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Volume 11 Number 4
New Delhi, Winter 2004

Uganda at the crossroads of constitutional democracy
Ejoyi M.C. Xavier
Senior Research Assistant, East Africa Police Reforms Project, CHRI

The East African country of Uganda is best known around the world for nurturing the brutal dictatorship of Iddi Amin, numerous civil wars and more recently for its remarkable progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Under the National Resistance Movement (NRM) of Yoweri Museveni, Uganda has made significant progress in democracy in the last eighteen years.

Today, Uganda faces a critical moment of constitutional review that could strengthen good governance or revert the little gains achieved over those years. The 1995 Constitution is the most comprehensive and participatory in comparison to the constitution drawn up in 1962 at the point of independence and the 1967 hastily drawn constitution.

Ugandans rallied around from all walks of life to register their views in drafting the 1995 Constitution. The particular attention given to marginalised groups: women, youth and the disabled - were unprecedented in Uganda's political history. The countrywide consultative meetings, workshops and seminars educated ordinary citizens on the issues at stake.

Several institutions of political accountability were established by the Constitution, notably among them were the office of the Government Ombudsman and the Uganda Human Rights Commission. The local government system and the decentralised service delivery is the most explicit representation of democracy in the history of Uganda. For many Ugandans whose aspirations were dented by three decades of misrule and civil war, there was renewed hope.

However, all isn't going right for the new Constitution. Owing to the controversies that arose regarding certain issues in the Constituent Assembly, the Constitution adopted transitional provisions that were to be reviewed through referenda or amendments. These transitional provisions as contained in Chapter 19 of the Constitution have merely aggravated the problems rather than solving them. The most notable of these provisions is Article 269, which proves the monopolistic attitude of the ruling. It states:

"On commencement of this Constitution and until Parliament makes laws regulating the activities of political organisations in accordance with Article 73 of this Constitution, political activities may continue except-

  • Opening and operating branches

  • Holding delegates conferences

  • Holding public rallies

  • Sponsoring or offering a plat form to or in way campaigning for or against a candidate for any public elections.

  • Carrying on any activity that may interfere with the Movement political system for the time being in force."

The opposition political parties and observers also regard Article 269 that bans all party activities as a 'satanic verse' in the Constitution and as an infringement on their fundamental rights and freedoms. The NRM abused its majority in the Constituent Assembly to retain the much-contested clause.

Ideologues of NRM have always maintained that political party activities have divided Ugandans in the recent past along tribal and religious lines. As an alternative, the Movement system of Government was adopted in which Ugandans would run for political offices on 'individual merit' than on party affiliations.

The truth is that Museveni's NRM is a one party state which has been masquerading as an all-inclusive government for the last eighteen years. In the absence of any organised opposition, Museveni and his wartime cronies have joined hands to strip Uganda bare of its resources, and squandered the hard earned revenues with impunity. Although the Constitution has broadened the definition of citizenship, it outlawed dual citizenship. And despite a strong emphasis on human rights, it still enforces death penalty.

These controversies have resulted in a genuine demand by politicians, lawyers and civil society to review the Constitution. The Constitution Review Commission (CRC) was subsequently appointed by the President in 2001 to undertake this task. After two years of review, the CRC has made several recommendations that almost amounts to writing a new Constitution.

Many of the proposed amendments are not clearly based on constitutional issues, raising serious concerns on the credibility of the Commission. For example, the recommendation to hold Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Council elections on the same day is no doubt a positive suggestion as it will save Uganda a lot of money, but an issue like this doesn't fall within the parameters of a Constitutional review.

This issue can be rightly addressed by Parliament by amending the electoral statute. Similarly, recommendations like the one to adopt dual citizenship give Ugandans more freedom to exercise their fundamental rights and the proposal to reduce the pre-trial detention period of capital offences from 360 to 180 are proposals worth reviewing, however it is not the business of a Constitution Review Commission to comment on such issues.

The proposal to lift the Presidential term limits (dubbed Kisanja) is raising a fair share of controversy and threatening the gains of democracy Uganda has achieved so far. The Constituent Assembly in its wisdom had fixed Presidential term limits at 2 five-year terms.

It is now increasingly becoming clear that the Government is scheming to remove the term limits, creating an opportunity for Museveni to be President for life. Museveni, who at the end of his current term would have served, as President for twenty years -first as a transitional President and then for his two constitutional terms - is Uganda's longest serving President ever. There is also a proposal to give the President powers to dissolve Parliament whenever there is a disagreement in 'matters of confidence'.

The ceiling on Presidential tenure is contained in Article 205 (1-2) of the Constitution stating that:

" A person elected President under this Constitution shall subject clause three of this article hold office for a term of five years. And a person shall not be elected under this Constitution to hold office as president for more than two terms as prescribed by this article."

The Constitutional Review Commission recommended that this matter be referred to a national referendum. However, the Cabinet produced a white paper rejecting this position and giving the Parliament power to decide on this issue. Although this sounds a better alternative, the Government is already shelling out millions to buy the vote of 'loyal' Members of Parliament. It is pitiful that a Government that has proclaimed democracy and the rule of law has abused its authority in such a blatant manner.

If reports are to be believed, 2.5 billion Uganda shillings (a million pounds) have been used to bribe legislators. It is particularly repugnant that such huge amounts are being spent by the government on personal gains rather than for welfare activities directed at rural Ugandans. If Parliament endorses this amendment, there will be absolutism of power, contrary to the principles of democracy.

Museveni is no doubt a charismatic leader who has led the country out of the ravages of civil war to relative peace, a fact even conceded by his critics. His tiring efforts to reform the economy, education and infrastructure deserve recognition. A look at the recommendations of the CRC and the Government white paper points in two directions - to increased democracy and rule of law but also to increased authoritarianism. At the crossroads of constitutional democracy, Parliament has an uphill task to amend the clauses that support democratic gains and shun all temptation to entrench absolutism that undermines the rule of law. the question is: which road will the Parliament take?


CHRI Newsletter, Winter 2004

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Design: Print: Anshu Tejpal, Electronic: Jyoti Bhargava, CHRI; Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.