Individual Merit Hangover and Civil Society in Uganda

Published By UNNGOF |  December 23, 2014

As we close the year 2014, and looking back on the meaning of civil society in Uganda, I would like to contend in this article that a number of political realities that may seem forgotten today do influence the ways in which civil society works. As a concept, civil society is dangerously fraught with all kinds of ambiguities.  It is an analytical construct in as far as it speaks to a specific part of society between the family and the state.  But it can also be an ideological construct if one thinks of it as a political position that invokes notions of speaking truth to power and holding government to account.  While both of these understandings make civil society both an important part of society they also render the term both analytically promiscuous and ideologically impotent.

In a country like Uganda where actors and spaces are fuzzy, it is certainly a contested space.  Many actors within civil society have for long taken on various identities, with nearly every politician being a patron of some kind of association in their constituency and every civil society leader being some kind of entrepreneur as they all try to make ends meet.  These kinds of multiple identities therefore have implications for how civil society operates in Uganda.  As a country grapples with what kinds of legal reforms should govern civil society, it is important that we reflect on the recent political history that has informed the role of civil society in Uganda.

Political economy literature indicates that one of the most important reforms of the post 1986 Uganda was the introduction of the Movement System of Government.[1]  This was a government system that was known officially as all-inclusive of persons from all political shades in Uganda.[2]  An important ingredient of this system of government was the introduction of ‘individual merit’ as a mechanism for selecting political leaders.

The individual merit form of governance continues to influence the political economy of Uganda and there is an enduring hangover with a lot of focus on individuals.  In many communities, people look at individual leaders as the ones who will supply all their needs.  Institutions of service delivery are not effective and not viewed as effective and this focus on individuals rather than institutions now fuels both political patronage and elite patronage.  In politics leaders are compelled to promise to deliver all kinds of services with very little reference to the institutions that are supposed to deliver these services.  It is not strange to hear politicians promising to deliver a road, hospital or electricity to a community while no discussion has taken place with any of the ministries in charge.

For NGOs this deep-seated patronage has made it difficult for them to do their work.  Asking communities to speak up and demand for their rights does not always receive favorable reception as many community members prefer to get handouts than focus on long term advocacy work that is about strengthening institutions to deliver the required services.[3]  NGOs then end up finding short-term and sometimes sort-sighted mechanism of working with communities – preferring softer areas like sensitization and training communities instead of more challenging activities that question the status quo.

The introduction of individual merit was also important to the position of NGOs in the social-political life of Uganda because when the government was criticized for having no opposition and running a one-party state, it would prop-up NGOs in advocacy as the quasi-opposition in the Movement system.  The argument was that advocacy NGOs offered the alternative position and in a sense were the oppositional voice in the ‘all-inclusive’ political dispensation.  This positionality, while it served the idiosyncratic movement government, it was not beneficial to NGOs.  For those who chose to see NGOs as political vehicles, this was a validating position and one that justified the treatment of NGOs as a political security threat and sometimes organizations that promoted ‘foreign interests’.  So while NGOs were tolerated during the all-inclusive movement politics days, the same level of tolerance could not be sustained when multiparty politics was reintroduced.

With the revision of the Constitution and the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 2005[4], NGOs then had to contend with a new positionality in the policy and governance relationships of Uganda.  The official opposition parties reclaimed their now constitutional position and NGOs were viewed as opposition accomplices, with the government assuming that NGOs favored the opposition political party policy positions more than they favored government policy positions.

Reforms of the NGO law are therefore very much located in the realm of ensuring that NGOs are closely monitored and they ‘stay out of politics’.[5]  This new reality that now marks demarcates borders in what is ‘political’ in the advocacy arena has led to significant self-restraint by various NGOs. In some cases their lack of boldness on politically sensitive issues is an expression of this conscious avoidance of anything that is considered political.  The challenge is that all work that questions powerful politicians or politically sensitive issues can sometimes be seen as work that is political and hence speaking ‘truth to power’ becomes a façade rather than a reality.  The total effect of this context is that NGOs now have to organize their work with this context in mind.

[1] Brett F (1993 & 1998); Langseth P et al., Uganda: Landmarks in rebuilding a nation, Kampala: Fountain Press, 1995

[2] Golooba-Mutebi F and Hickey S (2013) Investigating the Links between Political Settlement and Inclusive Development: Towards Research Agenda, ESID Working Paper No.20, Manchester University, Manchester

[3] Ibid, June, 2014

[4] Makara, S., L. Rakner and L. Svasand (2009) ‘Turnaround: the NRM and the reintroduction of a multiparty system in Uganda’, International Political Science Review, 30(2): 185-204.

[5] See Uganda National NGO Forum (2013), The Looming Danger for Ugandan NGOs: A historical analysis of the ‘wiki leak’ NGO (Amendment) Bill, 2013, unpublished, Uganda National NGO Forum, Kampala