On Tuesday February 24, we hit the road as members of parliament’s committee on Public Service and Local Government, for a five-day tour of districts in Busoga sub-region.
Our primary assignment was to sample people’s opinion on the Local Government Amendment Bill 2014 now before Parliament, which, among other things, seeks to reintroduce voting by lining being candidates.
From Jinja we went straight to Namutumba where we started our journey through the districts of Kaliro, Kamuli and Buyende. At Namutumba the resident district commissioner, while moving a vote of thanks to the committee, reminded us of the lopsided priorities of the Museveni government.
“See how the once-small Nambooze has grown into a big woman yet she is from the opposition; those are some of the achievements of the NRM government,” said RDC David Ssempa to the delight of the local leaders present.
Everywhere we passed, poverty was written on the faces of residents, with young children almost going naked. But the leaders kept constantly pointing out the accomplishments of the NRM regime in simple things like having a group of MPs visit the area.
We arrived at the headquarters of Buyende district in a town of less than ten buildings exhausted and hungry. Although Buyende town council is a vast, empty piece of bushy land, it has a mayor of its own. This is a typical rural district, sandwiched between Amolatar, Keberamaido, Serere, Kaliro, Luuka, Kamuli and Kayunga districts.
Buyende depends on Kamuli town council, 30 kilometres away, for such basics as fueling vehicles. With an estimated population of 320,468 (provisional census results), Buyende was carved out of Kamuli district in 2010.
Ironically, one of the grounds MPs cited in granting Buyende’s six sub-counties a district status was the distance the residents had to cover to reach Kamuli for services. Five years later, Buyende district has no hospital, no commercial bank in the area, no Lands office, no post office, and not a metre of tarmac road – not even in Buyende town council.
The district doesn’t have grid electricity and, as such, even to photocopy or print a letter, a secretary has to travel to the mother district of Kamuli. When we reached Buyende district headquarters after a long dusty journey, a prisoner in a yellow prisons uniform rode by on a bicycle, carrying a school girl so confidently.
Where, I thought, do you see convicted criminals riding confidently around the town?
Slowly, the local leaders and technical staff started sauntering in lazily, but we the visitors had other ideas. After a bumpy drive, our first priority was to have lunch. However, we were told that the nearest restaurant was in Kamuli.
Naturally after such a long journey each one of us wanted some privacy in the loos, but unfortunately the district’s two-stance pit latrine, located in the middle of the headquarter compound, had no doors. Not even that kadeeya (sack) curtain that you find in the poorest of homes in Kyantale or Kifamba.
The only pride of the town seems to be the Electoral Commission offices and the foundation stone laid by President Museveni after Parliament created the district in 2010.
We learnt that Buyende district staff structure has to have 138 members but presently it has 42 (30.4 per cent) and these are mainly support staff. Of the 12 core office holders, only two are filled. Prominent among the missing senior staffers are chief finance officer, district health officer, district education officer, district engineer, etc.
In the last financial year, we were told, Buyende collected Shs 96,466,608 in local revenue. Interestingly, the district has two MPs: the woman MP for the district; and the other MP who represents Buyende as a single constituency, an RDC with two assistants and a deputy, a DISO, a district chairman plus 15 councilors.
The total budget of the district stands at Shs 14.4bn, but the district contributed only Shs 96.5m, which is less than one per cent. The district depends on fishing on Lake Kyoga as the major source of revenue but the most visible economic activity in the area is charcoal making.
The money from the centre comes in the form of salaries and conditional grants, which constitute 99.4 per cent. This means that when it comes to fiscal decisions, Buyende district leaders have powers only on 0.6 per cent of the decisions, which clearly undermines the principle of decentralization.
In her closing remarks, the district chairperson pleaded with us to remind the government to give an equalization grant to the district. Still, she added that the district was seeking an endorsement from our committee to create more sub-counties and town councils (most probably to pave way for taking “services nearer to the people” and lay plans to create another district out of Buyende in the future).
Without any lodging facilities in the area, late in the evening, we had to leave Buyende without spending a penny there out of the allowances each one of us had carried as part of our facilitation to tour the district….
There was basically nothing we could buy from the residents. Interestingly, most of the councilors and technical staff asked for lifts from us as we drove back to Kamuli, where they reside. It means that even local staff in Buyende are imported from Kamuli.
As we drove back through the villages with grass-thatched houses and miserable faces along the way, I kept asking myself what services had been taken nearer to the people of Buyende and who has benefitted from all this!
Waking up from the deep thoughts I caught colleagues chanting happily with councilors of how 98 per cent of Buyende voted for Mr Museveni in the last elections. Would I ask, then, why NRM is plotting to have 25 more districts created soon?
The author is the MP for Mukono municipality and Shadow minister for Local Government.