Uganda The Way Forward: People's Power and Federalism Are the Antidotes To Dictatorship

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Bobi Wine and the youth. The future is now. Photo-Facebook.

[Commentary]

There is a growing political reawakening among the popular masses in Uganda that will likely bring to an end the vicious militarist dictatorship that has oppressed them for the past three decades, and in the aftermath inaugurates a new dawn of social justice in the country.

However, if the demise of the dictatorship is to be hastened and replaced with a more compassionate system of governance, it might be necessary to decipher the formula that Gen. Yoweri Museveni has used to maintain himself in power for so long. This can be found in his staple mantra.

On several occasions, the dictator has stated publicly that the National Resistance Army (NRA), the guerrilla outfit that helped him usurp power in Uganda by the barrel of the gun in January 1986, are the masters of violence. It is the violence mastered by the military under his command that he has used lethally to infect people with fear so that he can continue to be a despot of unlimited power and tenure.

However, like Napoleon in George Orwell’s allegorical novel “Animal Farm,” he has coupled violence with toxic propaganda in which he uses past politicians as scarecrows and makes a scapegoat of others for the wretched conditions he has created in the country.

But the conditions for the majority of Ugandans have become so intolerable that they have nothing to lose except their servitude. Three examples can be given here to illustrate how, even in the state of siege he has created, he has failed to rule properly.

The first example is the terrifying insecurity and uncertainty that the vast majority of decent people live in. Under the apt heading: “Job security for the president, insecurity for his people,” the Economist magazine of July 7th-13th describes how the police force has been so politicized that its swelling budget is spent on buying teargas and anti-riot gears, which it uses to torture citizens and crush political protests rather than tackle crimes. It documents that “last year the bodies of more than 20 women, many strangled and mutilated, were found after being dumped in two neighbourhoods close to the Ugandan capital.”

The second example is about the economic status of Uganda under Gen. Museveni. In June 2018, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that has patronized him over the years ranked Uganda as the 14th poorest country in the world. This is despite three decades of Western powers and institutions pouring billions of dollars of so-called foreign aid in the country; and despite the fact that the country is richly endowed with natural resources. Astonishingly, Uganda ranks just above Togo and the war-ravaged Afghanistan. The fact that Uganda is the 14th poorest country in the world speaks volumes about Gen. Museveni’s mismanagement of the economy and about his parasitic plundering and mortgaging of the resources of the country. Even then, in his recent address to the nation he delusionally claimed Uganda was on the verge of "take off."

The third example of Gen. Museveni's failure is the despicable conditions to which young women have been subjected and the dreadful choices they are faced with. Over the years, Uganda has enjoyed the dubious distinction of boasting the highest teenage pregnancy in the world, with over 25 percent pregnancies among teenagers registered every year. Of the about 1.2 million pregnancies recorded in Uganda annually, 25 percent are teenage pregnancies. Out of that, about 300,000 pregnancies were unwanted, and ended up in unintended births or abortion. In 2013, for example, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics reported that one in every four girls between 15 and 19 was found pregnant. No wonder, more than 80 percent of the country’s population is below 35 years. The high rate of pregnancies among teenagers is a function of the failure of the regime in Uganda to develop an affirmative policy for young women, leave alone youths. It is symptomatic of lack of hope and deep crises in the country, with grave implications for the future.

The above documented and experienced facts occurred under the militarist domination of the people by Gen. Museveni, for which he should be indicted. With the situation increasingly spiraling out of control, not even his ardent paid apologists and sycophants in and outside Uganda can wish away the facts or deny them or defend the dictatorship.

With the great majority in the country now being crushed by the dire conditions, the dictatorship’s tactics and tricks of using gratuitous violence and lethal propaganda that until recently were effective, have progressively lost their potency and as such outlived their usefulness in holding people at ransom so as to extend his old onto power. Instead now, the masses of oppressed and fair-minded Ugandans, through a new idea and faith that are far more powerful than the crude violence he has routinely unleashed on them, are determined to exorcize the demons he nurtured. It is an idea and faith whose time has come to serve as a midwife for the liberation of a people who have suffered for more than three decades under his corrupt and predatory dictatorship.

The idea that is pregnant with great promise and whose time has come is the people’s power movement. People’s power is an organic movement of citizens who want to actively engage in transforming their wretched conditions for the principal objective of bringing about social justice and improving in particular the welfare of the more vulnerable members of society. It emerged in Uganda to contest and confront the intolerable gratuitous violence, unconscionable plundering and mortgaging of the country’s resources, sordid corruption, nepotism, internal colonialism and the elimination of patriotic Ugandans probably at the behest of the high-priest of state power wielders, Gen. Museveni.

It is no exaggeration that the organic people’s power movement in Uganda has today, like a tropical storm, gathered so much momentum that it has not only sent shivers down the spines of the politico-military ruling elites, but it also threatens to dislodge the militarist dictatorship. If the people involved in the movement are guided by ethical compass, politically well informed and educated, mobilized and organized, it has the great potential of bringing about a flowering of democratic pluralism and social justice in the country.

At this historical juncture, the movement has found its most eloquent and brightest expression and embodiment in the leadership of the fearless freedom fighter and Kyadondo East Member of Parliament, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine. The beauty and novelty of Bobi Wine’s leadership is that, like all great movements, it springs from the heart and it embodies faith in the dignity of the ordinary people and in their ability to contribute meaningfully in shaping their destiny.

One of the most remarkable achievements by Bobi Wine is that he has already by his exemplary actions, within a very short period, managed to inspire for the first time in Uganda’s history an ecumenical sense of patriotic purpose that transcends ethnic, regional, religious and even ideological boundaries. It is fair to surmise that he is the first leader in Uganda’s history with a truly crosscutting national appeal and following.

Indeed, Bobi Wine’s courage and commitment to fight to the death, if needs be, for social justice has already had a demonstrable twin impact in the country. It has, in the first place, created an atmosphere of hope instead of despair, and of effort among people to transform their miserable conditions through collective action instead of resignation. And second, it has more or less freed people of the fear of the terror routinely unleashed on them by the militarist dictatorship; instead now, people have developed the temerity to mock their tormentors. Indeed, when Gen. Museveni himself showed up at the crime scene where Muhammad Kirumira, a senior police officer who had denounced corruption on the Uganda Police Force was murdered, he was heckled in public.

But if the promise of the people’s power is not to be simply a euphoric mood of the moment, it must be translated into policies that when implemented can enhance the dignity of people and bring to life for every individual in every community the aspirations articulated in the movement’s slogans. This would require the adoption and implementation of policies that can effectively counteract and redress some of the outstanding problems that have bedeviled the country in recent history. Drawing on global history and the contemporary history of Uganda, below I outline some of the critical policies of significance that should form the bedrock of incoming dispensation.

Before I sketch out a few of the major policies, however, we need to first of all identify and carry out a ruthless prognosis of the factors that have contributed to the problems that have plagued the country since about 1966. At the heart of the problems is a constellation of five major factors. The factors are: excessive concentration of power in the presidency; the cancer of corruption that has been spread in the body politics of the country through a network of mafia-like extended family members of Gen. Museveni; politicization of the military and militarization of politics; insufficient independence of the judiciary; and socio-economic structural imbalances in the country.

Of these factors, the excessive concentration of power at the center and in the person of the president is the most critical and deserves immediate attention. It should be tackled with political courage and expeditiously. Unless we have a bold and constructive policy that deals head-on with the deadly problem of excessive concentration of power, the country will simply witness a change of musical chairs and the vicious cycles will continue.

The fact of the matter is that even if an angel is made president of the country, if there is excessive concentration of power at the center in general and in the presidency in particular, the person will likely be tempted to misuse it. Although the case of Uganda is egregiously pathological, in history this is a problem that has been experienced the world over. We must therefore be counseled by Lord Acton’s 1867 elegant aphorism, when he stated that: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Because in Uganda, as in other countries of the world, abuse of power has been occasioned by excessive concentration of power in the presidency, arguably the most critical constitutional reform that should be adopted in a post-Museveni dispensation must be a radical decentralization of power, and not simply of authority, to the regions and localities of the country. Apart from dispersing and defusing power, a great merit of decentralization is that it offers people the tools for their empowerment by giving people the space and opportunities to engage in affairs that affect their lives directly.

The formula being recommended here was in some form enshrined in the 1962 Constitution. Rather than reinventing something new, therefore, we should revisit and perhaps adapt the formula from 1962.

Lest we engage in historical revisionism, it should not be forgotten that Uganda witnessed what might be characterized as its golden period between 1962 and 1966, when the country 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 the 1966 crisis. Because of the robust political contestation and litigation during the period, the renowned late Professor Ali Mazrui termed it as one of “violent constitutionalism.” He meant it as a profound compliment.

The late Okot p’Bitek, an African literary genius, 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 prevalence of social peace, 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 also served as the titular head of state, was ousted by military means. The ouster of Kabaka Mutesa also brought to an end experiment with 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, insult was added unto injury; in addition to the overthrow of the Kabaka, the abolition of his kingdom, and his death in exile, 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.

It is clear from a historical perspective that the termination of the federal system of government in 1966 ushered in centralization of power on a revolutionary scale. Since then, the centralization of power has gained ominous momentum; and since 1986, Gen. Museveni has coupled it with militarism, which has now morphed into a totalitarian dictatorship.

If Uganda is to reverse the stifling conditions of dictatorship after Gen. Museveni and to make democracy of practical relevance for the great majority of people, it will be an imperative to decentralize power by adopting federalism. Among the advantages and merit of a federal system of governance is that it would: protect against central tyranny, increase citizen participation in affairs that affect their lives directly, optimize freedoms, encourage innovations in governance at the local level, and strengthen accountability and control of resources at the grassroots. Significantly, federalism has the great possibility of restoring to, and empowering, the individual — to the ordinary person — his or her sense of being a valued and worthy member of society.

In summary, 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.

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 United States, or India, or Sweden.

If decentralization in the form of federalism is to work well in the long run, it must be coupled with a formula for the equalization of resources and development. For it should be remembered that the current political crisis in Uganda is not simply constitutional. It has been also in large measure a function of economic structural imbalances and social disequilibria within Uganda. In other words, different parts of the country are at different levels of socio-economic development. The fact of the matter is that people at different levels of socio-economic developments find it difficult to interact as citizens with equal rights, dignity and self-worth. Accordingly, if the current spirit of ecumenical patriotism is to endure, a new policy must address the problem of economic structural imbalances in the country.

The remaining three areas of major policy can be addressed in brief outlines. The first is the issue of militarization of politics and politicization of the military, which have been the bane of Ugandan if not African society since the early 1970s. It is proposed that professionalization of the military for national defense should be a top priority. Because a disproportionately high percentage of Uganda’s meager resources are spent on the military, without commensurate productive returns, serious consideration should be given to downsizing the military.

Ugandans must be brave enough to debate all options that include, bringing a newly professionalized military under total control of the civilian authority --not under the dominance of one inidividual as is currently the case-- or even, in the long run abolishing it altogether along the lines of Costa Rica. There in 1948, President Jose Figueres took the extraordinary step, and hitherto unheard of, to renounce its military and directed that that the resources previously spent on the nation’s military should be redirected towards healthcare, education and environmental protection. The decision to abolish the military there has paid handsome peace dividends. Whatever solutions Ugandans adopt, it is clear is that the military cannot continue to function as it currently does.

The judiciary under Gen. Museveni has substituted the rule of law with the rule by law. In effect, with threats and bribes from Gen. Museveni, the judiciary has simply been required and succumbed to, for the most part, to administer political justice. In a post-Museveni dispensation solemn commitment must be made to establish an independent and impartial judiciary, which will superintend the rule of law, and be the indispensable institution to protect human rights, to arbitrate conflicts and disputes, to help check the autocratic tendencies of the executive, and to help ensure that resort to violence between and within social groups is at a minimum.

Lastly but not least, is the cancer of corruption. Over the years, corruption, whether in the form of bribery, or mismanagement of public funds or direct plunder of national resources, has reached epidemic proportions and has more or less disabled the body politics of the country. In fact, corruption in the mismanagement of national resources has become institutionalized. The hub and fountain of the corruption is in the presidential state house and is facilitated by Gen. Museveni’s immediate and extended family members, who are also the gross beneficiaries of the looting and corrupt practices. In fact, the presidential state house has become the epicenter of misappropriation of public funds and for other unethical conduct. To tackle this cancer, all sectors of the population must be educated and mobilized about the existential threat that this scourge poses to the country. But an immediate action that must be taken is to institute an independent international commission of inquiry to investigate the corruption, identify where resources have been hidden and make every effort to repatriate looted assets and resources of the country.

If the policy proposals outlined above are set into motion by the leadership of the people power movement in Uganda, they will not only demonstrate that they are serious about translating the agenda for social justice in the lives of people; but by their action, they will also send a ripple of hope to galvanize the oppressed masses to keep the flame burning for a better future.

As Ugandans approach the high noon of the struggle for their liberation, they should be heartened by Bobi Wine’s clarion call for national and international solidarity, and by the positive and uplifting response from across the globe.

They should also realize and be emboldened by the iron law of history that no person, however despotic and powerful, can last forever. As it is proclaimed in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, to everything there is a season. Surely a people united for social justice shall never be defeated.

Professor Amii Omara-Otunnu
University of Connecticut, Storrs

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