‘Abolish Office of the President’

Sunday March 1 2015

Official chair of the President of Uganda

Official chair of the President of Uganda 

By Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi

You have an interesting proposal...
Yes, after observing the nature of the country, and taking into consideration everything I have observed over the years, I have reached a conclusion which I don’t know how it will be disproved; that it is very difficult to get a single person to serve as president of Uganda and he is acceptable to all parts of Uganda.
Taking the current example, polls have been carried recently and when you add the weight President Museveni has to that of Amama Mbabazi, Mugisha Muntu and Kizza Besigye, those four have at least 80 per cent of support countrywide and if elections were to be carried out last month, one of them would be elected president, most likely President Museveni.
The question is, would that please the people from the north; that a westerner has been president for the last 30 years and now another one is waiting in the wings to take over? Chances are that people from the north are going to complain, wondering whether only westerners will lead this country. If we were to get a president from the north, many in Buganda will say, not those men again.
If we look at Buganda, you will get many people saying, not those Baganda again; they have bothered us for centuries. When you decide to pick one from the east, you will get many saying, those people are not reliable. Many would even object to making an innocent Karimojong president of Uganda.
So the question is, where will you ever get a single person who is acceptable to all Ugandans as president? I want this cured by replacing the position of president with a presidential commission or executive commission of four people elected from the different regions.

You seem to think that the biggest problem of Uganda is ethnicity

Former legislator Israel Mayengo

Former legislator Israel Mayengo during the interview at his home in Kampala. Photo by GEOFFREY SSERUYANGE

Oh yes, there is no question about it. And the main objective of any meaningful constitution of Uganda should be to harmonise the different communities which were put together by the British colonialists without their consent. The colonialists just bound together all these communities without regard to whether they had anything in common. They just found people who were different and lumped them together. It is our responsibility to find ways of how we can coexist meaningfully.

But coming from the same region didn’t stop Milton Obote being overthrown by the Okellos
Fortunately, I was with Paul Muwanga and he told me a lot of things about Obote. He told me that Obote’s group, who were Langi, had disagreements with the Acholi who came to be led by the Okellos. Muwanga told me that his boys – and by his boys he was referring to Bidandi Ssali, Kintu Musoke, Samwiri Mugwisa and Kirunda Kivejinja – asked him that the two (Obote and Okello) were having a quarrel and that this time he should not arbitrate between them; that he should let them kill each other. That can happen, yes. But we should agree that the biggest problem in our country’s politics is tribal and regional jealousies.

How did Muwanga get to tell you this?
We were imprisoned together and for a whole 183 days, we sat in a prison cell with Paul Muwanga and we discussed this. So he said when he had been advised by his boys not to intervene between Obote and Okello, he withdrew and kept quiet and eventually Obote was overthrown in 1985.

How did you end up in jail with Muwanga?
We were the first treason suspects when the current regime came to power despite the fact that when the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) was created, I was the first vice president to President Museveni.


So how did you become a rebel?
How I became a rebel? In any case, I never became a rebel; it was mere suspicion. Those suspected of being rebels, including Andrew Kayiira, Muwanga, Evaristo Nyanzi, Dr Lwanga, Francis Bwengye and 12 young men who included Maj Ndibowa who had been trained in Sandhurst in the UK, were arrested and dumped in Luzira in October 1986.
I had taken two German visitors for a drive around the River Nile and I was suspected of planning to blow up the Owen Falls Dam. So they included me among the treason suspects and I ended up spending 183 days in Luzira Maximum Prison and had a chance to sit with Muwanga alone in a prison cell for all those days.
Muwanga was a member of UPC and I had been a member of UPM while all the other suspects had been members of the Democratic Party so they didn’t want to mix with us. That is how I got the opportunity to ask Muwanga all sorts of questions and I think he gave me candid answers to many of the questions except to one question – on how Oyite Ojok died. To that he said he would tell me after we got out of prison. We did not manage to meet afterwards because he died shortly after being released from prison.

How did Muwanga come to wield a lot of power after Amin was overthrown?
I asked him a similar question while we were in prison. I asked him why he literally appointed Obote back into the office of president; why he did not take up the office himself. He told me that throughout his life he never wanted to be No. 1; that he always wanted to be No. 2. But that from his position as No. 2, he would shake up all the people below him and the one above him. He said that is why he was secretary general of UPC and in the Obote II government he was vice president and minister of defence.
The man was brilliant by the way. I saw it first hand when we were in prison. He was a genius who never did much formal schooling. He would handwrite with his left hand and write so well, and then he would use his right hand and then you would look at two beautiful handwritings. His two hands would produce two different signatures; very few people can do that. Whenever we came to court, Muwanga put in even more organised speeches than his lawyer.

How did you get out of prison?
We were eventually acquitted. The prosecutor just stood up in court one day and said there was no evidence of any sort to implicate me. Kayiira, Dr Lwanga and another friend of mine also came out the same day but Muwanga stayed in jail. He kept telling me in our cell that he knew I would be released soon but that he would spend four years in jail and that they would bring over a hundred cases of murder against him but that he would win all of them.
He indeed ended up spending four years and some two weeks in jail. Ten days after we were released, Kayiira was shot dead. Incidentally some soldiers came to the house where I was staying the same night Kayiira was killed but I was away. I learnt of it later and I ended up in hiding for 90 days.

Going back to your idea, you want us to have a presidential commission instead of a single person as president, how would that work in practice?

Former Uganda president Idi Amin

Former Uganda president Idi Amin

It will be working as the president but jointly, say the way it is done in Switzerland. You have commissioners among whom they elect a chairman on a rotational basis. Each chairman, call him the president, will serve for a year and then another one takes over as chairman. But on all important matters, the decisions of the commissioners will need to be unanimous.
The commission itself will not have term limits but the commissioners will have term limits. Each commissioner will serve for four or five years, eligible for re-election only once. To ensure that the commission is in place all the time, the terms of the commissioners will not expire at once, meaning that two commissioners will be elected from two regions every after two years, so that as the terms of the two commissioners reach expiry, the terms of the other two commissioners will still have two more years to run.
I propose that we have four commissioners – one each from the northern region, eastern, western and central. I propose that half of the commissioners should be women. This will resolve the question of having power being concentrated in the hands of one man and minimise dictatorial tendencies. It will reduce complaints about tribalism and nepotism in State House, lower the cost of protecting the president because with a commission like that, there will be no single person who you will be worried about being overthrown, being harmed, and things like that.
It will help us deal with the embarrassing pomposity around the presidency; vanity, waste, you know. Bill Gates, the richest man in America, put up a residence which some said was the best in the world. It cost him $50m. The State House in Entebbe cost $80m without the cost of land being included. This whole idea of the president moving around in a special jet, when even some of the countries which give us aid don’t have their leaders flying private jets. All this shows the showiness of our leaders. This should be minimised.
There is also the constant worry of being overthrown. So we spend billions on the army, special forces, weapons, all kinds of efforts are taken to guard against coups. And yet the coups are aimed at the presidency; to get rid of one man and replace him with another one. I believe strongly that if Uganda was being guided by a presidential commission instead of one president, an attack on Lubiri in Mengo wouldn’t have taken place.
And it was from that attack that the retrogression of Uganda started. We need to lower the cost of defence; because what we call defence is actually not defence of the country, it is defence of the president. Not many are worried that Rwanda or Kenya or any of our other neighbours will attack us so that we need to stock weapons. It is mostly about the president surviving in power. We need to curtail this using a presidential commission.

The four regions you are talking about would in effect be semi-autonomous. Is this another way to propose a federal system of government?
Of course, the federal system would be beautiful. It would be a good way to diffuse the ongoing cold war between Buganda and Uganda; a cold war which even negates our Constitution, which talks about governance by the consent of the governed. The Baganda have consistently not agreed to being governed the way they are being governed. They have had a unique system of governance that has been in place for the last 800 years and they would like to continue with it. A presidential commission would be a good solution for everyone.

It is said that power isn’t handed over on a silver platter. How do you intend to go about taking power from one president and handing it over to a presidential commission?
I know the prevailing leadership will detest this arrangement. But we can convince the almost 400 MPs that not each of them will become president. Even if each of them were to be president for one year, it will take 400 years of each of them to get a go at the presidency. So they should have no problem agreeing to the idea of a presidential commission.

We seem to have a powerful President who wields enormous powers over a big majority of MPs. How do we deal with that?
We don’t need a powerful president. This is the strong man syndrome which has engulfed the African continent. We don’t need a strong man. We had Idi Amin here as strong man. Where did he lead us? Would anyone want him back? I am sure even President Museveni will say we don’t need Amin back.
But look at what the President is doing; he has a powerful hand in almost everything. And we don’t need that. The more you have power the more you expect to be opposed. And then the president reacts by committing billions of our money to defend himself. If you add up the money spent in Internal Affairs, in Defence, the State House and what is spent by the so-called presidency, you will be surprised that it will dwarf the money spent on education, health and agriculture. Why? All this idea of defence is defence for the president. If someone wandered to where the president is seated, he will be grabbed immediately and branded an enemy of the State. But is the president the State?

Have you tried to feed this idea into the current talk about electoral and political reforms by politicians, civil society and religious leaders?
I haven’t had much chance. But when the minister of Constitutional Affairs asked the public to make suggestions about the amendment of the Constitution, I sent in my idea. I knew it would be opposed because when a copy was sent to the Speaker of Parliament and the Clerk to Parliament, I am told the Speaker did not clear the idea of distributing copies to MPs.

You were an active politician in 1994/95 when the Constitution was made. Did you try to feed this into the process?
Yes I did. In 1993 I had already formulated this idea and I tried to sell it to the voters. But in the constituency where I was campaigning, in Sese Islands you can imagine, the people could not appreciate it. It is natural that they wouldn’t. All they know is that there is always a chief; that old method of ours. So I couldn’t get elected. You know that elections these days go to those who can buy more soap for the voters. But I proposed this idea to my friends who were important in the Constitutional Commission and the Constituent Assembly.
They said it was a fantastic idea but that it was too sophisticated for the people to understand. I even proposed it to my friend and former schoolmate, Prof Apolo Nsibambi, and Sam Njuba who said it would be difficult for people here to understand it; that all that they know is that there must be someone at the head of government. That is true; but that someone is okay in countries which have a good tradition of following the constitution and following the law.
Some people have asked me before; where has it worked? My first answer has always been; must it have worked elsewhere? Who said Africans cannot come up with unique solutions to their problems? I have always been quoting James Madson, one of the architects of the American Constitution, who used to say a constitution is like a garment, it must be tailored to fit the contours of the wearer. So those who design any constitution for Uganda must have an awareness of our society. The present constitution doesn’t seem to recognise that. It seems to say, we will take the bull by the horns, we will force these people to accept what we are saying. And while at it, we keep moving in circles.