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Kamya fighting the wrong battle

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Uganda needs social reform built around collectivities and not another constitution per se

The year 2014 is going to be the year that sets the tone for the 2016 elections. The politician with an argument for the future of Uganda is Beti Kamya. She has been arguing that the opposition in Uganda has been fighting the right battles the wrong way; that instead of the opposition focusing on removing President Yoweri Museveni from power; it should be pushing to remove power from him – and any other future president of Uganda.


She says the constitution accords the president too much power and that since most of the problems of post-independence Uganda appear to have historically originated from all-powerful presidents, the best solution is to amend the constitution and clip these powers.

Kamya is right. Museveni wields too much power. But is it really because the constitution gives it to him? The 1995 constitution imposes some limits on how Museveni can exercise power. Yet the President has often ignored such restraints. He has invaded courts of law, closed media houses, jailed a presidential candidate, arbitrarily donated public funds and land, etc. All of these actions are impeachable. So why has parliament not impeached him?

Clearly there is a big gulf between the formal (or legal) power the constitution confers on the president and the actual power Museveni wields.

This is because of the historical role he played in organising an army, overthrowing the government, creating the current constitution, appointing all the major office holders under it and controlling the army and police.

The countervailing political forces to restrain him are still weak but growing. Donors, on whose resources our government depends for a significant percentage of its revenues, have been the more meaningful opposition. But because they are external actors limited by diplomacy, they have also been ineffective in containing him.

For any law or constitution to be effective, it must reflect the balance and distribution of ACTUAL power in society. Uganda can write the best constitution in the world. But for as long as the words of the constitution do not reflect the ACTUAL distribution of power, it will remain a mere piece of paper. The most effective constitution has to be self-reinforcing i.e. there would be high rewards for honouring it and severe costs for violating it.

For example, U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were very popular at the end of their second term. Both openly said they wanted a third term. However, they could never marshal a politically weighted majority to realise their goal.

This means that the challenge for Uganda is how to build the necessary political capacity to ensure that leaders are subject to the law. If that capacity exists through political organisation and mobilisation, then it will be easy to organise the constitutional movement to trim the powers of the executive. And any president who knows that violation of the constitution would lead to impeachment and imprisonment would refrain from doing so.

But the opposition in Uganda has been arguing that laws should be obeyed out of moral obligation; that we need well behaved leaders who can respect the rules.

Not even in heaven does such a system work. God promises hell to those who refuse to obey him. Indeed this is the argument Museveni made before he came to power; that the 1967 constitution granted too much power to the president.

That is why he had the current constitution written. Museveni even went personal and claimed (just like opposition activists today argue in relation to him) that the problem of Uganda was the persons of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. Remove these two men and Ugandans would be happy ever after.

Africa has had so many changes of government, some violent, some pacific; but none of them has fundamentally changed the nature of governance – may be with the exception of Rwanda, a case study I will argue another day.

Museveni has repeated every single “mistake” he accused Obote of and often in worse form: on tribalism, nepotism, cronyism, corruption, elite privilege, etc. In fact Obote managed a much more effective and efficient public sector; Museveni has presided over one with gross corruption and incompetence.

Why has the opposition been unable to marshal sufficient political support for its aims? First, the opposition has put the cart before the horse. Its objective has been regime change in the hope that it can re-launch the democratic agenda.

Yet power cannot democratise itself. Once in power, any other leader or ruling party will find that the laws and institutions NRM has been using to retain power are an advantage to it as well. Mwai Kibaki had promised to run for one term and immediately he was elected, he wanted to run for a second term.  So has been Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

So we cannot rely on the goodness of the individuals in power – Museveni, Kizza Besigye etc. Neither can we rely on laws written on a piece of paper without grounding in political reality. A law restraining a president will be meaningless if there is no capacity within society to restrain his hand when he violates it.

In Egypt and Tunisia, we are seeing the incipient signs of effective political accountability. Popular protests may be paralysing government and making it difficult to govern these countries. But it also suggests that leaders in those two countries cannot do as they wish.

In our case, the opposition needs to make regime change a secondary objective. Its primary objective needs to be social reform. It has to position itself as the spokesperson of the powerful constituencies – traditional collectivities, churches, mosques, farmers, teachers, vendors, taxi drivers, small and medium scale entrepreneurs, students, unemployed youths, boda boda riders, professionals etc. By being the voice of these individual and collective interests, the opposition will convince many to join them – not in a struggle for regime change but social reform.

And here is the clincher: these reforms will mean fighting the government when necessary and working and compromising with it when it is also necessary. It will also stop the opposition looking at government/NRM as eternal “enemies” and begin looking at them as potential allies in the advancement of the good of our citizens.

This way, the opposition will democratise and recognise the legitimacy of the ruling party’s interests as well. But most critically, by championing social reform, the opposition will be able to build an infrastructure of support within society based on people’s actual needs; wages, prices, services, etc. Then, may be,  the opposition will have a chance of kicking Museveni out.

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