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Oloka responds to the President on term limits

By Vision Reporter

Added 31st July 2006 03:00 AM

Mr President, first of all, let me apologise for causing or spreading “disorientation.” I imagined that a person of your vision and focus is not so easily disoriented, particularly by “recycled” judges and academics. I also apologise for not being able to attend the NRM Caucus, which is due

By Joe Oloka Onyango

Mr President, first of all, let me apologise for causing or spreading “disorientation.” I imagined that a person of your vision and focus is not so easily disoriented, particularly by “recycled” judges and academics. I also apologise for not being able to attend the NRM Caucus, which is due to the fact that I am presently out of the country. I must nevertheless thank you for not describing us as “Agents of Confusion,” which is the term former president Idi Amin Dada used to describe those who dared speak out in opposition to him. We were also spared the title “obscurantists” which was one of your favourite appellations during the early days of the NRA/M “revolution” and became almost a term of abuse. So causing “disorientation” or “isorientalism” is not such a bad thing, particularly if the intention of such action is to force you to question the direction in which you are heading. I would equate our action to that of a sign-post that warns of trouble ahead: “Hatari; danger; kabi!” In the circumstances of Uganda today, I am quite happy to be described as a “disorientor” if it helps people to stop and think a little bit about our current predicament, rather than plunging headlong into the waiting abyss. Mr. President, do not act like the rhino (kifaru), which runs in a straight line and doesn’t turn corners even when approaching a cliff. Remember Okwonko in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart? As you are well aware, the subtext to that great story is: the tale of a strong (but grossly mistaken) man.

Mr President, you also described our views as “mendacious” which term I discovered means “false” and “misleading.” Given that you were not at the Africana seminar — and your various sources of information may not have been entirely accurate — I believe it is necessary for me to both reiterate the points I made there and to add a number of new ones on the issues of governance and constitutionalism facing the people of Uganda today. I am forced to do so because your response to our presentations (New Vision July 27, 2006) was not only a fine example of historical escapism and obfuscation, it also completely missed the main focus of our talk, namely the state of democracy and constitutionalism under your 5th kisanja. In the circumstances prevailing in Uganda and on the African continent today, to talk about ancient world history and the marginal status of African economies is simply diversionary. The fact is that the essence of Uganda’s problem yesterday, today and tomorrow is that of democracy. Period. It is the failure of leaders such as you to not simply talk the path of democracy, but to actually walk along it that is the cause of our problems, even in the economic arena.
I now turn to the points I made at the seminar:

Presidential term limits and longevity in office:

My first point related to the issue of the removal of presidential term limits and the other controversial amendments to the 1995 Constitution that were effected by the 7th Parliament in 2005. Although I spoke about the way in which the process was manipulated through the amendment of parliamentary rules and the use of various forms of coercion, legal trickery and inducement, I believe it was my concluding remarks on this issue which you have described as “dramatic and exaggerated” that have caused you such displeasure. For the sake of clarity, let me repeat them here. I told the seminar that after ten years in power, one was a veteran; after 15 you are an elder; at 20 you are nearly extinct, and at 20+ you have become a liability. Why did I say this? The history of those leaders who have been in power for over 15 years has largely been a history of diminishing marginal returns (DMRs). In other words the longer in office, the more disastrous their performance. Correspondingly, the situation of their countries grows worse.

While it is true that there have been a tiny few — such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew — who have managed to avoid the DMR phenomenon — these are only a handful. In other words, they are the exception who amply prove the rule. For every Lee Kuan Yew, there are 10 Mobutu sese Sekou Wazabanga Kuku Mbengu’s of Zaire/DRC, or Omar Bongos of Gabon, now celebrating 37 years in power. By contrast, for all those African countries (without exception) that have introduced term limits (among them Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique and South Africa, to mention only a handful) there has been progressive democratic (and economic) reform. By removing term limits, Uganda joined the ignominious company of a country like Chad, which despite its large oil reserves, is in both political and economic trouble.

Mr. President, you and your supporters have argued that there is no problem with removing term limits, provided a president presents him or herself at regular elections; in other words, provided the institutional mechanisms to ensure the genuine will of the electorate are in place. With respect, I beg to disagree. The historical record demonstrates that the longer a President stays in office, the harder it is to remove him or her in a democratic fashion. This is the very point you made in your book, What is Africa’s Problem? and which formed the basis of the NRA/M revolt against the events of 1980, and your brilliant Fundamental Change speech on the steps of Parliament on 29th January 1986. The naked truth is that incumbents exercise a considerable degree of control over electoral processes. The more desperate they become, the lower the likelihood that those processes will be free and fair. This point is amply demonstrated by our own recent history. In 2001, our Supreme Court was split (4-3) on the ‘freeness’ and ‘fairness’ of the presidential election, although they ultimately declared you winner. By contrast, in 2006, a unanimous court (7-0) concluded that the electoral process was completely unsatisfactory. The implication of the later judgment is clear; the longer you stay in office, the worse the electoral processes are becoming.

Since you made the point of invoking history, it is fundamental to point out that the historical record of open presidential terms in Uganda has been a wholly negative one. From 1962 until 1995, the system in operation was one of open terms, and we all know what happened over that 33-year period. In other words, we have the empirical data to demonstrate that open limits assist dictatorship to become more embedded rather than the reverse. Out of the nine presidents who preceded you, the majority have been bad at best and lacklustre or positively disastrous at worst. Ugandans — including yourself — were acutely aware of this fact. This is why over the whole seven year period of the debate on the constitution (from 1989 to 1995) the overwhelming opinion was to insert term limits into the constitution. It is therefore the height of arrogance to suggest that the imposition of term limits was simply borrowed from elsewhere. As a matter of fact, the introduction of term limits had nothing to do with the experiences of other countries. It was an entirely indigenous and home-grown experience. It was a reflection of the overwhelmingly negative experience of open terms in Uganda up to that point in time. Let me reformulate this point for emphasis. While open terms help a country to keep a good president, they hamper it in getting rid of a bad one, especially within a context where the mechanisms to control him or her are weak, as is the case here. The objective of term limits is not to stop the good presidents of this world from ruling well; it is to stop the bad ones from continuing to rule badly and to avoid the arrogance, inertia and complacency that inevitably come with overstaying in power. Term limits also guard against the dangers that arise when good presidents overstay in office.

In concluding this point, I informed the Africana participants that I found it rather strange that the NRM government had introduced term limits (fixed contracts and lower age retirement ceilings) for civil servants, Vice Chancellors, Professors, Permanent Secretaries and a whole range of public servants on the grounds that it is necessary to introduce and continuously infuse new blood into the system. However, this same government has refused to do so at the point at which it counts the most: the Presidency. Indeed, I voiced the opinion that rather than decreasing the number of offices that are limited by set terms of office, we should be increasing them, including MPs. As you can no doubt imagine, that point was greeted with jeers and booing from the audience. Quite frankly, I was not surprised by that reaction since many of them have been in Parliament as long as you have been in State House, and a few from as far back as 1980.

On the sanctity of the Constitution and the importance of being earnest:

The second general issue with which I was concerned at Africana, was the question of constitutionalism. As you are well aware Mr. President, your government placed considerable stock on the passing of a new Constitution. Indeed, it was mainly for this reason that you secured the first extension to your term of office in 1989. While it is debatable whether we needed more time within which to enact a new constitution, I can concede that it was necessary for the NRM government to see this process through to the end. Against that background, the enactment of the 1995 Constitution represented a high-point of the process of democratic reform in Uganda. On 8th October, 1995 when addressing the country on this historic occasion, you praised the instrument as the best we had ever had. With only a few grumbles (about land and investment) you strongly recommended it to the people of the country for adoption.

In setting up the constitutional reform commission under Prof. Frederick Ssempebwa in 2001, you were responding much more to the irrational election fever generated by the Kizza Besigye challenge than to the rationale imperatives of constitutional change. After all, how much had fundamentally changed over the five years since the enactment of the 1995 Constitution? Couldn’t many of these issues have been dealt with by ordinary legislation? If you were genuinely concerned about the overall thrust of the instrument, why was the Commission stacked with Movement supporters? Against this background, I told the Africana seminar that during the Constituent Assembly (CA) process in 1993, a number of scholars, CA delegates, journalists and activists came together to discuss the issues we felt required serious attention. My view at that meeting was that it was necessary to ensure that what was then draft Article 108(2) — which eventually became Article 105(2) of the 1995 Constitution — needed to be reinforced so that it would become treasonous for anybody to attempt to amend it. My colleagues, consisting of Movement, neutral and opposition actors, laughed me out of the room. In particular, the Movementists argued that it would be impossible for President Museveni (“of all people!” they said) to change the Constitution in order to stay in power beyond two terms. I lost the argument. Today, I have no comment on who history has proven correct.

However, what is most important about the amendment process is the following. Despite all your denials and evasions, you were the most interested party in ensuring that Article 105(2) was dropped, and on occasions such as when the late James Wapakhabulo issued views contrary to your own on this issue, you revealed exactly which side you were on. I do not accept the argument that “the people” pushed you into accepting the kisanja. After all, on numerous occasions, you have rejected proposals by the people which you have considered “reactionary,” “uninformed,” or simply “backward.” A single word from you would have ended the alleged clamour for the amendment of 105(2). Instead, you were conspicuously silent, arguing that it was “unimportant” whether or not the provision were to be amended. And yet, in 2001, you not only included the fact that this would be your last term in your election manifesto, on the BBC’s World Service News Hour you categorically stated even after intense questioning, that you would not run again for office. Mr. President, at which point did you change your mind and why? The point of my question is not to solicit an answer from you. It is simply to demonstrate that either you were not telling the truth at that time, or you were not telling the truth when you eventually agreed to the amendment. Only you have the answer to that question.

Your attitude to the kisanja saga relates to a larger problem, which goes to the essence of the problem of democracy in this country. Constitutionalism is about accepting the rules of the game as written and agreed upon, whether those rules favour you, or not. If the goalposts are changed whenever the tide goes against those in power then we have simply returned to the stage when Apollo Milton Obote abrogated the 1966 Constitution, rather than face the possibility of losing his job as Prime Minister. The 2005 amendments to the 1995 Constitution were the non-violent equivalent of Obote’s 1966 abrogation. My short point is that in the final analysis, constitutionalism is based on trust, not on the document in which the Constitution is embodied, because as you and your supporters have said time and again; nothing in that document is sacred. Just as it is not the quoting of biblical verses that shows whether you are a true Christian; it is your actions. Mr. President, how can you expect to be trusted for example on the issue of an East African Federation which today you are so much in favour of, and tomorrow may have turned completely against, if you discover that the Federation constitution does not favour your political interests?

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni: A great reformer but a poor democrat:

I believe it is necessary to end my remarks by saying a few things directly about the political person of Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, 10th President of Uganda. I have no hesitation to state that you will go down in history as one of our country’s most important and reformist rulers. Due credit must be given where it is duly deserved, and your great achievements should likewise be applauded. Needless to say Mr. President, you have also made great mistakes. The first of these is to treat every expression of opposition to your rule as a military, rather than a political matter. Even your letter to the Caucus is a thinly-disguised military response to matters that are essentially political and intellectual. In this era of multipartism, I believe the most important thing is not to enforce a code-of-conduct to stifle debate within your own party, but rather to encourage the flowering of ideas in order to demonstrate that the NRM is truly superior to the political competition with which it is faced. Your translation of the essence of multipartism is thus flawed in a fundamental area, and indeed is a complete repudiation of what you claimed to have been trying to build for the last 20 years. By the same token, and it is in this respect that I repeat the appeal I made at the seminar; do not sign the NGO Bill as it is the negation of the very essence of democratic participation by non-political actors, who have as large a stake in the democratic process as political parties do.

Secondly, Mr. President, please stop the practice of scapegoating — the practice whereby everybody but the President and the NRM is to blame for the failures of the government. American President Harry Truman famously stated “The buck stops here” meaning that ultimately, the President must take responsibility for both the successes and failures of his or her government. I find it rather duplicitous of you to lay the blame for all of Uganda’s present ills on people other than those in your own government. You continuously blame the FDC, the opposition, so-called “donors,” internal Movement saboteurs, and now “disorientors” for the failures of your government. If it is indeed true that FDC and donors blocked your plans for increasing the supply of electric power or for stopping the war in Northern Uganda, how is it that they were unable to block everything else proposed by your government, especially given that you had a majority in the 6th parliament? How can you explain the fact that the Constitution effectively gives you a veto over Parliament, which veto you have used on numerous occasions in order to alter the decision of Parliament? Why did you fail to use the veto then?

In conclusion Mr. President, I would like to thank you for responding so robustly to our Africana statements. I must say that I think this debate is a healthy initiative on your part. My only request is that this dialogue be regarded as the beginning of a serious reflection on the state of democracy and constitutionalism in Uganda, rather than as its termination.

The writer is Visiting Professor, University of Oxford (UK)
and Director of HURIPEC, Makerere University


The President’s paper was
published on July 27

Oloka responds to the President on term limits

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