The year 2012, like the previous one, was filled with frenzied clamours for new districts.
From Nabilatuk and Bugweri in the east to Kyotera and Kyadondo in the central region to Rukiga and Rubanda in the south-west, to mention but a few, new districts are in high demand. Cabinet approved the creation of 25 new districts in June 2012 which, once approved by Parliament in 2013, will bring the total number to 137, up from the 33 inherited by the NRM in 1986.
The Observer has conducted a study on the operations and challenges of the new districts. Our findings bring a sobering take to the debate about a multiplicity of districts. On July 1, 2010, Charles Mutema took office as Principal Personnel Officer in the newly created district of Kibuku in eastern Uganda. He was one of the pioneer staff there.
The district headquarters were housed in two small dilapidated buildings, a few metres from Kibuku trading centre, now elevated to a town council after it was carved out of Pallisa district. Mutema and 24 other colleagues would later discover that the two structures could not accommodate the various departments that constitute a local government.
"We had no option but to put some of the offices under a muvule tree and once it rained, we would all squeeze ourselves in the two buildings for shelter," he said. "During that time, district work would be put aside."
The district leadership then made a bold decision, diverting some money sent to the district to pay staff salaries and top up on the Shs 230m unconditional grants that the district was receiving, to construct office blocks. This happened at the expense of other development programmes.
"Working under a tree is the worst experience that we have faced, and it probably explains why we have so many staffing gaps. People don't want to work under such conditions," Mutema explained.
Whereas Kibuku made construction of office blocks a priority, other districts have committed part of their budgets to renting commercial buildings. The lack of office space can be critical in new districts and officials often end up sharing an office.
"To optimally use the space we have, we squeezed about five departments in one room," Abdul Rahman Kabugo, a district councillor of Lwengo, told The Observer.
The Lwengo district headquarters are housed in a residential house at Kyetume. The landlord revised the rental fees upwards twice in 2012, forcing the district leaders to fundraise for at least Shs 680m to build a new district head office. The first fundraising drive at Kampala Serena hotel recently fetched Shs 38m.
In Bukomansimbi district, leaders are struggling to raise about Shs 5bn to construct their headquarters. In the meantime, Bukomansimbi and Lwengo districts have procured tents to serve as council halls.
Gerald Suudi, a boda boda cyclist, says creation of new districts is an excuse for some people to make money.
"We had anticipated better roads, but look at this road, we don't know whether it is the money that they don't have, or they just don't want to improve the state of the roads," Suudi lamented, pointing to the Saala - Kibuku road.
Another cyclist sees no meaning in the increased income from more passengers he ferries everyday to the district offices when the roads are so poor. But in Budaka district, Sarah Mugala, a peasant farmer in Kapili village, is happy with the increased sales at her kiosk, located near the district headquarters.
These districts are some of the 14 created in 2010. In the words of the then minister of state for Local Government, Perez Ahabwe, they were created to allow effective administration, as well as "bring services closer to the people."
Two years later, however, services are not any closer to the people and civil servants are struggling to get any work done. At Kibuku health centre IV, which is 'so to speak' a district hospital, there is no medical doctor and patients still have to go to Mbale, 50km away, to access specialised treatment.
"We are supposed to have at least two doctors at the health centre but our resources can't allow us to recruit any," Mutema explained.
The district recently constructed two health centres at Lyama and Nalubembe parishes. Despite their completion, the health centres are yet to become operational because there are no health workers.
"We have only 98 staff in the health department. These can't be relied on to offer meaningful health services to our people," he added.
Whereas the ministry of Health guidelines stipulate that the office of a District Health Officer should be occupied by a person with a master's degree in Public Health with at least seven years' working experience - in Kibuku district, that job is held by Wilson Namungha who has no medical experience.
"If this were KCCA, the person we have would be in charge of garbage collection..." Mutema said.
Apparently, the district is not about to advertise the job because it lacks the funds to pay the suitable candidate. The story is no different in Bukomansimbi. The District Health Officer is a mere clinical officer and the district hospital - Butenga Health Centre IV - lacks the basics.
"If they are to carry out a simple blood test for malaria, they have to borrow a microscope from Kitaasa dispensary, which is owned by the Masaka diocese. Are these the better services they promised us?" Bukomansimbi Woman MP, Suzan Namaganda, wonders.
In Kibuku district, development projects have stalled.
"When we were breaking away from Pallisa, our share of the assets included four vehicles, two of which couldn't move...we can't buy any new vehicles because right now we need to get office space first for the district staff," Mutema said.
No local revenue:
Critics say proponents of new districts are driven by political ambition and not by reality. Their argument for the creation of new districts rests heavily on bringing services closer to the people, through creation of jobs, education and health services. However, most of these aspirations remain far cries because the new districts are grossly underfunded.
Most new districts can hardly raise Shs 30m in local revenue.
"In Bukomansimbi, the councillors have given up on getting any allowances for 2012 because the district didn't raise any local revenue," the area Woman MP, Namaganda, said.
In the meantime, district budgets have been slashed by 15%. This means Bukomansimbi, which had been allocated Shs 9.4bn, lost at least Shs 1.4bn. However, the district had already spent about Shs 6bn on staff salaries, leaving Shs 1.6bn to finance outstanding development projects.
Despite these challenges, cabinet approved the creation of 25 new districts in June 2012 which, once approved by Parliament, will bring the total number of districts to 137. The new districts include: Omoro, Namisindwa, Pakwach, Butebo, Rukiga, Rubanda, Kyotera Kyadondo, Nabilatuk, Bugweri, Kasanda, Bunyangabu, Kwania, Kapelebyong, Obongi, Kazo, Rwampara, Kitagwenda, Kikuube, Madi-Okollo and Kihiihi.
Just as the cabinet proposal for the creation of 25 new districts made its way into Parliament last June, the Uganda Local Governments Association (ULGA), through its president Peter Odok W'Oceng, who is also Agago district Chairman, warned against the creation of more districts after it became evident that existing ones are struggling to deliver services due to poor funding and staffing.
He advised that each district needs a minimum of Shs 23bn to run effectively.
"If funding the already existing districts is a problem, it is useless for the government to continue creating more unless it has created a new source of revenue to finance the new districts," Bukomansimbi district chairman, Muhammad Kateregga, said.
The reality is that the state continues to support the fledgling districts, which has increased the size of public administration several fold - through new MPs, civil servants and resident district commissioners. Since 2006, the government has been paying each district chairpersons a consolidated monthly salary of Shs 2m.
That means every month, about Shs 222m is paid in salary to 111 district chairpersons, excluding the Kampala Lord Mayor. Once the 25 new districts are approved, the figure will rise to Shs 272m every month or Shs 3.26bn per year.
Under the same arrangement, government pays the district vice chairpersons, mayors of municipalities and chairpersons of city divisions Shs 1m. The district speakers, executive committee, and deputy mayors get Shs 600,000 per month, also from the treasury.
"Certainly it's one of the craziest things in our polity, it's the politics of regime survival, not service delivery," Masaka Municipality MP, Mathias Mpuuga, observed.
Despite concerns by the district chairpersons, the cabinet proposal for the creation of 25 new districts was tabled in Parliament last June. The Deputy Speaker, Jacob Oulanyah, referred the matter to the Public Service and Local Governments committee, which has requested for more time to scrutinise the proposal.
Committee chairperson Florence Kintu, who is Kalungu Woman MP (another newly created district), says her committee wanted time to write a comprehensive report highlighting different factors to be considered before Parliament can allow the creation of more districts.
The delay has so far affected two new districts - Kagadi and Kakumiro, which were carved out of Kibaale district and were scheduled to come into effect at the beginning of the 2012-2013 financial year.
"We don't see any need of creating a district without putting into consideration the financial implications," Kintu told The Observer.
The committee will hold public hearings in the respective areas in January before preparing its report.