The coming crisis in Uganda

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For our Friday read, Moses Khisa discusses the coming political crisis in Uganda, and what the future has in story for President Yoweri Museveni, and the ruling NRM.

My new journal article argues that Uganda – a previously highly regarded reformist African state – is facing a deep crisis in its politics.

Incumbent President Yoweri Museveni has dug in. He wants to rule for life. To stroll on and stay put in state house, Museveni has had to run roughshod of important constitutional and institutional safe guards, checks and balances that were enshrined in what was a relatively progressive and liberal national constitution. Museveni quest for life-presidencyis a continent-wide trend, to be sure. In Uganda it has eroded the minimum political consensus embodied in Uganda’s 1995 constitution.

In basic democratic theory we know that modern democratic government, of whatever stripe and tenor, must be anchored on a set of institutions, the rules of the game that structure and condition actor-behaviour. Rules of the game play a critical role in creating a culture of democracy being the only game in town. The national constitution is the primary source of the rules that translate into functional institutions, governmental bodies and state agencies.

But how do rules of the game come about? First, they can be imposed, as in colonial conquest and forceful occupation or through autocratic leadership in the form of a military regime. However, imposition or not having a negotiated institutional landscape is untenable and an antidote to democracy. It is a recipe for contestation, protestation and even violent confrontation.

The second, and sustainable, way of establishing rules of the game is through negotiation, compromise and, in some respects, co-optation involving key political actors and their constituents. This is the more likely path to durable democratic government. The essence of it is to arrive at some minimum political consensus that embodies the aspirations and wishes of key political actors and the wider public.

Inclusive politics is crucial in enabling the forging of minimum consensus which in turn can produce a set of progressive institutions (chiefly the national constitution), the basis for a democratic and progressive political system.

This minimum consensus turns on the basic norms and beliefs about what is acceptable and what is considered outside of the bounds of political activity and engagement – that is, political culture. Without a set of ethos and beliefs about what is considered within the bounds of demonstrably justifiable and acceptable behaviour, it is not possible to sustain democratic governance.

In the early year of Uganda’s NRM, under the broad-based system, there was an attempt to build minimum consensus on the basic rules, the culmination of which was the 1995 constitution. It provided for several crucial checks and balances. It granted autonomy to parliament and independence to the judiciary, making both branches of government fairly functional and key pillars in nascent democratic governance. Also, there was assurance of public accountability through a slew of accountability institutions ranging from parliament’s public accounts committee to the Inspectorate of Government and the Auditor General.

But, as I argue in the journal article, based on extensive interviews with keen observers and actual political actors along with my own years of closely following Ugandan politics, the minimum consensus embodied in the 1995 constitution has been ripped apart. This started in the mid-2000s with assaults on the constitution, primarily the deletion of presidential term limits.

Because of the blight hovering over the 1995 constitution over the continuation of the ban on multiparty politics, pressure had intensified in late 1990s and early 2000s to rectify this glaring anomaly, cleverly packaged as a ‘no-party’ democracy, an oxymoron of sorts. But in a clear case of engineering and manipulation the return to multiparty politics in 2005 was used as a bargaining chip by Mr Museveni to remove term limits. The turnaround by Museveni to embracing multiparty politics was no more than a tactical move. Since 2006 Uganda has been on downward spiral.

My central argument is that by undermining the 1995 constitutional order in pursuit of regime survival, Museveni and the NRM have simultaneously eroded minimum consensus and triggered political polarisation. Successive election cycles tend to boil down to defeating versus defending Museveni. There is little regard for policy alternatives and how best to move the country forward: it is a matter of aggenda (let him go) versus taagenda (he’ll not go).

This state of affairs has produced toxic politics and a highly adversarial relationship between the political opposition and security agencies especially the police, for long commanded by a highly partisan Inspector General of Police. The sum of it is that state security and police agencies have been weaponized in a manner that places them squarely at the centre of political contestations.

In addition to assaults on the constitution, the imperatives of clinging to power have necessitated undermining the institutional spaces created through and granted protections by the constitution. In the judiciary, for example, the appointment of ‘cadre judges’ became a pronounced act after 2005 most egregiously represented in Justice Steven Kavuma who for years headed the constitutional court and controversially served as the deputy chief justice (in fact at one point he was simultaneously acting deputy chief justice and acting chief justice!)

What is more, through blatant gerrymandering, out-right rigging and use of state patronage resources to manufacture a super majority in the house, the parliament has been grossly watered down and twisted to be at the service of regime survival.

The breakdown of minimum elite consensus has been compounded by the war on terror which Museveni has astutely used to continue positioning himself as a security president, need by the west and trusted at home. The upshot is that the imperatives of security are used to criminalise otherwise legitimate political activities. The tension and uncertainty during election time and the fact that key opposition leaders are arrested too often all underline the crisis the country faces.


Moses Khisa is an Assistant Professor of Political Science in the School of Public and International Affairs at North Carolina State University with a joint appointment in Africana Studies

One thought on “The coming crisis in Uganda

  1. I personally think that Museveni is probably the best thing to have happened to Uganda. I say so because Museveni is showing Ugandans and Africans generally, that is, if they have eyes to see, that Museveni is not the main issue, but a symptom. Museveni is a symptom of a much larger problem in Uganda; it is the reason he came to power in the first place albeit by force of arms, it is the reason he has successfully clung to power for so long and will most likely continue to cling to power for many years to come. And, in all likelihood, if the problem is not resolved soon enough, Uganda will have another Museveni 2.0 to succeed Museveni 1.0; and Museveni 2.0 will be 7 times worse than Museveni 1.0.

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