The 1980s saw the emergence of popular participation as a mechanism for promoting good governance in developing countries Good governance was seen as crucial to efforts to improve the welfare of poor people in countries where elites had hitherto benefited disproportionately from policies conceived at the top without reference to ordinary citizens at the bottom. Donor pressure helped accelerate the change. In Uganda these developments coincided with the rise to power of a government that sought to democratise the country's politics. A major plank in the democratisation agenda was the establishment of a participatory system of local administration in which ordinary citizens, facilitated by local councils, would participate in public affairs and influence the way government functioned. These aspirations coincided with those of the donor community and enthusiasts of popular participation. This article is an account of the evolution of village councils and popular participation from 1986, when the National Resistance Movement came to power in Uganda, to 1996. It shows that while at the beginning the introduction of local councils seized the public's imagination leading to high levels of participation, with time, public meetings as consultative fora succumbed to atrophy due to participation fatigue and unwarranted assumptions about the feasibility and utility of popular participation as an administrative and policy-making devise. It calls for political history and the socio-cultural context to be taken into account in efforts to promote participation. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.