Whereas in liberal democratic political systems, the political party in power can be stronger than the individual leader, in Uganda’s case the president wields more power than the ruling party. In fact, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) political party is more of a one-man project not least because of the marginalization of many of the freedom fighters since 1986. President Museveni is also still the party chairperson of the NRM since 1986. This essay argues that the political transition in Uganda has failed to take off because of two major reasons. First, the process is not backed by forces that are greater than President Museveni to pressurize the president into considering transition. Secondly, the current president does not feel the pressure or the need to engage in political transition talks because he does not see how he gains from the process more than he is currently gaining from being the president. Therefore, all efforts to have a discussion on political transition in Uganda have been futile in so far as the power structure in Uganda is either uninterested or unwilling to consider the possibility of a political transition.
Political transitions in Uganda
Uganda has yet to experience a peaceful transfer of political power since independence in 1962. When Uganda gained independence in 1962, the Kabaka of Buganda, Sir Edward Muteesa II become the president and Milton Obote the prime minister. On 24th May 1966, Obote sent army units to invade the Palace of King Muteesa, forced him into exile and assumed the office of president and commander in chief.[i] Obote ruled till 1971 when his army commander, General Idi Amin Dada took over power in a military coup when he was attending a commonwealth meeting in Singapore.[ii] Amin then ruled for eight turbulent years and after his fall in 1979, Professor Yusuf Lule and Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa had short tenures in office, each leaving the office unceremoniously. In 1980, Uganda held the highly disputed elections that ushered in Obote for the second time.[iii] He ruled till July 1985 when his army general, Tito Okello Lutwa overthrew him and assumed his office. His rule was marked by a conflict involving several insurgent movements and in January 1986, Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Army (NRA) took over power.
As Obama noted in his speech at the AU in 2015, Africa needs strong institutions not strong men.[iv] However, in the case of Uganda, we have strong men and not strong institutions. President Museveni has over shadowed the institutions of the country so that all the gains by the NRM in its 32 years reign rest on “fragile foundations.”[v] In other words, in a bid to control the institutions in Uganda, President Museveni has made these institutions weak, be it the judiciary, parliament and the security apparatus. For instance, the 10th parliament (2016-21) has a total of 447 members of parliament (MPs) who are mandated to vote. The NRM has over 303 MPs and over 66 Independent MPs leaning towards the NRM party,[vi] more than three quarters of the national parliament. The president takes advantage of his party’s big numbers to maintain a strong grip on the nation’s parliament which has led to the passing of controversial laws such as the Public Order Management Act 2013 and most recently the constitutional amendment to remove the age limit in December 2017. In total, by the end of 2017, over 65 articles have been amended in the Constitution of Uganda since 1995, the year when the constitution was promulgated.[vii] These constitutional amendments delay political transition in Uganda, first with the removal of term limits in 2005 and removal age limit in 2017, paving way for President Museveni to stand again in 2021.
All these constitutional amendments have been characterized by controversy and violence,[viii] leading to questions as to who actually benefits from the amendments. Such constitutional amendments in favor of the incumbent president have also successfully happened in Chad, Algeria, Sudan, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Congo Brazzaville, Rwanda and Eretria. There have been unsuccessful attempts to this effect in Burundi and Burkina Faso but with dire consequences. The NRM’s inability to adhere to the very constitution that was made under its regime is one of the reasons delaying political transition in Uganda.
It can be argued that the political environment in Uganda is as much a product of the NRM regime as it is a result of international politics. In a way the government in Uganda has positioned itself to be a formidable player in the politics and security of the East and Horn of Africa. Knowingly or unknowingly, this has also placed the Ugandan government in a position to not only influence but also be influenced by the international community on the governance and security affairs of the region. Achille Mbembe has argued that the international community in its efforts to be a global proponent of democracy has ended up creating centralized despotisms and undemocratic systems of control even in cases where they are strongly in denial.[ix] This is visible in the case of Uganda.
Other scholars have argued that the history of Ugandan society including the post-colonial period is embedded in violence leading all political transitions to be affected by violence.[x] All successive regimes resorted to the use of violence to control the social, economic and political spheres of society since Uganda’s independence in 1962. Arguably, the NRM used violence to propel itself to power though with a promise to deliver a democratic, participatory and inclusive governance leading some critics to argue that only violence can usher in a political transition in Uganda.[xi] They argue that the NRM government having come to power through use of violence, only understands the language of violence.[xii]
Nevertheless, during the early life of the NRM regime, there were efforts to ensure that the emerging political dispensation acquired democratic credentials. For instance, the making of the 1995 constitution of Uganda was praised for its widely consultative and inclusive nature. [xiii] The 1995 constitution had two ‘safety valves’ to ensure a rupture from past political practices and which also spoke to the modalities of incumbency and transfer of political power. The first was article 105 of the constitution that specified the two-term limit of 5 years each for the president. Term limits were meant deter the tendency for incumbents to extend their term in office as exemplified by former president Idi Amin.[xiv] This article of the constitution was scrapped through a constitutional amendment in 2005. The second one was Article 102(b) of the constitution that barred people over the age of 75 years from contesting for the office of the president. This too was also amended in December 2017, though during the same constitutional amendment the two-term limit for the office of the president was re-instated.
The NRM regime has consistently and progressively become intolerant of political dissent, even within its own party. For instance during the caucus meeting at Kyankwanzi in 2015, Evelyn Anite, a young NRM MP representing Koboko Municipality read a motion that sought to front President Museveni as NRM’s frag bearer in the 2016 elections. During the meeting, Anite obviously working at the behest of president Museveni warned “leaders within the party with presidential ambitions from pursuing schemes that compromise cohesion, unity, breed factionalism…”[xv] The message was directed at Amama Mbabazi, an NRM veteran, then prime minister as well as General Secretary for the NRM party for nursing presidential ambitions. He would later break away from the NRM and contest for the president in 2016 on an independent ticket. This intolerance is also reflected in the long list of people that have broken ties with the NRM for holding views contrary to those of president Museveni include Col Kiiza Besigye, Amanya Mushega, Miria Matembe, Bidandi Ssali, General David Sejusa, etc.[xvi] The state is now maintained by use of force and violence with little room for dialogue despite many calls for an honest and inclusive discussion on the future of Uganda.
One of such calls for a national dialogue was issued by the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) and elders under the auspices of The Elders’ Forum Uganda (TEFU)[xvii]. However Ugandans have held dialogues for political transition before though with less success. One instance is the Uganda constitutional conference in Lancaster, London in 1961 that laid the ground for Uganda’s independence in 1962. The Moshi Conference held in Tanzania in 1979 among Ugandan exiles led to the ouster Idi Amin, and the Nairobi Peace talks in 1985 followed the overthrow of Obote II’s government.[xviii] Though the call issued by the TEFU carries it with the promise of making this a consultative and participatory process for all Ugandans, one cannot help but be skeptical about the ability of the current regime to have an honest conversation given the absence of a pushing force or fear of imminent danger if dialogue is not given a chance.
People Power Movement: Force for Political Transition?
The current push for political transition in Uganda is manifested under the people power movement which is hinged on article 1 of the constitution of the republic of Uganda which states that “power belongs to the people”. The people power movement is led by the Hon. Kyagulanyi Ssentamu aka Bobi Wine. He is popularly referred to as “Ghetto President” alluding to his humble origins in the slums of Kamwokya and his later rise to become one of the most popular musicians in Uganda and East Africa in general. He is now a Member of Parliament for Kyadondo East and a popular politician. At the age of 36 and having joined politics not more than 2 years ago, Hon. Kyagulanyi is seen as the face for the people power movement though the movement is led by other young people in parliament especially those from Uganda’s opposition.
Hon. Kyagulanyi has been criticized for being young, politically inexperienced, and inarticulate. He is also criticized for having no clear plan for Uganda. Ironically however, it could be argued that it is these very criticisms that constitute his strong points as far as his supporters the majority of whom are youth are concerned. Uganda is the most youthful country in East Africa with a median age estimated at about 16 years, and about 80 % of the population below the age of 35 years.[xix] The rhetoric of NRM’s role in liberating Uganda and the deployment of statistics by the NRM government comparing Uganda in 1986 with the present, is increasingly rejected by Ugandan youth. The youth are craving for something new and detached from the old regime. Hon Kyagulanyi offers this opportunity to move on from a political system dominated by the old generation of leaders and “revolutionaries” or “freedom fighters” as they fondly refer to themselves.
It should be noted that this is not the first time that politicians in Uganda have called for a popular movement to oust the NRM regime. Col Kiiza Besigye has always sought to educate the general populace about their rights, their freedoms, calling them to rise up and recognize that “power belongs to the people” as the constitution of Uganda reads. The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) current manifesto (2016-2021) is hinged on the tenets of democracy, popular participation, accountability and rule of law. However, the opposition in Uganda and Besigye in particular has only appealed to a particular class of people especially the educated middle class and urban dwellers. Unlike the majority of people in rural areas who are comfortable in their situation and are not willing to exchange peace and security that the NRM regime offers for the principles of democracy, rule of law and accountability.
People power is an idea that has been popularized by social media and therefore widely spread among the youth, the urban dwellers and those that can access social media. Therefore, just like the other efforts to mobilize Ugandans before, the people power movement lacks sustainability and a clear roadmap on how to capture and retain power, which suggests that this movement is bound to pass without necessarily making any long impact on Ugandan politics.
In order to impact on the political transition process in Uganda, the people power movement needs to align itself either as a party or part of the already existing political parties in Uganda such as the Democratic Party (DP), Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) or Uganda People’s Congress (UPC). Alternatively, Hon. Kyagulanyi who is the face of the movement can align himself with a political party. There is also a need to include the older generation of leaders in opposition so that the movement gains knowledge and experience and bridges the generation gap. Lastly, there is need to come up with a clear road map and action plan on what the people power movement stands for and how this struggle is going to be sustained to mobilize the masses and popularize the movement till the 2021 elections. Without these clear guidelines, by 2021 when the next elections in Uganda are held, people power movement will have disappeared in thin air.
As already observed, the government in Uganda has been less open to the subject on political transition and usually dismisses such questions once put to him publicly.[xx] According to government officials, Ugandans are always free to elect their leaders during the free and fair elections that the Government organizes. However, even within the NRM party, there is no deliberate effort to groom the young people for future positions or talk about the future of NRM once the current president is out of office. This inability to groom young leaders within the party and in Ugandan politics as well is a big challenge. The young people do not necessarily need to be groomed, the country needs to have an enabling environment where young people can openly and freely compete for political office or show political ambition without political reprisal.
Though Ugandan politics has been conceived and sustained by violence, Ugandans have always found time to sit and have open conversations about the future of their country. The current call for a national dialogue is led by the IRCU and TEFU who have produced a national dialogue process framework paper. This needs to be adopted by the executive, and if possible should lead to the creation of an independent body to oversee it with religious, political, CSO and local leaders represented. The national dialogue needs also to be widely circulated among all sections of Ugandans so that they can be aware of the positive move to political transition which will dispel all current violent actions aimed at political transition. This should however be seen as a first step. Practically, there is a need to make deliberate efforts to integrate the interests of key individuals and groups in the power structure for instance in the form immunity against persecution as an enticement to join the dialogue process. There is also a need to make Uganda Electoral commission (UEC) more independent and inclusive through electoral reforms.
In order for political transition to be effective, there should be very powerful forces pushing for it. These forces can be the individual leader in power, the political party in power, a revolutionary movement, the army or even the international community. In the case of Uganda, the forces pushing for a political transition suffer from several weaknesses. The continued stability and strength of the government in Uganda suggests that a political transition will require the involvement of actors such as the international community or the Ugandan army. Until this latter scenario comes to pass, the question of political transition in Uganda will only remain a mirage for many Ugandans.
Tumwebaze Noah is an independent research consultant based in Uganda and currently working with Wasafiri Consulting to tackle complex situations with Innovative solutions. His professional and research interest include human trafficking, Violent extremism, peace and conflict studies and governance. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com.
[i] Mutibwa, Phares. Uganda since Independence: A Story of Unfulfilled Hopes. Trenton, New Jersey: African World Press, 1992.
[iii] Okoth, P.G. ‘’The Military in Transition to Democracy in Uganda.’’ In Uganda: Landmarks in Rebuilding a Nation, edited by P. Langseth et.al, 258-265. Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 1997.
[iv] “Remarks by President Obama to the People of Africa” July 28th 2015. Available at https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/07/28/remarks-president-obama-people-africa. Accessed 15 September 2018.
[vi] The Kampala Dispatch. “Understanding ‘Age Limit’ numbers in parliament of Uganda” September 26, 2017, http://dispatch.ug/2017/09/26/understanding-age-limit-numbers-parliament-uganda/ (accessed 12 September 2018).
[vii] Kiggundu, Edris. “Analysis: 65 articles of the constitution amended since 1995.” Nile Post, November 21, 2017, https://nilepost.co.ug/2017/11/21/analysis-65-articles-of-constitution-amended-since-1996/ (accessed 15 September 2018).
[viii] Mahr, Krista, “Ugandan parliament descends into violence over bill allowing President Museveni to extend his 31-year term.” The Telegraph, December 20, 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/20/uganda-parliament-erupts-chaos-age-limit-bill/ (accessed 13 September 2018).
[ix] Mbembe, Achille. On the Postcolony. University of California Press, 2001.
[x] Mushemeza, Elijah Dickens. “Issues of Violence in the Democratisation Process in Uganda.” Africa Development / Afrique et Développement 26, No. 1/2 (2001): 55-72.
[xii] Ibid., Achiles Mbembe and Elijah Mushemeza
[xiii] Inter-Religious Council of Uganda “The National Dialogue Process Framework Paper,” 2017, pg 10
[xiv] Okuku, Juma Anthony, “Beyond Third Term Politics: Constitutional Amendments and Museveni’s quest for Life Presidency in Uganda.” Institute for Global Dialogue, 2005, https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep07748 (accessed 18 October 2018).
[xv] The Daily Monitor. Thursday 13 February 2014. Editorial, “Political Transition: Uganda comes first.” February 13, 2014.
[xvi] Izama, Angelo & Michael Wilkerson. “Uganda: Museveni ’s triumph and weakness.” Journal of Democracy 22 (2011): 64-78.
[xvii] Ibid, Inter-Religiuos Council of Uganda.
[xviii] Kiplagat, Bethuel. “Reaching the 1985 Nairobi peace agreement.’’ Accord Issue 11, 2011, http://www.c-r.org/accord-article/reaching-1985-nairobi-agreement-2002
[xix] Uganda Youth Report, 2016. Available at http://www.youthpolicy.org/factsheets/country/uganda/
[xx] The Kampala Dispatch. “It’s not time to discuss succession – President Museveni” March 22, 2017, http://dispatch.ug/2017/03/22/not-time-discuss-succession-president-museveni/. (accessed 23 September 2018).