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Independence is not vital to have a federal system

By Vision Reporter

Added 4th June 2009 03:00 AM

ON May 19, Mr Peter Mulira wrote an article entitled “Compromise is everything in constitutional matters” In that article, Mulira’s arguments against federalism in Uganda are based on inaccurate premises. It is heartening that there is a free and l

ON May 19, Mr Peter Mulira wrote an article entitled “Compromise is everything in constitutional matters” In that article, Mulira’s arguments against federalism in Uganda are based on inaccurate premises. It is heartening that there is a free and l

By Fred Sekiwano

ON May 19, Mr Peter Mulira wrote an article entitled “Compromise is everything in constitutional matters” In that article, Mulira’s arguments against federalism in Uganda are based on inaccurate premises. It is heartening that there is a free and lively debate on the subject of federalism (federo) in the country.

Though Mulira’s arguments against federalism are inaccurate, his exposition reveals an important fact that some historical demands by a people die hard and can run for hundreds of years. He cites the case of Spain where Catalonia’s demand for federalism started in 1479 and they finally got autonomy through devolution by the Statute of Autonomy in 1979—500 years later! Tensions had escalated in 1621 between Castille and Catalonia, two regions with different political traditions and institutions that were forced into a common crown of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

He uses inaccurate premises and confusing language to make his arguments that the (American model of) federalism cannot feasibly apply to Uganda because we do not have any independent states and that Parliament will not pass a law under which national sovereignty will be shared with the regions or kingdoms.

He concludes that only devolution is the only viable alternative. Mulira inaccurately asserts: “Since federalism implies the idea of independent states within a federation it follows that countries which are already governed under a unitary system can only convert to federalism after going through an act of dismembership of their institutions which can lead to disunity of purpose.” Merriam-Webster defines federalism as the distribution of power in an organisation (as a government) between a central authority and the constituent units—in our case the regions or kingdoms.

In this definition, there is nothing that suggests ‘independent’ constituent units in a federal system. The key principle in the definition of federalism—the distribution or sharing of power—does not make it a prerequisite for its operation.

So, there would be no need for the regions or kingdoms to first break away/dismember in order to attain the supposed status or requirement of ‘independence’ as Mulira asserts. If it were true that independence is a requirement, then one could suggest it be fulfiled through a ceremonial formality and the stroke of a pen. The sovereignty in specific areas and functions that the states retained during the evolution of the United States government and still hold in the federal system today, is what Mulira interchanges with independence, which is false.

In federalism, the concept of ‘sovereignty’ is not directly and squarely interchangeable with that of ‘independence’. The states do have some sort of ‘independence or self-government in specific local state matters, but this does not equate to or imply independence from the union of the USA. As we know, civil war broke out when the north tried to break away from the union. Mulira’s argument assumes the two terms are the same and interchangeable. They are not the same, but are similar. Federalism enables “two sovereignties” to coexist and operate side by side separated just by the their functions or the areas in which they apply, not by independence. For example, the laws of California will work in their state, but not in Florida, hand in hand with those of the central government that are limited to those given to it by the constitution. The online ‘thefreedictionary’ defines sovereignty as “supremacy of authority or rule as exercised by a sovereign or sovereign state”.

In the context of federalism, the model of power-sharing or distribution does not translate to sharing one sovereignty. It rather creates a model of ‘dual sovereignty’—one for the central government and the other for the constituent units like states, regions or kingdoms. The national/central government’s line of sovereignty would be in areas/objects of common concern such as national security, international trade, national infrastructure and the line of sovereignty of the regions or kingdoms would be in areas such as local law enforcement and local infrastructure—local roads, housing, water wells, clinics, etc. It is made possible and binding by the laws of the constitution.

Laws are made by people and, ideally, for the people and their benefit and not vice versa, except in dictatorships. In the 1960s, the laws of the constitution were changed (abrogated) leading to the demise of the kingdoms that once existed as states in a federal government. In the 1980s, the NRM government passed laws reinstating the kingdoms in an apolitical, cultural status. Laws are the will of the people.

It is possible in the future for the people to desire federalism, that involves sharing sovereignty/dual sovereignty, and vote into power leaders and a parliament that will address their need. Unless Mulira has a crystal ball that shows him our infinite future, he cannot guarantee that Parliament will never ever vote for Government to relinquish any of its sovereignty. He also argues that Uganda’s constitution has already granted autonomy and that devolution is the only feasible solution to the region’s or kingdom’s demands as is the case with the Catalonians and Basques in Spain, the Scottish in Britain, the Flemish in Belgium, a process by which they acquired various forms of autonomy.

Devolution differs from federalism in that the powers devolved may be temporary and ultimately reside in the central government, thus the state remains, de jure (by law), unitary. The major gripe with devolution, as with decentralisation, is that the local powers can be taken away by the central government at will, at anytime.

Any devolved parliaments or assemblies can be repealed by the central government in the same way an ordinary statute can be. Federal systems, or federacies differ in that state or provincial government (or kingdom) is guaranteed in the constitution.

To whom was autonomy (self-governance) granted? Decentralisation was to the districts as opposed to the regions or kingdoms and there was no devolution/transfer of power or autonomy. As a matter of fact, the multitude of districts remain impotent due to lack of funds to effectively implement anything and the traditional leaders were barred from a cultural conference by the government.

Again, Mulira’s assertion that dominions have shared sovereignty is inaccurate. Merriam-Webster defines it as a system of government having self-governing nations, such as Australia and Canada, of a Commonwealth of Nations that acknowledge a dominating, overarching chief of state such as the British monarch of the United Kingdom. These self-governing states pay homage to the chief state, but it is not imperative for them to share any sovereignty. After the imperial era, this system is a dying dinosaur.

We were bound together by the British and after many years of nation building, joy and tears, I dare assert that all our people are proud to be and want to remain Ugandans. The regions and kingdoms are not asking for autonomy or self-governance and do not need a dominion for that matter. There is no sane, tiny region or kingdom in Uganda that has the resources or a sizable population to be independent and feasibly survive, on its own, the dictates of the merciless forces of today’s heavily global environment. That is why countries like Rwanda found it wise to join the East African Community.

Historically, there has been resistance to federalism for fear of dismembership or secession of some regions or a favoured status for Buganda. An unhealthy, toxic political environment that existed led to such sentiments that still linger today and Obote used as pretexts to raid Mengo.

The times have changed, but the sentiments are still used for all sorts of irrational reasons to make the case against federalism at whatever cost. There are no inherent, natural or written laws sanctioning ‘independence’ as a prerequisite for nations to form a federation. We can evolve our own.

Neither the central nor the local governments would be completely independent of each other, but each would have its own specific powers. That is the essence of compromise—a complex tango.

Mulira, being a lawyer, predisposes us to take his word for fact, but without a watchful eye it is easy to be taken for a ride.

Independence is not vital to have a federal system

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