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