We are on a dangerous steady slide

Moses Khisa

What you need to know:

..the state of human rights and freedoms, the rule of law, the quality of life... are all in peril.

There is a tired cliché that no one is above the law. In a country like Uganda, this is patently false. In practice, there are many above the law. Established rules don’t apply to them. They can’t be held to account when they break the law.

I am not referring to the wretched of earth, the urban poor, ghetto folk who live by breaking the law, who live in illegal settlements with illegal electricity connections. These live under conditions of wrongdoing and illegality because of their dire material circumstances.

Rather, I am referring to the rulers. Those in charge of the levers of state power, their acolytes and associates. The trail starts at the top. So much wrong can be made in the name of the highest office in the land. Those with connections to the top can do anything they want. No accountability.

For good reasons, the president is shielded from court proceedings, criminal prosecution and civil litigation, by virtue of the office he holds and the work he does. This is nearly a universal norm and practice. Some countries though have exceptions to this rule.

But the protection granted to a head of state is not meant to be an invitation to act outside the law, nor is it a blanket cover for disregarding the rules that otherwise apply to everyone. Quite to the contrary, precisely because a president is protected against litigation and criminal prosecution is the very reason he must uphold the law, promote the rule of law starting by example, living by the rules and respecting the established law.

At any rate, the president or a head of state is the custodian of law and the public interest. It’s him who signs off on every law, appoints judicial officers and has overall oversight over all activities of government including law and order enforcement, the primary mandate of the executive branch whose chief executive officer is the president.

Given the weight of the office and the enormous duties that go with it, there are good reasons to not subject a head of state to routine rule of law requirements like traffic rules, stringent restrictions on use of public resources, a range of criminal liabilities that otherwise apply to other public officials and citizens, etc.

The problem for Uganda today, indeed since we purported to become an independent polity, is that the exemptions extended to the president and presidency take on a wide and undefined scope. Many easily get away with murder.

Those at the top who control force and finance, who have guns and money, can do whatever they want and are not booked at police. Being in a top government position now means disregarding the law.

On the roads, the most common culprits blatantly driving on the wrong side, on shoulders, pavements and who overtake from anywhere tend to be either private vehicles of the rich and powerful or government vehicles including those of the armed forces.

The logical trend is a top-down spiral, from the rulers to the ruled, in defying the law and committing wrongs for which many are not sanctioned or appropriately punished. When those at the top commandeer public land, the poor folk living on the fringes too helps himself to a road reserve or a gazetted wetland.

Extortion by middlemen and brokers lined up in the corridors of state house becomes a lesson for civil servants who award big-money government contracts. A boda boda rider who sees a military SUV pushing aside oncoming traffic finds no reason to ride by the rules of the road. If an otherwise well-paid judge receives hefty envelopes through clandestine emissaries, a miserable court clerk, poorly paid police officer all working in the same justice and law order sector find their own way of helping themselves.

The sum of all this is that we are tottering on the brink of sheer lawlessness. Violating the law increasingly becomes the normal practice when there are so many people breaking the law. Where respecting the law becomes an exception, enforcement is nearly impossible.

If those supposed to uphold the law, the custodians of the public interest and the enforcers of common standards are doing precisely the very wrongs they are meant to fight and work to counter, it’s a hopeless situation.

In the 1970s, scholars wrote about a shrinking political arena. Idi Amin’s rule was not just brutal and vicious, the very basic notion of politics as a vocation became nearly abolished. In the 1980s, much was written about Uganda nearing failed-state status.

Recently, I and others have underscored the trend of a shrinking democratic space. Matters are actually getting worse. The quality of government, the state of human rights and freedoms, the rule of law, the quality of life and the future viability of our existence as a nation are all in peril.


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