Patronage and the Politics of District/City Creation in Uganda

  • Pius GumisirizaEmail author
Living reference work entry



Patronage is defined in this entry as mutual exchanges between a patron(s) who constitutes the source of one side of the exchange and clients who also constitute the source of exchanges on the other side. In the context of this entry, the politicians are the patrons who promise or hand out districts/cities to clients who may be community members or voter in exchange for votes or support. Politics is defined in this entry as how power or entrust authority is exercised in a society or country. District is defined in this entry as a specific area of jurisdiction specifically marked off for administrative, electoral, and other purposes in a country. A city is defined here as an urban settlement with over 400,000 inhabitants under one authority as one of its many defining features.


The Constitution of Uganda 1995 clearly indicates that parliament can authorize the creation of new districts out of the necessity to bring services closer to people and effective administration with special attention given to the means of communication, geographical features, the density of the population, economic viability, and the wishes of the people concerned. However, rather than serve its original purpose of bringing services closer to the people, the entire process/experience has been politicized by President Museveni and his NRM government. They have systematically and skillfully used the creation of districts and now a promise for cities as a means of dispensing patronage by rewarding their supporters or as a condition for support in areas where they have historically not enjoyed popular support. As a result the number of districts has blown out proportion and is now a very costly burden to the taxpayer with little benefits to the broader society except for a few elites both local and national. In September 2018, the government announced that it will be merging or scrapping several government institutions and authorities which have duplicated roles or those which are draining public resources with less value addition in attempts to save resources. However, they also announced that more districts, cities, and constituencies are in the pipeline. This entry argues that political patronage is the main driver for these new districts, cities, and constituencies and if not checked, the promise of effective utilization of public resources will remain unachieved. The entry explains motivations and gives examples of new district creation in other parts of Africa and the history of district creation in Uganda, presents the current institutional framework that guides the creation of districts in Uganda and the benefits/costs of new districts in Uganda, and illustrates how elites both national and local use patronage to influence creation of districts/cities in the country.

Patronage and District Creation in Africa

The creation of new districts as a tool to win votes, reduce ethnic tensions, or extend patronage among authoritarian leaders in many African countries is a well-tested method. Their creation is an example of a distributive policy as their benefits go to a small group of people, while their costs are spread out across the entire population. Such a policy is likely to encounter little opposition since its cost per capita is so low that those who pay for it have little incentive to organize collectively to combat it. In other words, the cost of creating each district per citizen is very small which becomes a good area for patronage (Olson 1982). In most of the countries where district creation has been a big phenomenon, the common thread is usually poor service delivery and authoritarian leadership. Thus, the whole district creation projects are intended to shore up political support than service delivery, and the leaders are able to get away with it because in actual sense they are the ones that shape the nature of institutions rather than institutions shaping their behavior, a scenario that agrees with the actor-centered institutionalism approach which argues that institutions are not necessarily created to be socially efficient but rather created to serve the interests of those with the bargaining power to make new rules (see Scharpf 1997). For example, in 1994, 2 years before his first election, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan tripled the number of federal states from 9 to 27. In 1997, President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso created 15 new provinces in time for a parliamentary election that year and his successful first reelection the following year. In 1999 2 years before his reelection, President Mathieu Kérékou of Benin doubled the number of his country’s provinces from 6 to 12. In 1998, a year before his reelection, President Bakili Muluzi of Malawi and his government created three new districts. In 1999, 2 years before his first successful reelection, President Idriss Déby of Chad also doubled the number of his country’s prefectures from 14 to 28. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the new constitution increased the number of provinces from 11 to 26 in February 2006, 5 months before the first round of the country’s presidential elections, while in Ghana President John Kufuor’s government created 28 new districts in 2003 and another 28 districts in 2007 and in both cases a year before presidential and parliamentary elections (Green 2008). Literature has also shown that new districts are sometimes created by central-level political elites in order to manage ethnic tensions and thus ensure political stability (Treisman 2007; Oviasuyi et al. 2010; Awortwi and Helmsing 2014).

History of District Creation in Uganda

The creation of districts as local government administrative units in Uganda can be traced from the early colonial days. In 1919, the colonial state in Uganda established the African Native Authority Ordinance that guided the duties and powers of African chiefs in the colonial administration that included maintaining law and order, presiding over native courts, and collecting taxes at the village, subcounty, and county levels. The chiefs were accountable to the principal representative of the central government and executive head of the district that was a district commissioner. In 1949, new changes were made under the Local Government Ordinance, and the district was established as a fairly autonomous administration with a council comprising of elected members responsible for district administration under local government arrangements. Under this arrangement, the chiefs remained salaried local government officials answerable to the central government through the district commissioner, and the central government retained overriding powers over district council decisions. By the time of independence in 1962, Uganda had 11 districts and 4 kingdoms of Buganda, Ankole, Tooro, and Bunyoro. The Independence Constitution of 1962 granted Buganda kingdom a federal status, while the territories of Busoga, Ankole, Bunyoro, and Toro were accorded semi-federal status, and the rest of the country comprising of Acholi, Bugisu, Kigezi, Lango, Bukedi, Karamoja, Madi, Sebei, and West Nile districts were administered through councils. When Prime Minister Milton Obote abrogated the Independence Constitution in 1966, its 1967 successor centralized powers. Idi Amin overthrew the Obote government through a military coup in 1971, immediately dissolved districts, and replaced them with regional/provincial administrations led high-ranking military governors. Centralization of power gradually but steadily increased in Uganda in those years as the second Obote government (1980–1985) also never made any significant efforts to change Amin’s system. In all together, Uganda had 33 districts in 1986 when Museveni and his NRA rebels captured power (Ojambo 2012).

Institutional Framework for District Creation in Museveni’s Uganda

Shortly after capturing power, in 1987 the Museveni government established a commission of inquiry under the leadership of Mahmood Mamdani, which spent several months touring the country and prepared a white paper that was presented to government, and henceforth the government vigorously embarked on decentralization based on the resistance council system. The government enacted the Resistance Councils and Committees Statute, which repealed the Urban Authorities Act 1964, part 1 of the Local Administration Act 1967, and marked the beginning of decentralization process under the movement government by transferring such powers as planning, decision-making, and the administration of justice to the community-based resistance council system. The Mamdani Commission was hesitant to recommend the creation of new districts arguing that these would increase unproductive costs of administration and also feared that the experience of the past decade where new districts were created arbitrarily, haphazardly, and hardly defensible would be repeated. The Commission accumulated 11 requests for the creation of new districts, of which it only recommended 4 and a review of all existing districts with a view of degrading those that did not meet minimum criteria. Museveni never pursued this recommendation but also withheld the creation of any new districts except for Kalangala (comprising the Ssese islands in Lake Victoria) in 1990 and Kiboga in 1991. By 1995 when a new constitution was promulgated, the Museveni government had created only six new districts. The 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, the Local Government Statute 1993, and the subsequent Local Government Act 1997 provide the legal framework on how a new district can be created. Chapter 7 of the Local Government Act (1997) stipulates that the boundaries of a local government or of an administrative unit shall be those that existed immediately before the coming into force of this Act. Article 179(4) of the 1995 Constitution allows for the creation of new districts if the concerned people demand them and the intentions are bringing services closer. The Article stipulates that (1) parliament may (a) alter boundaries of districts and (b) create new districts, (2) any measure to alter the boundary of a district or create a new district shall be supported by the majority of all members of parliament, (3) parliament shall by law empower the district councils to alter the boundaries of the lower government units and create new local government units within their districts, and (4) any measure for the alteration of the boundaries of or multiplication of districts or administrative units shall be based on the necessity for effective administration and the need to bring services closer to the people, and it may take into account the means of communication, geographical features, density of population, economic viability, and the wishes of the people concerned (The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda 1995). Whereas the law is clear on the rights of all citizens to access better services through local government units, there still remains no clear criterion on when and how many districts should be created. The established parameters such as population size, economic viability, geography, cultural identity, people’s wishes, and the quest for proximity of services that should be considered when curving out districts have unfortunately not been strictly adhered which has resulted in creation of new districts and now cities in a haphazard, arbitrary, and hard to defend manner (see Green 2008). In 1996 after the general election and just 1 year after the promulgation of the constitution, there were 42 districts in the country. By 2005, the numbers had escalated to 78 and 111 by 2010, and in 2018, there are over 112 districts, over 20 are in the pipeline, 6 more cities have been approved, and parliament is bloated with 427 members who are also meant to increase with more districts.

Benefits of New Districts

The creation of new districts has been praised by local people and leaders in those districts and defended by central government ideologues as an effective way of bringing services and opportunities such as boreholes, schools, roads, health centers, increased citizen participation, a high sense of ownership and control in the delivery of services, determination of the development agenda, promotion of cultural identity and unity, a strategic move to reduce rural-urban migration and therefore lessen the pressures on the few existing urban centers, inclusion of marginalized groups in development processes, and creation of jobs directly and indirectly. Every new district created comes with at least over 50 public service jobs including chief administrative officer, resident district commissioner, land officer, district auditor, district engineer, district planner, education officer, gender officer, youth officer, finance officer, inspector of schools, district police commissioner, district chairman, and several council representatives to mention only a few. There are also opportunities that come to lower local government officials who are promoted upward and jobs created by NGOs/donors who set up offices in the new districts and provide budget support and conditional grants to the districts adding to potential local patronage opportunities. For example, it has been noted that due to district creation, the USAID-supported Uganda Program for Human and Holistic Development expanded its coverage from 20 to 34 districts in 2008 (Green 2008). For NRM government supporters and President Museveni, another direct benefit for creating as many districts as possible is to split the opposition power bases in opposition strongholds especially in the northern and eastern districts of the country where political instability and marginalization pushed the population toward the opposition (see Awortwi and Helmsing 2014). However, for the opposition and partners interested in Uganda’s democratization process, district creation has been a mechanism for enlarging patronage which has eaten into their powerbase that a bid setback. Reducing ethnic tensions among different groups within the same districts has also been used as a justification to create new districts in places like Mbarara (created Kiruhura mainly for the Bahima away from the other Bairu sections of Mbarara District), Yumbe from Arua, Kibaale from Hoima, and Nakaseke from Luwero, among many other districts. Ethnic conflicts existed even in precolonial communities that now make Uganda, but these were exaggerated by the British colonialists who lumped people of different ethnic groups together in an effort to create political administrative units with smaller tribes being marginalized in politics and administration, a mistake that was not rectified by previous governments (see Musisi 2015).

Costs of New Districts

Technical experts and several research studies conducted on the impact of district creation and service delivery in Uganda have concluded that contrary to expectation of improved service delivery, the process has been captured by local and national elites to serve their corrupt/political interest and led to the balkanization of the country into unviable economic units which comes with a huge administrative cost that is borne by the taxpayer (see Green 2008; Ayeko-Kümmeth 2014). According to the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development, creating a new district or a city costs Shs 16.63 billion and requires well over Shs 59.25 billion in its first year of existence to cater for salaries, allowances, gratuity, buildings, operating new administrative unit’s offices, and a public service commission. From a technical perspective, the Secretary to the Treasury, Mr. Keith Muhakanizi, has repeatedly said it is unaffordable and unsustainable to create more administrative units because the wage transfer from the central government to the local governments has already escalated to unacceptable proportions. It increased from Shs 541 billion in the 2006/2007 fiscal year to Shs 1.07 trillion (2013/2014) – 4% of Uganda’s current budget (Wesonga 2015). Most commentators in the country including academicians, parliament, development partners, civil society, public service officials, and majority of the public agree with this analysis that already with 427 members of parliament, 112 districts, and a highly bloated government, there is no need to create more new districts because they are just financially unsustainable. Nevertheless, President Museveni has pledged to elevate 6 municipalities of Mbarara, Mbale, Arua, Gulu, Hoima, Moroto, Nakasongola, Fort Portal, and Jinja into cities (administratively, a city is considered to be an equivalent of a district), and 20 more districts are in the making before 2021 elections. If research, general population, and technical experts in government institutions like the Ministry of Finance, Public Service, and Bank of Uganda are all in agreement that creation of more new districts and cities is not the way to go because of the costs involved, then what exactly explains President Museveni and his government’s desire to create more of the same? Patronage and politicization of the whole idea and process of district, city, and constituencies has been blamed for the mess as discussed hereunder.

Patronage at Central Government Level

In Uganda, President Museveni was very popular among Ugandans and the international community in the early 1990s. He implemented structural reforms, which endeared him with the donor community that kept money flowing in. He also formed a broad-based government that included many real and potential political rivals such as the late Ssebaana Kizito and Dr. Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere of the DP party. In his first democratic election in 1996, Museveni won with overwhelming support. At that time, corruption was at its minimum, and Museveni was generally still viewed as a leader steering Ugandan toward a democratic path, constitutionalism, and economic transformation. However, by 2001 most of the promises were exposed as a sham, opposition leaders such as Ssemogerere had left his government, and serious cracks appeared from within his NRM ranks as one of his cadres Colonel Dr. Kizza Besigye challenged his presidency. Museveni’s popularity in Uganda has decreased year after year from 2001 to date, and yet the number of districts has increased tremendously from 56 in 2000 to 112 in 2018 and from 1 city of Kampala to 7 (6 are being approved) cities by 2021. Museveni’s diminishing electoral support over the years, coupled with the increasing number of new districts/cities, fits in well with patronage theory that the more vulnerable an incumbent politician is, the more likely he/she is to use patronage to win votes (Stein and Bickers 1994). Indeed, several studies have argued that district creation has been primarily used by President Museveni to win elections and stay in power (Green 2008). Examples have been given to illustrate this point, for instance, when Ngora County was elevated to a district status in 2010, its residents who had voted Museveni with 27.4% in 2006 appreciated and voted NRM in 2011 with 48.2% (Awortwi and Helmsing 2014). There is also evidence to show that promising to or elevating marginal counties to district status in a given inter-election period leads to a significant increase in Museveni’s vote share in those counties in the next presidential elections. For instance, in 1996, he promised voters to give them districts if they voted him, and in 1997, he delivered the pledge with six new districts after they overwhelmingly voted him. In 2000 and 2005, Museveni ordered the creation of new districts just a few months before presidential elections the following year, and ten new districts were created in 2006 after the presidential elections. Through this patronage cycle, Uganda had 112 districts in 2012, and yet again the government ordered the creation of 25 new districts to all to be operational by 2019 making a total of 137 districts (see Odyek et al. 2012). With over 130 districts, there is general fatigue among the political establishment and general population on creation of more districts. To maintain its support among the general population using the same patronage approach as in the creation of districts, the government has now focused its eyes on elevating trading centers into town councils, town councils into municipalities, and municipalities into cities. President Museveni and his cabinet endorsed the creation of four regional cities in Gulu, Mbale, Mbarara, and Arua and five strategic cities in Hoima (oil), Nakasongola (industrial), Fort Portal (tourism), Moroto (mining), and Jinja (as an industrial city) pending parliament ratification (Wesonga 2015). The main argument given by the government is that these different cities will help create job opportunities in other parts of the country, reduce migration into Kampala, and help in creating balanced development in the country because at the moment, Kampala controls over 65% of the national GDP. While the creation of cities may be a plausible idea given the increasing rapid urbanization and need for well-planned urban environments, this entry argues that the process of expanding the territories of selected municipalities has been corruptly hijacked by the political elite to include or exclude certain areas on the existing municipality boundaries in ways that favor these elites and the areas they represent while disadvantaging other well-deserving places which is likely to affect negatively the long-term planning, sustainability, and service delivery in these proposed cities. However, Museveni’s expectation is that like all the previous cases of new districts creation, these municipalities, cities, and new district will generate more votes and support him in 2021.

Patronage at Lower Levels of Government and Communities

It is not only patronage emanating from President Museveni or the central government that is responsible for a barrage of new districts in Uganda. One that most communities hand local elites have learnt that this is one of the methods of squeezing some benefits from the government and the main distributor (President Museveni) is now vulnerable politically, they do demand to have districts curved out of their counties or cities curved out of their municipalities. Indeed, many studies have indicated that local elites in communities that later become new districts have used their resources and networks to lobby or demand for new districts or city. This argument is best exemplified in the example of Bushenyi District where the president was vehemently opposed to its split to create new districts because of its problematic politics, but the elites in Sheema County (now Sheema District) use their influence to force government and President Museveni into submission and grant them a district. President Museveni and three out of four ministers who hailed from Bushenyi District were vehemently opposed to splitting it into several districts in the early 2000s. Their opposition stemmed from the fact that people in Bushenyi District were ethnically the same and spoke the same language, it was a very strong Museveni supporting area, the government had a very constrained budget, and it was one of the richest districts in the country with a fairly developed road network, schools, health centers, and high agriculture production. All these factors worked together to make Museveni and his government officials at the center to oppose the idea of splitting this district. However, in 2010 the president shifted his position and agreed to split Bushenyi District into five districts of Buhweju, Sheema, Mitooma, Rubirizi, and Bushenyi mainly due to pressure from local entrepreneurs who also demanded a share of the patronage resources that come with new districts (Tabaro et al. 2018).

Patronage and Politics in City Creation

The elevation of municipalities into cities also fits into the three narratives where on the one hand President Museveni gives a promise to create cities in return for support or municipalities demanding from government that they should be elevated to city status. Then both local and national elites jump in to influence the entire process with patronage as exemplified in the creation of Mbarara City. As earlier noted, in 2015 President Museveni and his cabinet endorsed the creation of four regional cities and five strategic cities pending parliament ratification. For an area to qualify to become a city in Uganda, it should have a population of 350,000 people, a master plan land use, and water sources and be able to meet over 50% of the cost of providing social services and its projects. All the proposed cities fall short of the major requirements especially population and raising funds to meet their running and development costs. According to the Uganda’s National Population and Housing Census 2014 results, the population of Jinja Municipality was 72, 931, Arua 62, 657, Mbarara 195, 013, Gulu 152, 276, and Mbale 96, 189. Thus on the population criterion, all the four proposed cities fall short of the numbers. What all of them decided to do was to have their councils vote in support of merging with some nearby town councils on condition that those town councils too agreed. For instance, Arua Municipality with a population of 62, 657 decided to merge with Pajulu (60, 210), Oluko (38, 491), Ayivuni (22, 528), Aroi (24, 241), Manibe (28, 938), and Vurra (133, 640). Jinja Municipality with 72, 931 people took up Budondo (51, 560), Mafubira (78, 895), Kakira, Busedde (36, 152), and Bugembe Town Council (41, 323). However, what was not clear was the criterion Mbarara and Gulu municipalities would use to merge with the neighboring territories to meet the population criterion because the outlying areas did not have master plans or insufficient revenue streams (Wesonga 2015). It was in this lack of clarity that both local and national political elites influence their places to either be incorporated into Mbarara Municipality or be excluded depending on how either of the two benefited their political interests.

Before its elevation to a city, Mbarara Municipality was composed of three divisions of Kakoba, Nyamitanga, and Kamukuzi division with a total population of 195, 013 according to the 2014 population census. It is the main and biggest town within the western region of Uganda lying at the intersection of major transportation routes going to Rwanda, Eastern DRC via Kasese, and Northern Tanzania via Isingiro District and Mutukula border. The town serves many neighboring districts and has been growing rapidly in the last 20 years. In recent years, the local leadership has been lobbying the central government to have Mbarara elevated into a city. However they did not meet the population criteria. Thus Mbarara municipal council leadership lobbied the neighboring territories. The territories that were finally included on the municipality were Nyakayojo Subcounty and Rwampara County that government is going to elevate into a district in 2019 financial year and two parishes of Nyakishenyi and Kishasha from Biharwe Subcounty in Kashari County. Nyakayojo Subcounty is largely a rural place with most of the population engaged in subsistence agriculture and petty trade distributed among six parishes of Katoojo, Bugashe, Kichamba, Rwakisakizi, Nyarubongo, Rukyindo, and 62 villages. Apart from Katoojo and Rukyindo parishes which are relatively flat and close to the previous territory of Mbarara Municipality, the rest of the parishes are mountainous and very far in terms of distance. The two parishes of Nyakishenyi and Kishasha that were incorporated from Biharwe are also rural with most of the people engaged in subsistence agriculture and petty trade. The local leaders in Nyakayojo Subcounty headed by Jomo Mugabi, the LC III chairperson, and majority of the population welcomed the idea of being added on Mbarara Municipality to create the city because this comes with huge benefits because being part of the city comes with direct resources from the central government and Mbarara City council in terms of service extension such as roads, piped water, schools, direct jobs, electricity, and better health services. In fact the leadership of Nyakayojo Subcounty not only lobbied the higher political establishment to achieve this ambition, but they also warned that they would never be part of the proposed Rwampara District and they had their wish granted because government knew that unless it gave in, there would be political consequences when elections come (see Kabasongora 2011). Ironically the immediate territories of Kyeera, Nyarubungo, Kaberebere in Isingiro, and parts of Bubale Subcounty which are already urbanized and are very close to Mbarara Municipality have been excluded from the city for selfish reasons by the political elite. Hon. Bright Rwamirama is the area MP, is the Minister for Veterans, is very wealthy, and is a close relative of President Museveni. His son is also an MP representing the youth in the region. Rwamirama feared that if he allowed part of his territory to be incorporated into the city with his home also taken, he would have to contest election with Mbarara where the competition is stiff and most leaders usually have one term in offices. This would have been suicidal to his career or the future career of his soon. He therefore used his national and local networks to ensure that the parts of his constituency were not made part of the city yet they are the closest and most urbanized. These examples are not isolated but in fact the new normal in the creation of districts, cities, and municipalities in Uganda. In many other places such as Koboko Municipality, Kabwohe-Itendero Municipality, Rwampara, and Kazo and Kagadi districts, among others, the criterion has been to reward personalities in government for their support of President Museveni.


While there are many areas deserve to become districts and others that have genuinely been made so, the use of districts/cities as patronage has stood out in most cases and explains the continued proliferation of districts/cities as Museveni prepares to cling on power come 2021. While they are a serious burden to the taxpayer, their continued creation is politically motivated and can only be politically addressed especially by those at the very top who benefit most from it.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public Policy and GovernanceUganda Management InstituteKampalaUganda