Sixty years after Independence, Uganda’s transition to genuine democracy has stalled

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Sixty years ago, on the 9 of October 1962, Uganda’s first Prime Minister Dr. Apolo Milton Obote made these remarks in his stirring inaugural independence speech at Kololo Airstrip:

“…first, we require political stability. My government will seek to maintain that stability, by strict maintenance of law and order, by retaining the confidence of the voters, and by upholding the freedom of the individual…”

Ugandans are still hoping for a government that will deliver on these values: a free and democratic state that embodies respect for the inherent dignity of human persons and the direct participation by citizens in not just choosing their leaders, but also holding them accountable.

However, both under Obote’s rule and after, this dream has been repeatedly dashed. Instead, immediately after independence, Uganda was ushered into a cycle of contested electoral outcomes, abrogation of the 1962 constitution, unprecedented authoritarian rule, civil wars, and military invasion, which caused a near-total collapse of the state and led to eight violent change of governments within a period of twenty-four years (from 1962-1986).

Shortly after the overthrow of President Tito Okello Lutwa’s government in 1986, President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni pointed out in his inaugural fundamental speech that:

“…the first point in our political programme is democracy for the people of Uganda. It is the birthright to which all people of Uganda are entitled…”

Again, these words reignited the expectations within the population after many years (1966-1986) of despair and also evoked a passionate desire for a fundamental change of the system of governance into a truly democratic one. Again, these dreams were to be disappointed.

Two years later, the Uganda Constitutional Commission was established to embark on the constitution-making process which lasted for over seven years. This culminated in a home-grown constitution being adopted on 8 October 1995 which was a major step towards the democratization of the country. The constitution contains elaborate national objectives and directive principles of state policy which emphasize, among others, rule of law, observance of fundamental human rights and freedoms, and democratic governance.

Aside from this, there was also a consensus among the framers of the constitution to provide for both presidential term and age limits in the constitution as checks on the abuse of executive power and as critical guarantees against a “life presidency”.

Unfortunately, the consensus embodied in the 1995 constitution was subsequently ripped apart. For instance, in 2005, when President Museveni should have served his last term, he bribed his way to secure a majority in the Parliament to amend Article 105 (2) which would later allow him to run for presidency beyond the presidential term limit (10 years).

In 2017, the constitution was amended once again in his favor, to remove the presidential age limit (75 years) under Article 102(b). This undermining of presidential term and age limits in favor of President Museveni was perhaps the pivotal turning point in a broader pattern of weakening the rule of law as well as the checks on executive power.

No wonder, it is now proving almost impossible to dislodge him from power through an election given his self-given and excessive executive authority.

More worryingly, the state seems more intent to consolidate its political power through the enactment of draconian laws which criminalize dissent and suppress civil liberties. In this recent article, I argued that such laws instil a climate of fear and breed self-censorship amongst critical voices, civil society, and political opposition which is gravely injurious to the freedom of expression and consequently to democracy.

It is this persistent impunity by our overly powerful leaders that has laid a foundation of uncertainty around the construction of a true democracy, even though the country’s constitution recognises it as an ideal system of governance. This impunity is not new: the current regime has inherited it from the previous regimes in the post-independence moment.

However, what makes it jarring at the present juncture is the relationship between the reality on the ground and the ideal as set out in the constitution. Instead of that idea, we see a government that for all its rhetoric of believing in order and the rule of law, is both contributing to and sustained by impunity.

As we pause to celebrate Uganda’s 60 years of “freedom” from British rule, we must remember that the freedom was not a mere assertion of nationhood: implicit in that notion was a deeper idea about how to conduct politics in a way that reflects the will of the Ugandan people. While our ability to sustain legal independence gives us pride and satisfaction, our inability to consolidate democracy – and hence to attain true freedom – should be a matter of deep concern and reflection.

Bwambale Asiimwe Micheal (@MicBwambale) is a human rights lawyer at the Refugee Law Project-Center for Forced Migrants, at Makerere University School of Law.

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