If democracy, stripped down to its bare bones, means governing with the consent of the governed, then the process through which the age limit Bill came into law is evidence, if any was needed, that ours is a democracy in form, not substance.
An opinion poll conducted by Afrobarometer before the matter formally came before Parliament, showed unanimous support across the country and all demographics (age, gender, education, income, et cetera) for retaining the age limit.
Separate polling of the electoral college (MPs) appeared to validate these findings and any doubt was removed during the ‘public consultations’. In fact, to stop some MPs from being lynched, these consultations soon morphed into closed town-hall meetings of pre-selected locals or party functionaries.
At the same time, the ruling NRM party organs were summoned to endorse the proposal (without bothering to wait for the results of the ‘public consultations’) then MPs whipped to toe the party line and vote for the Bill regardless of what their constituents had told them. Throw in Cabinet’s own endorsement, the principle of collective responsibility, and the large number of ministers sitting in Parliament, and you had a fait accompli.
Not only was the number big enough to usurp the power of the people, the MPs also threw in some perks for themselves – extending their own tenure – on which they had not consulted their electors. It was like a shopper, idling at the supermarket checkout till, throwing a few chocolate bars into their trolley. For just.
What we witnessed at the tail end of 2017, therefore, is what Aili Mari Tripp called the ‘paradoxes of power in Museveni’s Uganda’: On one hand, a deeply unpopular proposal rewriting the rules underpinning who and how the people ought to be governed, passed into law under the smokescreen of quasi-democratic rituals; on the other, the lack of public uproar or open resistance against the move thanks to the repressive nature of the State and its organs, be it against independent media or civilian dissent. Never before has a velvet glove fitted so snuggly over an iron fist!
In my view, there are at least two core flaws underpinning this paradox, whose causation and correlation ought to be examined further. The first is that Uganda opened up the democratic space before it had developed strong institutions to arbitrate the competition for political power.
Thus Parliament can be played like a guitar, woolen wigs pulled over the eyes of the Judiciary, the Electoral Commission swung around like a walking stick and the civil service turned into a choir of cadres providing the sound track in this Theatre of the Absurd.
The second flaw is that the State remains fundamentally weak. Yes, the army is large, modernising and better able to defend the territorial integrity, but in most of the citizen-facing aspects, State institutions have coercive power to destroy, not to build.
Thus the police are able to gather intelligence about plots to burn petrol stations and pre-emptively arrest Opposition politicians before they can leave their homes (damn criminals!), but struggle with humdrum criminal investigations, even the murder of their own. We can kick al-Shabaab butts from Mogadishu to Afgooye, but we can’t distribute the right seedlings between Masaka and Arua.
How did it happen? To try and understand this, we need to imagine not what has happened over the past 30 years, but what should and could have happened. Democrats should stop reading now:
In the first 10 years (1986-1996), the government should have used its dictatorship to deal with the structural issues on which it is hard to get consensus – destroy traditional kingdoms, put all land under government control, et cetera.
The next 10 years (1996 – 2006), should have been used to develop political consensus and write a new Constitution, informed by whether the State had survived the shock therapy of the first period.
Then 2006 – 2016 should have been used to bed-in the new institutions and allow political parties to be formed and contest in lower elections before being free to field presidential and parliamentary candidates in the last election.
The recent amendment merely resets the clock on Museveni’s personal tenure, but doesn’t reboot the system. Let’s not waste this crisis, I say! Abolish Parliament, suspend the Constitution and elections and rule by fiat – we can use the money saved to build railways and pay civil servants better. Those who are alive in 30 years will decide whether it was better to die under a ‘democracy’ or live under a ‘dictatorship’. Vive la révolution, camarades!
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org