Uganda's political challenge

Published : Dec 25, 2000 00:00 IST

The contradictions that mark the "political freedom" in Uganda become starkly evident against the background of a referendum that will determine the nature of its democracy.

M.S. PRABHAKARA recently in Kampala

THE Movement Political System in Uganda, short for the government led by the National Resistance Movement (NRM) under President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni since January 1986, presents some unique problems which defy conventional analysis.

On the positive side, as admitted even by critics of the Movement, Uganda under Museveni has seen a measure of stability, economic growth and even "political freedom", especially since the adoption of the new Constitution in October l995 and the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections in May and June 1996, in marked contrast to the misrule of the past, particularly between 1966 and 1986 - the later years of Milton Obote (Obote I), the Idi Amin years, Obote II and its aftermath.

In October 1999, a damning report on the political and human rights situation in Uganda by the United States-based Human Rights Watch was published. The report, Hostile to Democracy: The Movement System and Political Repression in Uganda, has rece ived wide publicity both inside Uganda and outside. Notwithstanding its hectoring tone, it does make valid points about the severe restrictions on free political activity and the rather devious ways in which the NRM, for all practical intents and purpose s a political party, seems to have perfected a system to perpetuate itself. It also puts together many instances of corruption and misrule, all of them already reported in the Ugandan media.

However, even this report acknowledges the positive aspects of the NRM government. It said: "President Museveni's government has taken important steps towards establishing a human rights culture in Uganda, and marks a clear break with the abusive dictato rships which preceded it. The widespread atrocities committed during the time of Idi Amin and Obote represent a traumatic past which Uganda wishes to avoid... The institutional reforms put into place by the NRM administration have indeed fostered a more accountable and representative government... The general human rights climate in Uganda has improved significantly because of these institutional changes introduced by the NRM administration."

The outcome of the 1996 parliamentary and presidential elections is considered fair even by the government's critics. Legally, no political party was allowed to contest the elections; the contestants were all "non-party" persons. However, though members of Parliament do not formally belong to any political party, Parliament as an institution is vocal and assertive. Museveni has often expressed his exasperation with the elected body - even with MPs supposed to be part of the Movement system - for critici sing his government. The judiciary, at whose apex is a court of appeal (which also functions as the constitutional court), is independent. The press is free and vibrant and thoroughly irreverent of persons in authority. The non-governmental organisation (NGO) sector and other organs of civil society are assertive.

However, this "political freedom" is marked by several contradictions. Article 69 of the Constitution, which guarantees that "the people of Uganda shall have the right to choose and adopt a political system of their choice through free and fair elections or referenda", and Article 72, which guarantees, "subject to the provisions of this Constitution, the right to form political parties and any other political organisations", are qualified, if not set at nought, by the provisions of Article 269 - "Regula tion of Political Organisations". The Article reads thus:

"On commencement of this Constitution and until Parliament makes laws regulating the activities of political organisations in accordance with Article 73 of this Constitution, political activities may continue except - (a) opening and operating branch off ices; (b) holding delegates' conferences; (c) holding public rallies; (d) sponsoring or offering a platform to or in any way campaigning for or against a candidate for any public elections; and (e) carrying on any activities that may interfere with the M ovement Political System for the time being in force."

What this means is that the Constitution recognises the existence of political parties (though the actual expression used is "political organisations") but bars them from opening branches, holding meetings and canvassing support for their views and indee d from carrying on any activity "that may interfere with the Movement Political System", which is firmly entrenched in government.

Further, Article 72 also mandates Parliament to legislate the "financing and functioning of political organisations". Thus, the Political Organisations Bill, now before Parliament, when enacted will provide the legal framework for regulating those politi cal activities, which are at present banned. In practice, these provisions have meant that political organisations continue to exist but are in no position to canvass publicly support for their positions and views or recruit members or hold rallies or pu blish their newspapers. They will continue to be "regulated" under the provisions of the bill when free political activity is permitted.

All these provisions, taken together with the way in which the political system actually works, invest the "existing political freedom" (to adopt the well-known political idiom) with its uniqueness. Political parties are not banned in Uganda; only their activities are severely restricted. Article 269 does not even refer to political parties, but only to political organisations. However, the Kampala telephone directory lists the names and addresses of several "Opposition parties"', including the Uganda P eople's Congress (UPC), the ruling party under Obote, and the Democratic Party (D.P.).

Further, this provision has not come in the way of the Opposition parties - which strictly speaking do not, indeed cannot, exist - from expressing themselves freely in the media on the failings, corrupt practices and worse of the government. Indeed, Parl iament has several members who belong to the stream of the UPC, the D.P. and the Conservative Party. These MPs are quite vocal in Parliament, which has a total strength of 276 of whom 214 are elected directly and the rest by an electoral college.

However, they cannot be formally identified as MPs belonging to the UPC or the D.P. or the C.P. since they did not, indeed could not, contest the 1996 elections as members of any political party. According to Cecilia Ogwal, MP and chairperson of the inte rim executive council of the UPC and a feisty critic of the Movement system, there are about 30 MPs whose election was owing neither to an "invitation" by the NRM to contest nor to its "facilitation". Other critics of the government put the figure at aro und 60. A precise figure on this count is not possible.

WHAT about the NMR? It is ostensibly a movement, with its origins in the National Resistance Army which led the armed insurgency against the Idi Amin regime and the "sectarian dictatorship" of Obote II, and not a political party. But the NMR is in fact a kind of a non-party party encompassing all the people of Uganda, even those who oppose the Movement system. Ideologues of the Movement argue, in an interpretation of the provisions of the Movement Act of 1997 (the legal framework for the NRM and its gov ernment formally acknowledged in the Transitional Provisions of the Constitution), that legally every Ugandan is a member of the Movement. Indeed, every MP is, by law, also a member of the National Conference, the highest organ of the Movement, even thou gh their individual political identities and history of participation in other political parties, going back in some cases to decades, are well known.

It is therefore not surprising that issues surrounding the Movement Political System and the constitutional provisions that guarantee "political freedom" and at the same time severely restrict the exercise of rights that are normally taken for granted as part of free political activity lie at the heart of the current political debate in Uganda. The debate is crucial in the context of the coming referendum which, under the provisions of Article 271, has to be held before the end of June next year, "to de termine the political system the people of Uganda wish to adopt". Article 69 spells out the choices offered: (a) the Movement Political System; (2) the multiparty political system; and (3) any other democratic and representative political system. The who le exercise is viewed with the deepest suspicion by "Opposition parties", at least two of which (the UPC and the D.P.) are likely to boycott the referendum, even though the referendum provides an option to vote for the multiparty system. According to Cec ilia Ogwal, who seems to believe that the referendum is bound to be rigged and the outcome otherwise would certainly have been an endorsement of the multiparty system, even participating in such an exercise would invest the Movement with legitimacy. "Ref erendum is a trap into which we will not walk."

The starting point to understand the unique ideology of and rationale for the Movement system, this phenomenon of a non-party party, which came to power after an armed struggle and which has governed Uganda without any serious challenge for 13 years, is the undeniable fact of the collapse of the Ugandan state that preceded it. The process began long before its apogee, the Idi Amin regime. No one is better qualified to explain this process than Museveni, who has been both the political ideologue and mili tary leader of the Movement, and if anecdotal wisdom in Kampala is any guide, also its beneficiary along with his immediate family. He has set it out all, plain and simple like the simple farmer and soldier he tries to project himself to be, in his polit ical autobiography, Sowing the Mustard Seed: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda (Macmillan, 1997).

According to Museveni, the key to understanding Uganda's political crisis and the collapse of the state (all of course pre-Museveni) lies in two related features of the Ugandan state and society: sectarianism and socio-economic underdevelopment. "Uganda, and most other countries in black Africa, are still pre-industrial societies and they must be handled as such. Societies at this stage of development tend to have vertical polarisations based mainly on tribe and ethnicity. Even when polarisations in und erdeveloped societies are horizontal, they are sectarian by religion, as has been the case in Uganda. Sectarianism is a consequence of an incomplete social metamorphosis. In other countries, society has been changing continually; the problem with Africa is that not only has its society not metamorphosed, it has actually regressed...."

In other words, as demonstrated by Uganda's historical experience, its political culture is mired in tribalism and ethnic and religious polarisation. Conventional politicians, those "messengers of perpetual backwardness", feed on and exploit the absence of class polarisation - something that is anyway unrealistic to expect in a society which is essentially in a pre-industrial stage of development. Indeed, the argument is that the alternative to the Movement (and Museveni) is bound to be a return to the bad, bad days of tribalism and sectarianism, of tyranny and dictatorship. Memories and experiences of the immediate past of Uganda, whose scars are all too visible, have in many ways been Museveni's most dependable ally, summoned effortlessly.

The argument is both naive and persuasive. Indeed, it is even possible to argue that while Museveni was a historical necessity, that necessity has been overtaken by developments driven by Museveni himself. The more far-seeing of Movement supporters too r ecognise this. According to Eriya Kategaya, the Foreign Minister and a close confidant of Museveni, the government may on its own allow the political parties to function freely after the referendum even if, as widely expected and without any rigging, its outcome will be in favour of the continuance of the Movement system.

Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum and even if free political activities were to be allowed, it is unlikely that Museveni will face any serious challenge from outside the ranks of the Movement in the presidential election, scheduled for 2001, which will also be his last, given the limit of two terms for any President. The more crucial challenge will be in Parliament which, even though packed with Movement supporters, is already a contested arena. The one imponderable area, however, is the cou ntry's involvement in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the complex relations with Rwanda.

More materially, Museveni and his Movement system also hold a powerful appeal to the United States, which has been seeking stabilising regional arrangements in Africa. Museveni, like Jerry Rawlings in Ghana, represents a new generation of African leaders who have no "hang-ups" and "baggage" of those who have had actual experience of life under colonial rule and who, moreover, have successfully civilianised what began essentially as a military regime. It was not accidental that President Bill Clinton, du ring his African safari last year, chose to have the summit of African leaders at Entebbe.

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