Don’t use Academic Qualification to narrow the Democratic Space

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Last week’s decision by parliament to set academic qualification for lower local government elected leaders in the electoral reform law is a step backwards in our universal, popular and participatory democracy. It is being motivated by a false hype of trust and perhaps arrogance in superficial elite education which has little to do with ethical values, patriotism, commitment to duty, progressive and transformative leadership which Uganda so badly needs. 

While academic qualification may add value to leadership, we shouldn’t make a legal a requirement for elective offices like members of parliament, mayors, subcounty chairpersons and councilors. It is an attempt to lock out competitors, and narrow the democratic space. If retained, it will undermine the NRM’s fundamental principle of universal, popular and participatory democracy introduced in 1986, which has instilled confidence in the ordinary citizens to join and make their contribution in leadership. This brand of democracy has in turn engendered massive turn up in community activities and holding leaders to account. We could get negative reactions if citizens are mobilized to stay away from elections because leadership is seen as preserve for the elite.

The amendments require that those seeking to become Municipal, and City Division mayor, Municipal Division, and Town Council chairpersons should possess a minimum of Advanced and Ordinary certificates of education ostensibly to help improve political supervision of civil servants, financial transparency and accountability. MPs also claimed that this will check corruption and lead to improvement in service delivery.

Taken at face value, the requirement may appear innocent, but evidently, an A or O graduate is unlikely to know, understand or appreciate the intricate government budget and financial accountability procedures to check abuse by respective ‘qualified’’ technocrats and accounting officers. There is no empirical evidence that highly educated people always represent the best interest of their respective constituencies and indeed the country better than those with less academic or professional qualifications. To the contrary, some of the educated people have been found to be sectarian, chauvinistic, and traitors of the common good and national causes.

Currently, corruption in Uganda is described as widespread affecting the private sector, local communities, local and central government. Had academic qualification been the main factor in providing good and responsible leadership, the corruption, bad attitude, slow decision-making, inefficiency and poor service delivery wouldn’t be-deviling the public service. The performance level of many MPs in this parliament where everyone is ‘qualified’ certainly doesn’t suggest that academic qualification is that much useful. And we should know that nations belong to all citizens and not exclusive preserve of the educated. In Uganda’s civil service system everyone is ’educated’ and academically qualified, and yet the malaise of inefficiency persists.

In 1998, when parliament in the Local Government Act passed the requirement of O’Level for subcounty elected leaders, President Yoweri Museveni vetoed. I would urge stakeholders to persuade the President to veto the Bill recently sent to him by declining assent and return it to parliament for re-consideration. In the alternative, he assents the bill but defer commencement of the provision on academic qualification to enable those affected acquire the qualifications.

Political leadership often requires the ability to take decisions which guarantee equality and fairness to all, and we cannot achieve that by merely insisting on possession of academic qualification. Additionally, academic qualification often times ends up widening the gap between leaders and the uneducated constituency especially at lower levels in rural areas. It also locks out patriotic, dependable and capable leaders.

In prescribing academic qualification for political elective positions MPs are travelling on a narrow lane, and whittling the democratic gains the NRM and Uganda has granted to citizens to aspire, participate and join the various leadership levels in the country on the basis of popular choice.

While liberalization and introduction of UPE, USE, tertiary education have expanded literacy, the structure of the economy makes difficult for the so-called educated to remain in the rural areas. Consequently, the educated people available and willing to provide leadership on full-time and voluntary basis are extremely few.

Therefore, imposing minimum academic qualification for local elected leaders supposedly to improve efficiency and financial accountability, is really a distraction and bad attempt at treating symptoms rather the causes which should be rejected. Looking at the civil service and judiciary, it is evident that formal and professional academic qualification have very little to do with ethical values required to serve the public diligently. Yes, there is need for basic knowledge tied to respective leadership levels mainly to facilitate comprehension in discussions, comfort across leadership levels, and effective decision making on technical issues linked to law, policy and financial accountability. 

In the past we had men of their mind whose words could be taken to the bank, unlike today when most people in leadership appear to be those whose goals are mainly to serve the self without any shame. The elites now running our politics need to appreciate that societies evolve slowly and they don’t have rush artificial impositions collected from foreign societies otherwise Uganda may crush.