Back stabbing. Character assassinations. Plots to undermine fellow elected politicians or fellow civil servants. And, crucially, thinking 20 steps ahead. These are the ingredients of Apac Politics. This district in Uganda, where 0.2 per cent of the households have access to electricity and 0.1 per cent of the adult population holds a diploma or a degree, provides ample study for a contemporary Macchiavelli, while Kasparov could learn a thing or two from those at the epicentre of the eternal conflicts.
The district council is comprised of councillors from (the governing) NRM party and, overwhelmingly, (the opposition party) UPC. (Some say this explains the total lack of interest in the district by the central government.) The executive committee is headed by District Chairman, Hon. Nicholas Opio Bunga, a retired teacher. He selected his fellow resident of Inomo sub-division as his Vice-Chairman. His council includes two councillors who have stood out in the past year: Apac’s very own ‘Jack the Zipper’, Hon. Malakwang, who attacked two women with a scissor for wearing trousers (see previous blog posts), and the councillor for Ibuje, who smashed the glass front of the district notice board because his private construction firm failed to secure a public contract. Neither culprit was disciplined by the Hon. Chairman, ‘father of the district’. These are the least of the council’s antics.
A month ago, staff at Apac Hospital went on strike. Peaceful collective action in Uganda is rarer than Hummers on the streets of Kampala, so eyebrows were raised. Doctors, nurses and assistants protested the ‘disappearance’ of their 30 per cent salary top-up, paid by the WHO, and designed to combat the rampant desertion of essential health workers from northern Uganda. According to the council executive, the money had appeared on an account, but nobody had ‘remembered’ what the money was for, and so had been ‘disappeared’. (The district receives 27 billion shillings annually from the central government, and so should be used to keeping track of bank statements…). It is widely believed – and not disproved – that the money was ‘eaten’, ‘privatised’. Neither the Chief Finance Officer, nor the Secretary for Finance or the Chairman offered to explain the matter. Nobody offered to pay back. In the end, the top-ups were partly paid.
Who checks the checkers? The powers and excesses of the district civil service are, in theory, checked by the council. But what happens when councillors have an interest in not checking key civil servants? The answer, according to the democracy school, is for the population to register their dismay through the ballot or by revoking the powers of their representatives. Both are provided for in the Ugandan constitution. But before the population can act, they need to know about the abuses of power. In this sense, knowledge is power. The police and the inspectorate of government can of course investigate on the basis of suspicion, but rarely do; the radio can broadcast any events and discoveries, but is owned by a sub-county politician; and the civil society can demand for accountability. All these actors are either under-capacitated or compromised, and often both.
The Chief Finance Officer answers to the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), the head of the district civil service. But in a coincidence of perfect timing, Apac has been without a CAO for the past months. The Deputy CAO – upon the refusal by the CAO of another district (Kotido district) to accept his transfer to Apac! – was appointed as Acting CAO by the Ministry of Local Government. But the executive committee of the council wrote to the Ministry to oppose this appointment and the Ministry has hesitated to identify the head of the civil service, the implementing arm of the local government.
In Uganda, every district has a Resident District Commissioner, whose responsibility is to monitor the implementation of central and local government services. In Apac, the RDC had to step in to sort out the hospital crisis. As he reports directly to the President of the country, and in the absence of an angry electorate, he was one of the only people with sufficient powers to put pressure on the council and the civil service to find the missing resources so the hospital could call off the strike.
In this patriarchal and old-fashioned society, the scapegoat of the hospital strike has been a young doctor, one of only two doctors (the hospital is nominated to have seven). Since the collective action took place, he has been at the receiving end of intimidation and character assassination. Perhaps the voters will register their disappointment with the district leaders. Until then, old men in positions of power and authority have a great time doing entirely as they please.