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Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

From Village to State: An Ethnography of Local Government in Uganda
by Curley, Seth Alexander, Ph.D., Yale University, 2011, 403; 3467901
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation is an ethnographic examination of Ugandan Local Government as it relates to everyday life in the rural areas. The central government of Uganda has decentralized authority, creating a variety of new institutional structures, mostly in the form of elected Local Councils. These play an intimate role in everyday life of citizens; they adjudicate local disputes as courts, manage economic development projects of various scales, are the first line of state security, and provide the basis of citizen participation in national civic life.

Ethnographic research was carried out among ethnic Bakiga people of Kabale District, in the south western part of the country. In addition, supporting research was carried out among higher levels of government: in sub-counties, and district offices around the nation, and in the capital in the offices of donors, consultants, and the Ministry of Local Government. The object was to examine the political culture at these various levels to understand the enactment of the institutions as they were practiced. At a larger level, the question was how do people participate in the ongoing creation of the nation-state.

In Kabale, the colonial administration successfully enfolded people into the state, breaking the traditional authority of male clan elders. Yet the administration was not entirely heavy-handed, as people mostly experienced colonial indifference, Christian proselytizing, as well as some measured agricultural interventions. Despite continuing government discourse that emphasizes its own modernity as a contrast to the backwardness of the peasantry, agriculture in Kabale thrived, leaving people relatively open to the state, or at least to the promises of modernity.

The Local Councils have introduced bureaucratic structures of authority into village life. People have seized on these techniques of social integration, and have incorporated them into local instrumental organizations, enthusiastically using them to effectively solve the problems of daily life that matter to them. The irony is that the one place where people have not embraced bureaucratic structures is the Local Councils themselves.

In spite of their local, participatory provisions, they take on the properties of government itself, namely distant, autocratic, and aloof. The problem is that no one—ordinary people, the project overseers, and councilors themselves—seems to accept the democratic possibility of government institutions. Thus, they end up turning the new structures into hierarchical institutions, undermining community integration, and concentrating authority at higher levels. Yet even as they serve to constrain local participation in the state, they also provide an elegant structure for the state to communicate its legitimating messages about its own authority.

As promising a strategy as decentralization might have been, it was helpless in the face of with the wider practice of governance in Uganda, which operated largely through status, privilege, and hierarchy. Not seeing culture as part of the problem, and in particular the culture of the bureaucracy, the architects of decentralization had neglected it as a target. As true believers in the project of modernizing government, the bureaucrats and implementers of decentralization misread the situation: they saw themselves as engaged in a struggle against 'backwardness," be it among their own lower-level administrators or ordinary people. Yet it was they, the civil servants, who undermined such concepts through the actions, their sense of entitlement, and their desire for control. Despite what they assured themselves, decentralization was a legal fiction.

The irony is that outside of the councils, ordinary people had embraced bureaucratic techniques of social organization. They applied them readily in community groups that they had organized to solve basic problems of livelihood, and which did much of the integrative work imagined for the councils. The one bureaucratic structure in which people had no interest was the councils themselves.

Yet this failure of the reforms cannot entirely be explained by the entitlement demanded by the political elite. In conceiving of the councils as local entities with circumscribed importance to national politics, the bureaucracy had largely left the enactment of the councils up to communities to work out for themselves. Their ultimate form as hierarchical and imperious, then, largely reflected local processes Chairmen and elected councilors attempted to construct the councils' authority by asserting their connections to the patrimonial state.

In this, people mostly gave their consent. Like the councilors, people did not want to forego the state, however compromised it might be. That the government should have representatives in the village confirmed their view of state power as beyond normal limitations. In that way, ordinary people helped author "state effects," by conjuring a state presence locally.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: McGovern, Michael
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 72/10, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Cultural anthropology, Sub Saharan Africa Studies
Keywords: African people, Decentralization, Development, Kiga, Local government, Nation-state, Uganda
Publication Number: 3467901
ISBN: 978-1-124-80576-4
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