The Study on the State of Political Distrust in Uganda

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Table of Contents

  • Problem Statement
  • Purpose of the Inquiry and Questions
  • Significance of the Study
  • Background of the Study
  • Brief Political History of Uganda
  • Reviewing the Trust Debate in Uganda
  • Political Trust in Uganda
  • Perception of Government Delivery of Basic Services
  • Perceptions of Tax Payment
  • Perceptions of Political Stability
  • Accountability
  • Measuring Political Trust
  • Judicial System
  • The Police
  • Theoretical Framework
  • Suggestions for Further Study
  • Conclusion

Political trust, a global affective orientation towards government (Rudolph and Evans, 2005) is the expectation that arises within a community of regular, honest and cooperative behavior by citizens from political institutions. In most common formulations, political trust is seen as some function of perceived conditions with the assumption being made that political trust is a consequence of these (Ibid). Scholars have also profitably defined political trust as a basic evaluative orientation towards government founded on how well the government is operating according to people's normative expectations (Hetherington, 1998:791).

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This understanding was largely developed from David Easton's (1965) work on political support, where he distinguished between diffuse and specific support. Diffuse support refers to the public attitudes towards regime level political objects regardless of performance, while specific support refers to the satisfaction with government outputs and the performance of political authorities (Hetherington, 792). According to 2015 AfroBarometer report, there is stagnation in levels of institutional trust in most African countries.

Problem Statement

Many studies have documented the growing state of distrust of democratic institutions in developed world (Putnam, 2000, Dalton, 2007, Uslaner, 2001, Mishler and Rose, 2002). Certainly, political trust has become a core concept in recent research on political attitudes and a critical indicator of good governance in the mass media and public debate (Dekker, 2011:1). Stokes and Clearly (2009:309) have also pointed out that 'the wealth of data and significance of the correlations on trust are too tempting to resist; therefore, trust has become a focus for scholarly attention and a reasonable cause of various necessary political outcomes.

Indeed, the National Resistance Movement that has been in power for the last 32 years is facing dissenting voices from citizens that point to credibility problems in the ruling class. A sense is that the promises made following the turbulent 1980's is faltering, and the continued public protest echoes voices of dissatisfaction with the way institutions in the country operate. political critics have also pointed out issues such as rampant corruption, breakdown of infrastructure and aggressive government crackdown of dissenting voices as signs of a regime failure. (Golooba-Mutebi, 2011). This study therefore, seeks to review the reasons for the growing dissent and to explore possible solutions and recommendations for restoration of public trust in the government.

Purpose of the Inquiry and Questions

This study aims to understand how citizens' perceptions of performance of political institutions impact on political trust among people in Uganda. The major question to be addressed here, As Maxwell, (1996:51) points out that a research question is central to any study since 'it explains specifically what the study will attempt to learn and understand, in this study, the central question here is how do citizens conceptualize political trust of institutions in Uganda?

Significance of the Study

The conceptual paper is significant because it will explore how citizens view political trust among institutions in Uganda and in the end make recommendations for further research.

Background of the Study

Over the years, there has been growing perception, especially in the developed world, that trust in government is decreasing. There have been many explanations for this decrease in trust, and varying prescriptions on how it can be restored. Some scholars have argued that this should not be taken as distrust in government, but rather as healthy scepticism, engrained in the Lockean doctrine of institutionalized distrust (Levi and Stoker, 2000,). Subsequent studies carried out in the developing world, most notably the various Afro barometer surveys, have also attempted to convey growing disquiet among African citizens towards their governments. Opposition politicians have also used the dismal scores on trust as political capital to discredit incumbents.

Uganda, ideally termed the 'pearl of Africa', sits astride the equator in East Africa. The country as it stands today is a colonial creation of the British, with boundaries that grouped a wide range of ethnic groups7 with different political systems and cultures (Anouk, 2013). It is in the Great Lakes Region, neighbouring Kenya to the East, Democratic Republic of Congo to the West, Tanzania and Rwanda to the South, and Southern Sudan to the North. It covers a total area of 241.038sq kilometres, with an estimated population of 35 million people (July 2012 estimates, CIA world fact book). The capital city Kampala has an estimated population of 1.5 million people.

Brief Political History of Uganda

Uganda remained under colonial occupation until 1962 when it became a juridical state (Mutengesa and Hendrickson 2008). British colonial rule in Uganda left a typically complex legacy regarding longer term prospects for economic and political development. Lwanga (1989) notes that the manner in which “protection” was effected, the nature of administration established and the colonial economy imposed were basic elements of the recipe for the chaos created in the post-colonial period

At independence in 1962, the political elites in Uganda, (headed by Prime Minister Milton Obote), inherited a divided state. It was an amorphous state of different political systems; some areas were fully federal (Buganda was a state within a state), some semi federal (Ankole, Bunyoro, Toro), some confederation (Busoga) and others especially the previously sedimentary societies, districts. This created multiple centers of power, which became breeding ground for further chaos, the most prominent being military takeovers which created a political power base for the central government (Ibid).

In Sub-Saharan Africa, strengthening of citizens’ legitimacy is very important as undermining it poses a threat to regime stability. Political trust is an important measure of legitimacy, of which government performance is a significant source. This paper analyzes how Ugandan government performance, both in economic and political terms, affect levels of institutional trust among its people.

Reviewing the Trust Debate in Uganda

Political Trust in Uganda

It would be insufficient to discuss issues of politics and institutional performance in Uganda without illuminating on the legacy of the 'movement system'. As earlier noted, the criminalization of the state that followed decades of one-party rule had left the country divided not only along ethnic but party lines too. Upon capturing power, Uganda under the NRM chose a broad-based, individual merit and inclusive road to no party democracy, known locally as omugendo (Mugaju and Onyango, 2000:1). This was rationalized as giving breathing space to heal the wounds of war, rehabilitate and reconstruct the economy and return the country to constitutionalism.

In his justification of the no-party movement system, Museveni argued that political parties are necessary in societies with social economic cleavages, but, since African countries have only one class, the peasant class, they do not need parties (Museveni, 1997:195). Movement democracy was defined as 'popular councils, parliament and adequate standards of living (Kasfir, 2000:68)

As a result, political trust has been widely studied as subjective support given to a regime and it is widely accepted that support is associated with evaluation of institutions. Such evaluations are made of government and its affiliated institutions in respect to its policies, promises, efficiency, fairness and justice (Miller and Listhaug, 1990). The core meaning of trust here is that institutions act in the interest of the trusting and low levels of trust are seen as symptomatic of alienation between the government and citizens, signaling a crisis of legitimacy.

Economically, although the country is growing, income inequalities between the rich and poor are on a rise, and reports of constant corruption in public institutions continue to appear in the media. Subsequent elections have seen increasing tensions with reports of massive rigging, and matters have not helped by severe inflation, poor infrastructural developments and increasing unemployment rates especially among the youth. Many are now questioning the 'fundamental change' and research by Afro barometer (2012) indicates that 72% of Ugandans believe that the country is heading in the 'wrong' direction. Against such a background, it important to assess the reasons behind these perceptions, and to what extent they can be explained by perceptions of institutional performance.

In Uganda, the trust in institutions depend on the performance of those particular institutions and their delivery to people’s needs. In addition, a number of citizens who do not feel the services of the government institutions often criticize them and in the end lose credibility. There are however those in support of the ruling government but keep an open mind on the development of the country. This is so because they often come out to criticize the government where there is lack of service delivery. According to Inglehart (1997, pp. 162-163), two factors are essential for a stable democracy: a trusting culture and legitimacy.

Generally, political trust is linked to political support, and also to citizens’ perceptions of regime legitimacy (Hetherington, 1998; Miller, 1974). Often, political trust is conceptualized as an indicator for political support at an institutional level (Norris, 2011, p. 44), Here, “state legitimacy” is understood with Gilley’s (2006, p. 500) definition as whether citizens perceive the state” as rightfully holding and exercising political power”. Newton (2007, p. 355) states: “Institutional confidence comes close to the concept of legitimation…” thus corresponding with Hutchison and Johnson’s (2011, p. 738) definition of institutional trust:” … as society’s overall confidence in the political institutions that comprise the state”. In this paper, we concentrate on Ugandan people’s trust in six core institutions: The President, Parliament, electoral commission, local government, the police, and the courts of laws which literally form the entire government.

Perception of Government Delivery of Basic Services

Politics and public policy takes on a critical redistributive dimension when politicians and bureaucrats are charged with not only implementing prepackaged policies but also collecting money and deciding how it should be spent. They are faced with fundamental trade-offs, and the question becomes as to whether government invests in policies demanded by the general public, or those that feed the interest of elites to keep them in power. A government's ability to successfully resolve this dilemma is an important part of what good performance is. A variation to this discussion is whether some services are more significant than others in creating satisfaction and trust. Different groups of people may be concerned with different services, in lieu of their needs and expectations. the aim is to try and understand citizens' perceptions about how government is performing in the deliverly of basic social services such as education, health and roads. (Miller and Borreli cited in Hetherington, 1998) argue that the farther citizens' priorities are from where they perceive those of government to be, the less they will trust government.

In other words, Positive perceptions of government performance in basic services may lead to positive evaluations of overall government performance and trust, there by leading to a democratic government.

Perceptions of Tax Payment

Tax effort represents the transfer of individual resources from the population to the government. Taxation is imagined as one of the ways that legitimacy and trust in government can be manifested. Tax effort also reflects the perceptions that citizens have towards their government's ability to perform its functions (Fjeldstad, 2004). People's willingness to pay tax is likely to be based on their perceptions of whether government is doing its functions and reflects their trust in government capabilities. Consequently, individuals have to believe that these resources will be utilised effectively in order to pay tax, or that non-compliance will result in substantial consequence. Individuals willing to part with resources make this choice based on both experiences and expectations of institutional performance (Hutchinson and Johnson, 2011). This measure represents a rational and non-normative base for reflecting on individual evaluations regarding government performance.

So if tax payments are properly used, this may inspire people to be willing to pay more, and put t trust in the government. On the other hand, if tax money is misused, people will be unwilling to pay more tax. And hence the distrust in the government.

Perceptions of Political Stability

In Uganda, evaluations of government performance cannot be complete without addressing the issue of national security. The country has been scourged by war for decades, and, although there is relative peace now, there are still pockets of instability. Observers of Ugandan politics have always argued that one of the reasons the current regime has been able to keep in power is because it has managed to maintain a semblance of security within a once chaotic nation (Krutz and Logan, 2011). The security factor therefore becomes a key indicator of performance. Perceptions of political stability by citizens, in this case I assumed would 34 override other factors in evaluating government performance, and positive perceptions would thus lead to more trust among citizens. Perceptions of political stability may lead to more human security and societal peace and may lead to more trust in the government by citizens.


Accountability is the degree to which governments have to explain or justify what they have done or failed to do (Swianiewicz, 2000) One of the theoretical advantages in a democratic system is improved information about citizens' needs and preferences, but there is no guarantee that leaders will actually act on these preferences unless they feel some sort of accountability to citizens (WorldBank, 2001). Elections are the most common and powerful form of accountability, but even these must be free and fair for them to hold any meaning for citizens. The assumption here is that the more citizens feel they can hold the central government accountable for its actions, the more they will have trust in it and the more powerless they feel regarding what government does or does not do, the less they will trust it.

Measuring Political Trust

Scholars have argued that political trust is influenced by a number of factors, including but not limited to, the extent and nature of media exposure (ibid), the level of political engagement, political leaning, ethnic alliances and a number of other social demographic characteristics. Media exposure is important because the distribution of negative or positive information about government institutions affects the way in which individuals make performance evaluations about government. This information, becomes the basis for forming judgments regarding the expected role of government against the perceived outputs. The discrepancy between the two may result into reduced trust.

Judicial System

There is a high risk of corruption in Uganda’s judicial sector, in part due to political interference. About one in six companies indicate the court system is a major constraint to their ability to do business (ES 2013). Citizens in uganda do not believe that the judiciary is sufficiently independent (GCR 2016-2017), and bribes and irregular payments in return for favorable judicial decisions are common (GCR 2015-2016).

Nearly half of Ugandans perceive the judiciary as corrupt and also, those who have come into contact with the courts in the past indicate having paid a bribe (GCB 2015). Bribery and political influence in Uganda’s judicial system is mainly prevalent in the lower courts; the administration of justice is hampered by inadequate funding and staffing (BTI 2016). Ugandan courts generally uphold the sanctity of contracts, though judicial corruption and procedural delays caused by well-connected defendants pose a serious challenge; government agencies are at times reluctant to honor judicial remedies issued by the courts (ICS 2017).

Uganda’s chief Justice Bart Katureebe has on several occasions acknowledged the extent of corruption in the country and the fact that it also infiltrates the judiciary. Katureebe indicated that in several cases, corrupt judicial officers have been found guilty by the courts, but were ultimately set free by the same corrupt system (The Ugandan Today, Apr. 2017).

The Police

The primary role of police in Uganda according to the country’s constitution is to keep law and order. However, Citizens face a high risk of corruption when dealing with the Ugandan police. Corruption and impunity are pervasive in Uganda’s police force (HRR 2016; BTI 2016). On several occasions, people have indicated that they do not have sufficient trust in the reliability of the police services to protect them from crime and to enforce the law and order in the country as their primary duty (GCR 2016-2017).

A 2015 Uganda bureau of statistics report reveals, that Three in four Ugandans perceive the police to be corrupt (UBOS 2015). Over half of firms pay for private security and one in five firms indicate that crime, theft, and disorder are major constraints to their ability to operate. (ES 2013). The police are among the country’s most corrupt institutions, but its members rarely face investigations (BTI 2016). The mechanism for reporting police abuses and misconduct is generally ineffective (GI 2017). Reason being, that you report a case today and the culprit is arrested and released on police bond immediately even without your knowledge.

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical framework adopted for this study comes from Easton's (1965) concept of specific support, which includes two main elements; process and output. The process part concerns how decision making processes are organized, in terms of rules followed, competence of government personnel and participation of affected parties (Christensen and Lægreid, 2006:492). Process based specific trust may be high even when the output is unfavorable for the actors affected, as long as the process is perceived as appropriate.

Output based specific support concerns the question of who gets what, and means that people's trust in government depend on the perceived gains, irrespective of the process. This thinking informs the performance model of trust in government, which treats institutions as devices for achieving certain purposes. Institutionalists treat trust as a dependent variable, mainly arising out of citizen’s perceptions of fair, just and impartial public institutions

Suggestions for Further Study

Future studies should concentrate more on subjective orientations towards political system and specify more the process that link policy dissatisfaction to political distrust. It would also be important differentiate between attitudes towards incumbent office holders, outcomes of ongoing policies and rejection of the whole political system.

This review focused only on perceptions of urban population in Uganda which is relatively more informed and politically active would make sense to do a comparative study between all the districts in the country to see what similarities or discrepancies they have towards policy satisfaction and trust in institutions.


In conclusion, since institutional performance influences trust in political institutions, better performance is likely to generate more trust. In contrast, if demographic variables had been found to greatly influence trust, then demographic change would have been essential to foster trust and sustain democracy. This however is not the case in Uganda as found in other contexts too. Demographic change is not possible by deliberate institutional and social change. In contrast, institutional performance can be improved through political commitment and institutional design.

Arguably, it is difficult to govern in a system without political trust, and in the long run, it becomes difficult for a regime to survive without a majority of its citizens offering political support (Hetherington, 1998; Miller, 1974, p. 951). Low levels of institutional trust are concerning: it tells us something is wrong in a democratic system (Listhaug & Wiberg, 1995, p. 299). The more trustworthy the government appears, the more likely it is that citizens will comply with government demands, such as taxes and policies (Levi & Stoker, 2000, p. 491). This can be seen in relation to Dalton’s (2004, p. 165) argument: if citizens believe that the government acts in peoples’ best interest, they will believe their actions to be legitimate, and thus that they should comply. Therefore, a strong distrust can undermine compliance, and make it difficult to govern (Levi & Stoker, 2000).

It is necessary to emphasize that scholars disagree on what position political trust has in a democracy, and there is a disagreement on whether low levels and decline in political trust is harmful for democracies (e.g. Dalton, 2004; Norris, 2011; Warren, 1999). This discrepancy can be seen as a consequence of fundamental difference of opinion. On the one hand, Hardin (1999, pp. 23-24) argues that it is sensible to distrust institutions, because citizens are not in a position to trust these institutions anyway.

Miller (1974, p. 951) points out that growing distrust may lead to “…'throwing the mischiefs out'”. On the other hand, there are scholars such as Hetherington (1998, pp. 803-804), who argue that high levels of trust are good for any democracy, and without it, any problems in a democracy will worsen. In many ways, political trust is what Mishler and Rose (1997, p. 419) characterizes as double-edged: “Democracy requires trust but also presupposes an active and vigilant citizenry with a healthy skepticism for government and willingness, should the need arise, to suspend trust and assert control over government”.

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