Uganda: Federalism As Lifeblood Of Democracy And Antidote To Dictatorship

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Democracy Uganda-style: Government of Museveni, by Museveni, for Museveni

At the heart of most of the major crises in Africa is the excessive concentration of power in the central government in general and in the presidency in particular, coupled with the obnoxious refusal by ruling elites to adopt proven formula to mitigate the multitude of crises that plague the continent.

The issue is neither simply intellectual nor ideological. This is principally because the dreadful crises that have bedeviled Africa have had devastating impact on the lives of the great majority of people. The seemingly oblivious understanding of the crises by the ruling elites might therefore be regarded a dereliction of duty.

Of particular significance is the fact that the many societal ills brought about by heavy concentration of power have undermined the growth of healthy socio-political and economic processes all over the continent. The ill effects of over-concentration of power have been manifested in grotesque abuses of power, lack of accountability by the ruling elites, shrinkage of political space, anemic participation in politics by the great majority of people, decline in economic production, disempowerment of people from engaging in decisions about public policies that affect their lives, erosion of fundamental freedoms and rights, stifling of innovation at the grass-root levels, and the massive and tragic flight by young people looking for greener pastures overseas.

The evidence and lessons from Africa support Lord Acton’s observation, which he made in April 1867, and which has now become a popular aphorism that, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet despite the self-evident patterns of crises in the continent, ruling elites continue to ignore the evidence. Instead, they have deployed the rhetoric of "democracy" as opium to lull the great majority of people to acquiesce to their selfish dictatorial whims.

This is ominous for the future of Africa in general and in particular for the future of young people in the continent.

It is important for African rulers to realize is that the march of history will neither wait for Africa nor make an exception for the rulers’ lack of caring and compassion for their own people in the continent. Instead, history will, if it has not already done so, indict and judge them harshly.

What is clear from the evidence of history the world over is that the most effective formula adopted to deal with concentration and corruption of power has been federalism. This has been the case whether in the USA, or India, or Sweden, where federalism has protected against central tyranny, increased citizen participation, encouraged innovations in governance at the local level, and strengthened community identity and values.

A signal merit and practical appeal about federalism is that it reconciles unity, freedom and diversity. This, among other factors, is why Freedom and Unity Front (FUF) champions federalism as the most reasonable form of governance for the country. Of equal significance about federalism is also the fact that it has played and can play a vital role in giving democracy much vitality.

But with ruling elites in Africa using the rhetoric of democracy rather cynically as if the mantra alone is enough to bring about democracy, what does the term really mean? This question is important because, if democracy is to have a positive impact on the lives of the great majority of people in Africa, we must be clear about its meaning and about its constitutive elements, as well as how it functions in particular historical contexts.

From Pericles in ancient Athens to Vaclav Havel in the contemporary Czech Republic, democracy has been used to denote a form of government in which people have direct input. But it was President Abraham Lincoln of the USA who in the Gettysburg address on November 19, 1863 refined and immortalized the term to mean government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

In the context of Uganda, as a case in point, many politicians have paid lip service to the term democracy, except for the period from 1962 to 1966, when democracy flowered in the country. It was during the period that Uganda witnessed what might be categorized as its golden period. What were some of the elements of the period, which made it very different from any other period?

It is important to note that this was a period when Uganda experimented with a federal system of government. At both the regional and district levels, there were institutions for local government and not simply local authorities, as became the norm after 1966.

The period was characterized by the commitment of Ugandan nationalist leaders to the service of society; by extensive political mobilization of the population; and by unfettered application of the rule of law and robust litigation, which Professor Ali Mazrui extravagantly termed “violent constitutionalism.”

The various component parts of federalism functioning optimally and ushered in expanding scope of freedoms for individuals and groups, intense political competition, functional institutional separation of and checks and balances on power, social peace and stability, and great confidence and sense of self assurance among Ugandans, all on a scale hitherto unknown and since then unheard of.

The optimum freedoms people enjoyed, coupled with robust and unfettered rule of law, yielded a record of impressive economic growth during the period in the country. This was evidenced, for example, by the fact that incomes grew faster during the era than they had in the previous half-century.

Okot p’Bitek, an African literary genius, has described the era as one during which “peace, prosperity, scholarship and the arts flourished.” Certainly, this was a period not only of buoyant hope and great expectations, but also of manifold achievements, as witnessed in the building of schools and hospitals and the construction of infrastructures all over the country.

However, this “golden” era in contemporary Ugandan history came to an abrupt and unceremonious end in 1966 when Kabaka (King) Edward Mutesa of Buganda kingdom, who until then had served a dual role as titular head of state and King of the Baganda, was ousted by military means. The ouster of Kabaka Mutesa also brought to end federalism in Uganda. Henceforth, the Uganda People Congress (UPC) government under Milton Obote abolished local governments and substituted them with local authorities, which were for all practical purposes an arm of the central government.

For Buganda, to add insult unto injury, not only was the Kabaka deposed and his kingdom abolished, but also the whole province was placed under emergency and curfew rule until General Idi Amin’s bloody military coup in 1971 that overthrew the UPC government.

But far more insidious to Uganda’s sense of nationhood was the characterization by some politicized intellectuals that Buganda, during the British colonial era, was engaged in sub-imperialism in the country. It is apparent that the term “sub-imperialism” was used as an epithet or a badge of dishonor to paint Buganda in a negative light vis-à-vis the rest of Uganda.

The characterization may have offered justification to petty politicians for the ill treatment of Buganda. It also poisoned the minds of young people about Buganda; and, about people from the abolished kingdom. The fact of the matter is that what politicized intellectuals termed sub-imperialism was actually delegated authority in the overarching system of indirect rule employed by the British colonial authorities at the time.

Whatever the wrongs perpetrated in Buganda after 1966 crisis, the termination of the federal system of government ushered in centralization of power on a revolutionary scale. Since then, the centralization of power has gained ominous momentum and has now, under President Yoweri Museveni, morphed into a totalitarian dictatorship.

Under President Museveni, militarization of institutions and politics has become the modus operandi of the government. This has engendered militarism as a value system that makes virtue of violence, with debilitating consequences for political processes and the human welfare of citizens in the country.

It is this new political ethos, which is bereft of ethical values, that has exacerbated structural imbalances within Uganda and contributed enormously to the multitude of crises on an unprecedented scale in the past several decades.

Having diagnosed and traced the roots of the crises in Uganda in particular, what would be the solution? Because over-concentration of power at the center has engendered much pathology in Ugandan politics, just as in the rest of Africa, Freedom and Unity Front (FUF) considers decentralization in the form of federalism an imperative prescription for the development of a healthy democracy in the country.

It is clear that federalism, as a formula for decentralization of power, not simply authority, has great relevance for fostering social peace, management of diversity, nurturing unity and optimization of freedoms. In short, it has the practical merit of translating democracy from rhetoric to an ideal of powerful meaning to the vast majority of people.

For Freedom and Unity Front (FUF), therefore, federalism is not simply a Buganda issue, even though the history of Uganda makes federalism of particular appeal to Buganda. The importance of Buganda to Uganda should be acknowledged as a historical fact. We should, first, remember that the country owes its name to Buganda. But of greater historical significance is the fact that in the nineteenth century Buganda was arguably a more dynamic and stable society than any other society in the region.

We get a glimpse of Buganda’s dynamism and stability from first-hand accounts by European writers, who could not be accused of Kiganda ethno-centrism. Lord Lugard, for example, when he was in Uganda (really Buganda) as the Administrator of the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEACo), the forerunner to British colonial rule in that region, noted how the rule of law operated in the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Buganda: “There was an appeal to law, and cases were decided after a formal hearing.  The administration was vested in the king, … and from him downwards there existed a regular chain of delegated power and control…The ideas of decency were indications of long years of development, of which the intricate customs and etiquettes surrounding the Court were an additional proof.”

Surely, a society in Uganda that had such stable political system based on a functional rule of law should have been and should be of pride and inspiration rather than envy for the rest of the country. And with such a distinguished history, it is rather a travesty to designate and treat the Kabaka (King) of Buganda as simply a cultural leader of Buganda.

In as far as the country as a whole is concerned, and for the benefits of all regions, and in order to reconcile diversity, freedom and freedom in a dynamic process in a post-dictatorship Uganda, federalism must be adopted as a form of government that would infuse democracy with vitality and relevance for the great majority of people. For purposes of administration and efficiency, the country should be divided up into four regions, as existed before 1966.

Federalism, among many other things, would offer people who know intimately and care deeply about their regions, the opportunities to be agents for transforming their regions by designing and implementing developmental plans, with assistance and solidarity from friends both internally and internationally. It would also afford people opportunities to control both their resources and governance; and in the process ensure that there is accountability between the governors and governed.

The demons of over-centralization of power in the presidency, which since about the 1970s have haunted the African landscape like a permanent nightmare, can be exorcised through meaningful democratic engagement by people in public affairs that affect their lives and those of their communities. 

It is clear that a future of great possibilities can be fashioned into an enabling and ennobling reality for the great majority of Africans by decentralization of power through federalism that offers people meaningful democratic engagement in affairs that affect their lives.

In a practical sense then, if federalism were structured properly, it would indeed become the lifeblood of democracy and would make government not simply an instrument of repression and exploitation but rather a means of empowerment of the people, by the people, and for the people.

 

Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu is Chairman of FUF

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