On the face of it, the heated controversy over the splitting of Bushenyi into five districts looks to pit the progressive forces interested in taking services nearer to the people against the old-fashioned group seeking to preserve the district as a single, strong administrative unit.
But beneath the furore is an intense jockeying for political influence involving those struggling to establish small political chiefdoms on one hand and those seeking to maintain their political influence over a big area, on the other.
Some analysts say that in pushing for the splitting of the district, local leaders didn’t want to be left out on what appears to be the new method of distributing national resources – the creation of new districts that has seen former counties become districts.
Perez Ahabwe, the Minister of State for Local Government, recently tabled before Parliament a Cabinet proposal to create 14 new districts. They include Kibingo, Nsiika, Mitooma and Rubirizi to be carved out of Bushenyi.
The other new districts were carved out of Mpigi, Kumi, Moroto, Pallisa and Amuru districts. However, it is the splitting of Bushenyi that has been most acrimonious. So divisive is the matter that some people have petitioned the Constitutional Court to stop the process until all residents are consulted.
The Minister of Tourism, Trade and Industry, Maj. Gen. Kahinda Otafiire remains the most senior NRM politician in Bushenyi to oppose the splitting of the district. Others include Prof. Tarsis Kabwegyere, the Minister for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, and the Minister of State for Health, Dr. Richard Nduhura.
FDC strongmen Richard Kaijuka and Amanya Mushega, as well as DP elder John Kabeireho also oppose the move. Mary Karooro Okurut, Bushenyi Woman MP, wanted the district split at least into two, but objected to every county becoming a district.
Those who pushed for the split included the Minister of State for Planning, Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, and MPs Elioda Tumwesigye (Sheema North), Tindamanyire Kabondo (Bunyaruguru), and Deus Bikwasizehi (Buhweju). UPC stalwart, Maj. Edward Rurangaranga also supports the split.
So, what was the motivation for the split of Bushenyi District? Bushenyi DP Chairman, John Kabeireho recently told The Observer that the agitation for new districts is driven by greed for power.
“The talk of creating new districts is a desire for people wanting to get into power…In my view, Bushenyi should remain intact. In fact, districts shouldn’t have been split in the first place.”
Kabeireho argued that most of the newly created districts are not running effectively because they are not well facilitated.
“They were promised money from the central government but that money hasn’t been forthcoming. There are no proper buildings, offices and manpower to run those districts.”
Bushenyi became a district in 1974. Before the break-away of Kajara and Rushenyi counties, which became part of newly formed Ntungamo District in the 1990s, Bushenyi comprised seven counties, 27 sub-counties, two town councils, 170 parishes and 2,034 villages.
Quoting the 2002 Population and Housing Census report, the district website puts the district population at 738,355 people. Although most of the top district leaders opposed the split, most local leaders wanted it divided, a move analysts say was driven by the need for them to get leadership roles in the new district administrations.
These analysts point out that while Kamuntu’s group wants the district split so as to enable them gain political influence in the smaller units such as Sheema, his home area, Maj. Gen. Otafiire on the other hand wishes to retain his position as the most senior politician over a wider area, not just Ruhinda his home area.
An NRM historical, Otafiire is the party’s Bushenyi District chairman and the most influential local politician in the district.
But Rurangaranga described such reasoning as “a silly presentation.”
Rurangaranga claims the demarcation was a dream come true. He argues that since other districts have been split, Bushenyi shouldn’t be left out.
To him, Bushenyi has been losing out on grants from the central government because it was given the same amount of money as smaller districts.
“We have been losing. If they give one tractor to Kiruhura [with a small population], they have also been giving Bushenyi one tractor,” he said.
He also mentioned opportunities such as public university scholarships under the district quota system that should now multiply by five. However, Education Minister, Namirembe Bitamazire, recently said that the scholarships would reduce as government was not matching funding with more districts created.
Bushenyi District Woman MP, Mary Karooro Okurut, says she was opposed to what she calls the “over-splitting” of the district, preferring to have at most two. But she too believes splitting the district will increase the benefits locals get from the central government.
“I wanted more women from Bushenyi in Parliament. Imagine Bushenyi with all its population and area size taking 11 students [to universities on quota system] like other districts!”
Karooro says that she tried to raise the issue of more women representation in Parliament and more students under the district quota system to be based on the district population in vain.
She, however, admits the district will now lose its bargaining power and influence. “Our strength has been in being one. We would call the President and give our voice on a given issue as one and we would be taken seriously,” Karooro said.
Indeed, one analyst commented that Bushenyi has now been cut into manageable “padlocks.” While a united Bushenyi could cause the President to visit twice in one month to resolve the district’s problems, Buhweju or Bunyaruguru alone cannot command that level of attention.
Bugweri County MP and Chairman of Parliament’s Local Governments Committee, Abdu Katuntu, says the creation of new districts comes with some gains, like more jobs and development of infrastructure.
For instance, some existing health centres or Police stations will be upgraded to district status or new ones built.
Some of the jobs that come with the creation of districts include district education officers, district Police commanders and chief administrative officers, as well as political leaders and local councilors. These positions, however, do not produce wealth, he admitted.
Katuntu explained that other government funding such as UPE grants will remain the same “because the schools remain the same.”
He, however, says that it would be better if government increased funding to existing districts, equipping them with better facilities like health centres, water, more doctors and roads instead of creating more districts.
He warned that the cost of running the new districts would be high. “You will have district road engineers but with no roads in the district to run,” said Katuntu.