A few weeks ago, while presenting the resolutions of the NRM caucus in her office at Parliament, the Government Chief Whip Kasule Lumumba dismissed reports that there was a plan to extend the current term of office for all elected political leaders from the constitutionally stipulated five years to 10 years.
But media reports this week suggest that the plan that would see elections postponed has support from members of the ruling party.
The proposal, though denied by the government Spokesperson Rose Nsereko and NRM spokesperson Karooro Okurut, could represent a complete turn-around on the part of the NRM government which had earned praise from many Ugandans and foreigners as a government that respected constitutionalism and the rule of law.
According to media reports quoting the Member of Parliament (MP) for Nakifuma County Kafeero Ssekitooleko, a bill allegedly titled the Presidential, Parliamentary and Local Government Elections Extension Bill, has been drafted and is being studied. Kafeero also allegedly told the Monitor newspaper that a group of MPs had been charged with the duty of assessing public mood on the issue.
Article 77 of Uganda’s constitution provides for very stringent limitations for the extension of one’s mandate in office by stating that Parliament can only be extended in a state of war or emergency which would prevent a normal election.
But inside sources argue Kafeero is hardly a lone voice and that the issue has been discussed by very senior people in government including the Attorney General.
Whereas it may be entirely legal to extend the term of office by Parliament, some experts argue that the move is illegitimate because it disenfranchises the masses from using their last option of changing a government by using the vote.
Respect of the constitution through organising regular free and fair elections is globally considered one of the biggest elements of any democratic society because it represents a form of accountability leaders subject themselves to.
In democracies, the need to seek a new mandate on a regular basis is a well respected tradition because leaders occupy public offices with the will of the people. Therefore, extending one’s stay in office, at least without seeking the widest consensus possible, usually done through a referendum, is a major bleach of the trust that people have in leaders, which is why many political experts would conclude that it is illegitimate.
If the government supports the proposal and rallies it through a majority in Parliament that is constantly accused of eating bribes to make decisions that favour those in power and passing largely unpopular laws, analysts argue the NRM government would be crossing a dangerous step backward to totalitarianism similar to past regimes such as Idi Amin’s.
Almost comparing the proposed law to a coup by the same government, one media professional, name withheld for safety concerns, wondered: “If they can do this (extending their stay in power without the will of the people) what else can’t they do?”
But analysts argue this proposal should not surprise people considering the numerous political and legal developments in recent years, severely restricting citizens from enjoying fundamental human rights such as freedom of association, freedom of dressing and freedom of the media.
While presenting a paper at Hotel Africana recently about the impact of the Public Order Management Act on the media ((POMA) that was passed last year, Nicholas Opiyo, the General Secretary of the Uganda Law Society, argued that the NRM government had increasingly exhibited intolerance to the enjoyment of basic freedoms, and that the intolerance had been growing.
Opiyo said: “Since 1985 there has been constitutional tensions between what is provided in the law and what is practicable in the running of the affairs of the state.
“This constitution pitted those who are ardent followers of the law against those who just want to run the state and do so smoothly. In the middle of this constitutional crisis is a very charged fight in the hearts and minds of those who are fighting for political and commercial rights.”
Opiyo and other observers argue that whereas the 1995 Constitution guarantees basic freedoms under Chapter 4, when the constitution was enacted, the government almost immediately set about to dismantle those safeguards by introducing laws that essentially undercut the basic freedoms that were protected by the constitution.
For example, the 1998 Land Act and its Amendment are considered as a major reversal in the government’s commitment to protect people’s right to own property.
Several other laws that have since been enacted such as the Public Order Management Act (POMA) which bans public gatherings without permission of the police, the Uganda Communications Act, the Anti-Terrorism Act, the Anti-Homosexuality and Anti-Pornography acts, the Interception of Communications Act, are all aimed at curtailing the enjoyment of basic freedoms.
Opiyo argued that the POMA and other laws are simply a codification of the practice of the government.
He said: “I have heard people say that this law (POMA) was inspired by the Mabira demonstration and the Kayunga Buganda rebellion [of 2009]. My view is different. The POMA is only a codification of the practice of this government since 1986.”
He added: “The only thing about the law is; what they used to do without the law, they will now be able to do it with the backing of the law. Because the dispersal of public assemblies begun a long time ago.”
Opiyo argued that the government’s special focus on restricting freedom of the media as well as freedom of association and hence of political parties, is meant to curtail the strong impact the two platforms have on empowering the masses with political information. Government fears these two platforms can be used to mobilise people against its ill-practices
“Remember the DP [Democratic Party] demonstration at the City Square [now Constitutional Square] I think around 2003 when President Museveni said that anybody who turns up to demonstrate will be buried 6-feet under. Indeed true to his word, the morning of that day, an army helicopter was deployed not to fight Kony in the north but to quell the demonstrators as it was seen hovering over City Square. Heavily armed police were deployed to disperse DP demonstrators.”
Opiyo concluded: “I think that since 1986, we have taken four steps forward and five steps backward and run around corners all the time. We have given freedoms with one hand and taken them away with the other.”
His views were shared by lawyer James Nkuubi from HURINET-Uganda, who argued that the laws are a reflection of government failure to contend with the will of the people as the supreme authority by respecting institutions and public opinion.
Nkuubi said: “These laws that we are seeing, are a reflection of untransformed power. What happened in 1986 was a transfer of power. It was not a transformation of power. Transformation of power connotes de-constructing impediments towards freedoms.”
From the invasion of the courts of law by the infamous government-backed Black Mamba forces in 2005, to the recent open dis-regard for court decisions regarding whether or not Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago should still be in office, may represent a further step towards consolidation of power on the part of the government rather than consolidation of democracy in Uganda.
The arguments of Opiyo and Nkuubi seem to suggest that the NRM government has over the years been creating appropriate conditions to introduce the proposed law to finally usurp the power of the people by beating masses into submission through the fearless use of violence to crash demonstrations, desecrating courts, muzzling the media and openly stealing public funds.
Will Ugandans react?
Whereas in some countries the mere closure of a newspaper could anger people into protests, the potentially decisive last nail limiting the will of Ugandans to determine their leaders as suggested by the extension seems unlikely to move Ugandans to defend their rights.
As Nkuubi feared, numerous legal restrictions that have been introduced, coupled with the constant and violent use of force to suppress demonstrators and a cowed media have rendered Ugandans powerless and fearful.
Nkuubi argued that the situation had been made worse by a long history of demobilisation and de-politicisation so much so that many are unable to analyse the impact of the proposal on their daily lives.
Nkuubi argued: “The moment it [NRM government] came to power, it pursued a demobilisation and de-politicisation strategy. It told people; we have come, everything is settled. That is when you started hearing people say; at least we can sleep.”
He added: “The government demobilised co-operatives because cooperatives is power. People gather and can determine prices. In South Africa, people said no, you’re not demobilising us. That is why COSATU [South Africa’s largest workers union] is more powerful that the ANC.”
The successful removal of Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago from office and the absence of any serious public reaction from an electorate that may be considered informed and empowered seems to have emboldened those who want to completely erode the remaining few tenets of democracy in Uganda.