal calling for federalism to be considered as part of the review.
But when the constitution was amended in 2005, the issue was left out, although some mention was made of the regional tier system.
The latter is widely seen as a stopgap measure designed to contain the demands of the kingdom, but Bugandan leaders have rejected the plan.
They fear, in particular, that the traditional role of the king will be undermined by the need to elect an official representative to central government, who will take on many of the traditional duties of the king.
The Bugandan position is backed by a number of opposition groups – including the Conservative Party, the Forum for Democratic Change, FDC, and the Democratic Party – who have all come together to campaign for an all-encompassing federal system of government.
Others are critical of the regional tier approach because they fear it may marginalise smaller ethnic groups.
Dan Okello, leader of the opposition Uganda Peoples’ Congress, UPC, party for Lango, a region devastated by the conflict with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, LRA, which ended in 2006, says minority tribes – such as the Banyala – will struggle to get their voice heard if the government representative is from a bigger ethnic group.
The Banyala is a fairly small tribe within the much larger Buganda kingdom, and they have made it clear that they would prefer to establish their own kingdom.
He says that the recent riots that swept Kampala in September were a sign of how dangerous any move to upset the existing tribal balance could be.
Almost 30 people were killed during the unrest in September, which were provoked by a planned visit of the Buganda king to Kayunga, an enclave of the Banyala people.
When the government moved to stop the visit, fearing it could spark trouble, scores of Buganda tribesmen took to the streets in protest.
“They pitted Buganda against the Banyala for no [reason],” he said. “So how are small groups like the Banyala going to be accommodated in the regional tier arrangement?”
But Okello was sceptical that the regional system of government would ever be implemented.
“How is Museveni going to establish the regional tier? Is it going to be through election? What arrangement will bring this regional governance in place?” he asked.
Dina Bua, of the FDC, said the regional tier would disable active participation in the country’s politics.
“Now that we have a multi-party system, how are the parties going to participate in the regional system of government?” Bua said. “These are confusions which the [ruling] NRM (National Resistance Movement) are trying to bring.”
Bua doubts that 14 months, the time left until the next elections, will be sufficient to implement the changes.
Asked about Museveni’s motivation for the reform, the resident district commissioner in Lira, Joan Pacoto, said the president is implementing what he thinks is good for Ugandans, because the new system will give power to the people at the grassroots level.
But Bua said the government was trying to shirk its responsibilities by introducing the regional decentralisation.
“The NRM are trying to run away from their responsibilities,” she said. “They restored kingship in Uganda now they want to run away from it. There will be a lot of problems created.”
When Milton Obote became president of Uganda in 1966, he immediately moved to weaken the role of traditional leaders in the country.
Museveni, who took power in 1985, sought to reinstate kingships, giving them the mandate to operate without state inteference and to settle minor disputes within their communities.
Despite the widespread criticism of the proposed new administrative structure, some believe that it will have significant benefits, especially in mitigating land-related disputes which are currently looming in the country. Recently, 12 people have died in bloody clashes in northern Uganda over property conflicts.
Pacoto, Lira's resident district commissioner, says that the regional tier system would provide a more structured way of resolving tribal quarrels, and prevent people from accusing the government of grabbing their land or neglecting their interests.
On November 26, parliament passed a controversial land bill in an attempt to resolve these disputes. The proposed legislation, which still needs presidential approval, has pitched Museveni into a row threatening to cost him influence in regions that have always been critical support bases for the NRM.
While the government argues that the land bill is aimed at protecting tenants from unlawful evictions, critics say it will allow people from outside their region to unlawfully settle on their land.
The government hopes that the tiered administrative structure will work hand-in-hand with the land bill to resolve such disputes.
But Patrick Ayena Okello, FDC chairperson in Lira, remains sceptical.
“The land dispute is between the government of Uganda and tribal groups where the government wants to grab land, they say, for development,” he said. “Government grabs land, they give it to investors and no one will ever convince me that land disputes are going to be resolved through regional governments.”
Allegations of government land-grabs are widespread, but are denied by officials.
In recent weeks, Issa Otto, a legislator from Lango, has accused Daniel Omara Atubo, the land minister, of reallocating land belonging to internally displaced people. Otto claimed that at least 138 families were left homeless after Atubo fenced off an estimated 30 acres in Nora village in Aber sub-county for private farming. The minister denies the allegation.
Bill Oketch is an IWPR- trained reporter.
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