In the theatre of the absurd, form triumphs over substance

Thursday August 15 2019


By Daniel Kalinaki

After the National Resistance Army captured power in January 1986, one urgent need, after food and clothing, was to find shelter, especially for its officers. Depending on rank, the choice ranged from the upmarket suburbs of Kololo and Nakasero down to the valleys, and all the way to the marshes around Kampala.
One of the top officers took to a large house on Windsor Crescent, a leafy quiet street overlooking the Golf Course. For the next 10 years, a section of the Crescent was closed off to the public for the security, privacy and comfort of the senior army officer. He wasn’t the only one. Many of the property disputes that would eventually arise would do so over houses that had been similarly commandeered.
Eventually things were somewhat democratised by allowing sitting tenants, most of them members of the new military and political elite, to buy at large discounts, the government pool houses that they had occupied.
I was reminded of this story by the recent appearance by Gen Elly Tumwine before the Parliamentary Committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline to defend himself against allegations of disparaging the Speaker and the image of Parliament, as well as threatening fellow MP Cecilia Ogwal (Dokolo District).
In previous public comments, Gen Tumwine had reminded MPs of his sacrifice in the NRA and the Bush War. He repeated this at his recent appearance and advised those tired of the chorus to “go and hang”. It wasn’t clear, from watching the live broadcast of the committee hearing, what exactly Parliament expected to achieve.
Gen Tumwine denied pulling a gun on MP Ogwal a few years earlier or threatening her more recently. But let us assume that he had cut her off in the corridor, pressed a cold steel barrel against her temple, looked her in the eye and threatened to shoot. Then what?
Would Parliament pass a strongly worded resolution condemning his actions? Recommend for his removal from the House? Have him suspended for a number of sittings? I fail to see what course of action Parliament would take that would leave the General trembling in his boots. The committee hearing is a placebo, a chance to be seen to be doing something, rather than actually doing something.
See, if Parliament was concerned about violence, whether real or threatened, it wouldn’t spend time looking at grainy CCTV footage to tell whether the General was holding a Bible or a pistol in his hand.
Instead it would revisit the events from September 2017 when real violence was meted out at MPs protesting against the lifting of the presidential age limit from the Constitution leaving some of them in hospital.
Did Parliament do anything to draw a line in the sand over the unprecedented violence? Did it haul in the Executive to demand a fully-fledged public inquiry? Did it refuse to appropriate the relevant budgets until answers had been provided, sanctions meted out and promises extracted to ensure no recurrence? No. It made a few perfunctory noises, and then carried on with business, as usual.
The committee hearing, therefore, played to the gallery. It is a sign of weakness, not strength. There is very little, if anything, they can do to Gen Tumwine because the real power isn’t constitutional, but military.
This isn’t surrender by those who seek reforms designed to entrench constitutionalism and rule of law. Rather, it is acknowledgment of the real state of play, and the big task ahead for all democrats.
There is no such thing, at the moment anyway, and in our present circumstances, as civilian authority over the military.
Once we understand this, we can stop playing along and find meaningful ways to engage, including picking which battles to fight. Presented with a Security Minister, for instance, Parliament could quiz him on whether he threatened a colleague or not, or broach a wider discussion about the growing crime and insecurity in the country.
This allows Parliament to look sufficiently busy while allowing the government to give assurances, if any, to a bigger constituency – the voting public – it needs to pay tax and endorse its self-selection every five years.
Until institutions, particularly Parliament and the Judiciary, are able to defend whatever independence the law gives them, and unless they are able to locate that independence in a broader public consensus on the rule of law, they will continue to be participants, not contestants for or determinants of power.
When a man blocks a public road approaching him and politely asking that he plants flowers around the barricade, he is pandering to form, not substance.