Gentlemen and ladies,
This was one of the speeches at 2009 Buganda Conference held at Hotel
Africana in Kampala.
More will come.
Who fears Federalism? A Case for Federalism in Uganda
By Norbert Mao
At the outset let me congratulate the Kingdom of Buganda for
organising this national conference. I feel honoured to have been
selected out of 31 million Ugandans to speak on a theme which is
timely and relevant. My presence and the presence of a variety of
speakers and participants shows the national charcter and seriousness
of this debate. The theme is inclusive and flies in the face of those
who have accused Buganda of selfishness. Buganda’s selfishness if
any is seasonal and only asserted at those moments when the survival
of Buganda as an entity is in danger.
This conference is timely because we need a new consensus on how to
govern ourselves as Ugandans. We need a consensus based on democracy
and respect for diversity. We need a consensus that compels the
government to be accountable. We need a consensus based on Truth and
Justice. We need a consensus that recognises that change and
continuity go together. Out previous attempts at national consensus
have largely been unsuccessful. The historical record is there for all
to see. Wasn’t the consensus crafted on the eve of independence
brutally demolished in 1966 – before some of us were born? Wasn’t
the post-Amin consensus trampled over by a capricious and malevolent
clique which masterminded the disputed elections of 1980? isn’t the
consensus crafted in the bushes of Luwero (the birthplace of the NRM)
for all intents and purposes dead? We need a new consensus. The great
expectations aroused by the ascendancy of the NRM into state power
have been met with treachery and betrayal.
This is not the time for lamenting over the mistakes of past. We
cannot change the past but we can learn from it. If we cannot pick up
the pieces let us pick up the lessons and move on. It is important to
learn from history but we must not become perennial prisoners of
Politics, it is said, is the gentle art of getting support from
perceived rival groups by promising to protect each from the others.
In Uganda the eve of independence saw the ill-fated alliance of KY and
UPC whose glue was a common fear of the Catholics. In 1980, the UPC
galvanised support by promising to protect the country from a
resurgent Buganda. In Gulu the UPC leaders told the public that if
they make the mistake of electing Dr. Ssemogerere, they will be forced
to carry bricks and stones all the way to Kampala to rebuild the
Lubiri which had been ransacked in 1966.
This trend of using fear rather than hope has continued. The NRM has
circled the political wagon in the South of the country by dangling
the so called Northern bogeyman at every election. The horrors of our
violent history are deeply etched in our national psyche and these are
the scars that are manipulated to lock out potential leaders and
groups associated with them. This is what happened on the eve of
The NRM rhetoric has been the rhetoric of divide and rule. The NRM had
endeared itself to most of the South by claiming that it’s mission is
to prevent the Northerners from returning to power. It is true that
many political and military leaders originating from the North bear
responsibility for certain atrocities visited upon innocent people,
and it is right that we should not just sweep things under the carpet.
But we should not get paralysed by our memory. We should remember
these horrors. But we should do better than just remembering. We
should overcome and rise above our dark past.
I believe in individual responsibility for individual crimes. I don’t
believe in impunity. But something in my soul rebels against the
politics of assigning collective responsibility upon an entire ethnic
group for crimes committed by individuals.
We do not choose our tribes. I did not fill an application form to
become an Acholi. I detest being judged on the basis of my ethnic
origin. Above all I know that all ethnic groups have bad people and
good people. Virtue is not a monopoly of a particular ethnic group and
neither is evil.
In the North, we feel besieged by the post 1986 politics of heaping
the collective guilt for all the historical wrongs upon the people of
Yet the record is different. There are bright moments in our common
history. In times of danger, faced with colonial repression our
traditional leaders have always sought refuge with their allies.
History is full of these examples.
Furthermore it is the core of Ugandans from all corners of this
country that laid the foundation for the development of Uganda. Let us
not play politics with history. Ugandans from South, East, West and
North have contributed to nation building.
If anything, we are currently witnessing highly destructive tendencies
where terror is projected as security, manipulation is projected as
politics and corruption is projected as enterprise. Between 1962 and
1985 Uganda received about 2.2 billion US Dollars in loans and grants.
Between 1986 and 2008 Uganda received 22 billion US Dollars in loans
and grants. In which period do we have more to show in terms of public
investments for the money received?
In the wake of privatization (some call it grabatization) some 150
enterprises were put up for sale. We were told that Uganda would earn
900 billion shillings from the sale. My research has shown that after
selling 145 enterprises, the privatization process had instead cost
more than it had earned. The accounts showed a deficit of 16.5 billion
I bring these examples to show that politics is about ensuring good
stewardship of public assets. I bring these examples to show that we
have to reexamine our history and find out where we made the wrong
turns. It is going to be tough but we have no choice.
There are many prescriptions for the New Uganda. I can only speak
about the prescriptions put forward by the party to which I belong –
the Democratic Party. The 2006 Democratic Party platform stated that
“…several features of the constitution have proven weak and
inappropriate. The question of federalism and the structure of local
governments have not been resolved by the new regional administration
In Northern Uganda, the misery brought about by war and the
realization that the region has most of Uganda’s arable land and lots
of mineral wealth including oil, has led to a debate about what system
of government can give the people a fair deal. Even the talk about
secession and the fictitious Nile State is all part of the quest for
greater regional autonomy.
Federalism is being considered seriously as the highest form of
decentralization. There are four main reasons why federalism is
considered more attractive. First, it devolves power to the people.
Second, it takes services closer to the people. Third, it
democratizes society, and fourth, it provides an additional layer of
checks and balances thus deepening democracy.
The unitary system of government has failed Uganda and is party
responsible for the zero-sum politics which has turned our politics
into a life and death struggle for the capture of power which largely
lies at the centre. Changing the underlying system of governance
through federalism will help solve the persistent social, political
and economic problems that afflict our country. Federalism will deal
with corruption, restore the prestige of government institutions and
bring redress for imbalances in economic prosperity.
In answer to the demands for greater regional autonomy, the government
has come up with the proposal for regional tiers. The purpose of this
is not to devolve more power to regions and to democratize the centre
but rather to deal with the controversy arising out of the never
ending demand for federalism especially from Buganda. The proposed
regional tier is thus a pain killer intended to provide temporary
relief for those clamoring for greater regional autonomy. In a way
the government is trying to treat a cancer using Vaseline.
What is being proposed is “interior decoration”. What we need is a
change in “architecture”. Cosmetic changes will simply not do.
They only postpone the day of reckoning – the moment of truth when
the pillars of lies that are holding up the NRM will collapse in a
heap of dust.
Buganda is central to this struggle for federalism because the story
of Uganda’s politics is largely the story of the ups and downs of the
relationship between Buganda and the central authorities that have
In his 1993 book, Religion, Ethnicity and Politics in Uganda, Prof.
Dan Mudoola wrote: “The 1900 Agreement was the “Magna Carta” for
Buganda and its ruling groups. The ruling groups wove myths around
this document. Among such was that the Agreement had been between two
equal contracting parties and that Buganda had never been conquered.
Although these myths have been disputed, the most important point is
that the Agreement served the interests of the colonial power and the
ruling groups in Buganda and that it set the pace for subsequent
political developments in Buganda and eventually, Uganda.”
Yet the 1900 Buganda Agreement was clearly creating an unequal
relationship. Listen to this passage in the Agreement: “So long as
the Kabaka, Chiefs and people of Uganda shall conform to the laws and
regulations constituted for their governance by Her Majesty’s
government and shall cooperate loyally with Her Majesty’s government
in the organization and administration of the said Kingdom of Uganda,
Her Majesty’s Government agrees to recognize the Kabaka of Buganda as
the native Ruler of the province of Uganda under Her Majesty’s
protection and overrule.”
In 1901 limited agreements were made with Ankole and Toro. In 1933 an
agreement was made with Bunyoro. For the rest of the administrative
units, later named districts, there were no formal agreements. The
colonial powers made ordinances defining the powers and obligations of
the chiefs. Thus the stage was set for the paternalistic relationship
between the centre and the localities.
With that background, we are now at that stage where we have to ask
the right questions in order to get the right answers: Who fears
Federalism? Who fears an overbearing central government? Who fears
strong sub-national governments? We have to deal with these fears. We
in Northern Uganda do not fear Federalism. Don’t count us among those
who fear Federalism.
In order to make the case for Federalism we have to start from the
premise that decentralization is necessary but not sufficient.
Federalism has been defined as an arrangement where the central
government draws its authority from the consent of the people in the
localities – not through elections but through the constitutional
delegation of limited decision making power. In other words, it is
the localities to decide what the centre is permitted. In our current
arrangement, it is the centre to decide what the localities are
So currently the localities are told to collect the taxes that are
most difficult to collect – local service tax, hotel tax. We need
localities that can also benefit from a portion of VAT and sales
taxes. That is where the real money is.
Let’s face it; Federalism actually draws power away from the centre.
It gives more power to second tier governments whether they be
Kingdoms, States, or regions.
What is the problem with the current arrangement?
Let’s start with the economics: What we have now is nominal
decentralization. That is why most districts are not financially
viable. This situation exists even after 15 years of
decentralization. The Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) is the alpha and
omega of any serious tax collection. Taxation largely begins and ends
All local governments depend on transfers from the central
government. Even the most basic expenditures like the cost of
administration cannot be funded by local revenue. Under the current
arrangement, the local governments are dependent on the centre for
survival. To use a well worn phrase, if the centre sneezes, the
districts catch a cold.
One possible exception to this, potentially, is Buganda. The fact
that Kampala and other major urban centres are located in Buganda,
allows Buganda to benefit from concentrated political and economic
activity. Buganda would thus be in a class of its own under any
system that allows more power to sub-national governments. Note that
I use the word ‘allow’ rather than ‘give’. This power is already
there, only that the current constitutional arrangement prevents the
regions from exercising them.
Another problem of the current arrangement is lack of institutional
capacity. This problem is most glaring in the new districts and at
the sub-county and parish levels. Currently, local governments have
budgetary power but lack the resources to meaningfully exercise that
Any arrangement that leaves the revenue shortfalls intact will only
create ineffective local governments. Ineffectiveness comes with
political consequences. Currently all the blame goes to the central
government or the districts. If we create ineffective local
governments, whether second tier regional governments or federal
units, the blame for non delivery of services will shift to these units.
Our current political climate also deserves careful study. As 2011
approaches, there is a clamor by various individuals and parties to
seize control of state power. The question is, do these individuals
and parties seek to seize the government in order to restructure it or
do they want to wield power without changing the current
Besides the politicians, the cultural leaders/traditional leaders and
the traditional institutions are also in vigorous negotiations with
the government. The aim of these negotiations seem to be not to
change the system but to get as much as possible under the current
But if we agree that the current system does not work, then our common
agenda should be to tear down the current arrangement instead of
seeking to take charge of it the way it is. If we want genuine
federalism, we need a fresh start. We cannot build any kind of
federalism on the shaky foundations of the current constitutional
arrangement. We need a new beginning. Horse trading and wheeling and
dealing will simply lead to the same old vicious cycle of betrayals
and broken promises. Only a fresh start, a new consensus can remove
the economic and political stumbling blocks on the path to real
federalism as opposed to what is popularly known as “ebyoya
If we want real federalism, we must not aspire to take the current
undemocratic power structure at the centre and reproduce it at the
local levels. If federalism is about deepening democracy, then power
in the federal units should not be concentrated in a few hands. In
other words, the people should govern. At the risk of sounding
cynical, let me say that before decentralization, we had one
unaccountable government at the centre. Decentralization has now
created many unaccountable governments.
The demand for Federalism must grow from below. To expect a central
government which is obsessed with concentrating power at the centre to
lead the quest for federalism is to expect a hyena to abandon its
appetite for meat. The Uganda government will not limit its own
power. Checking unbridled power at the centre is the most critical
political endeavour in Uganda today and it must be spearheaded from
Everything that is created is created in the image of the creator.
Even God created man in His own image. To permit the central
government to spearhead the federalism debate comes with the risk of
the debate being hijacked by individuals who see federalism as a
threat to their hold on power. They thus join the debate so as to
create a federalism in their own image.
Federalism is the answer to the concentration of power. As
federalists, our challenge is to lead by example. Let us walk our
talk. Let us ensure local devolution in our own localities. This is
the only way we can show that we are different from the power hungry
clique at the centre. Let us show our commitment not to duplicate the
undemocratic and authoritarian structures at the centre under the
pretext of federalism. Let us reject totalitarianism by any name and
at any level.
This approach is in our interest. Unless our demand for federalism is
built on a foundation of democracy and cooperation rather than
hegemony and rivalry, we shall only have local dictatorships each
jostling with others. This will play into the hands of the powers
that be at the centre. The centre will then come in as a mediator of
conflicts. This is what happened in what I would call the Kayunga
Circus. The central government opportunistically increased its power
as the arbiter of an artificial conflict.
In conclusion, let it be known from today, here and now that the quest
for Federalism in Uganda is national. It is not a Buganda affair. Let
it also be known that the primary problem of Uganda is dictatorship.
The other problems are secondary. Tribalism, corruption, xenophobia,
militarism, are all children of dictatorship. They are tools deployed
by a dictatorship as means of survival.
Today we must draw the line and say Enough is Enough. I call upon all
of us to put our brains, our energies and yes, our votes, together to
dismantle the edifice of dictatorship that is blocking our way to a
better future. The answer to Uganda’s problems is democracy – genuine
democracy. Even the demand for federalism is because federalism
Let us not leave this place contented that we have had a fantastic
conference. Let us leave this place with a resolve to struggle in
solidarity against dictatorship. And so your brother, your sister your
friend is not just the one who speaks your language but one who is
fighting dictatorship and offering a democratic system based on Truth
and Justice. It will take sacrifice. We may get killed. We may be
tortured. We may be imprisoned. But as the Baganda say “engabu
y’omuzira ogilabira ku biwundu”.
I believe that this country can rise above it’s dark past. What we
need is determination, hard work and unity of purpose. The answer to
power is power. We cannot borrow power, we have to create it. We have
to discover it in ourselves.
As Frederick Douglass the famous anti-slavery campaigner said:
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never
will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you
have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be
imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with
either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed
by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”