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Uganda’s Constitutional Dilemma: Can Democracy thrive under a Powerful President?

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Uganda, a landlocked country in East Africa, has been under the rule of President Yoweri Museveni since 1986. Museveni, who came to power after a guerrilla war against the dictatorship of Idi Amin, has been re-elected six times, most recently in January 2021, in a general election marred by widespread abuses. Security forces arbitrarily arrested and beat opposition supporters and journalists, killed protesters, and disrupted opposition rallies. Shortly before the elections, the government shut down the internet for five days, and restricted access to social media sites including Twitter and YouTube for a month. The authorities indefinitely blocked access to Facebook after the network announced it had taken down a network of accounts and pages linked to the government.

Museveni’s main challenger in the 2021 election was Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, a popular singer and leader of the National Unity Platform (NUP) party. Kyagulanyi, who campaigned on a platform of change and social justice, appealed to many young Ugandans who are frustrated by the lack of economic opportunities and political freedoms in the country. Kyagulanyi rejected the official results that gave Museveni 58 percent of the vote and him 35 percent, alleging widespread fraud and irregularities. He filed a petition to the Supreme Court to challenge the election outcome, but later withdrew it, claiming that the court was biased and influenced by Museveni.

Museveni’s dominance over Uganda’s political system is partly enabled by the constitution, which grants him extensive powers to appoint key officials who oversee the security forces, the judiciary, and the electoral commission. According to Article 99 of the constitution, the president is the head of state and government, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the chairperson of the National Security Council. The president also has the power to appoint and remove the vice president, the prime minister, the cabinet ministers, and other public officers.

Article 142 of the constitution gives the president the power to appoint the chief justice and other judges of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, and the High Court, on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission. The president also has the power to remove judges on grounds of misconduct or incompetence, on the recommendation of a tribunal appointed by him or her. Critics have argued that this arrangement undermines judicial independence and accountability, and allows Museveni to influence court decisions in his favor.

Article 213 of the constitution gives the president the power to appoint the inspector general of police (IGP) and his or her deputy, on the advice of the cabinet. The IGP is responsible for advising the government on police matters, maintaining law and order, preventing and detecting crime, and cooperating with other security agencies. The IGP also has operational control over all police officers in Uganda. Human rights groups have accused Uganda’s police force of being partisan and brutal in enforcing Museveni’s orders, especially during election periods. The police have used excessive force against peaceful protesters, opposition activists, journalists, and civil society members.

Article 208 of the constitution gives the president the power to appoint the commander of Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF) and his or her deputy, on advice of High Command. The UPDF is composed of land forces, air forces, Special Forces command (SFC), reserve forces, local Defence Units (LDUs), and other auxiliary forces. The UPDF is mandated to preserve and defend Uganda’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, cooperate with civilian authorities in emergency situations, foster harmony with other security agencies, and engage in productive activities for national development. However, the UPDF has also been accused of human rights violations, political interference, and corruption.

Article 60 of the constitution gives the president the power to appoint the chairperson and members of the Electoral Commission (EC), on the advice of the Judicial Service Commission and with the approval of Parliament. The EC is responsible for organizing, conducting, and supervising all elections and referenda in Uganda, as well as compiling and maintaining the national voters’ register. The EC also has the power to demarcate electoral boundaries, accredit election observers, and resolve electoral disputes. However, the EC has faced criticism for its lack of transparency, independence, and credibility, especially from the opposition parties and civil society organizations. The EC has been accused of being biased towards Museveni and his ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), and of failing to ensure free, fair, and peaceful elections.

The constitution of Uganda, which was promulgated in 1995 after a long process of consultation and debate, was meant to establish a democratic system of governance based on the principles of unity, peace, equality, freedom, social justice, and progress. However, over the years, the constitution has been amended several times to suit Museveni’s political interests. The most controversial amendments were those that removed the presidential term limits in 2005 and the presidential age limit in 2017, effectively allowing Museveni to rule for life.

The question that many Ugandans are asking is whether it is possible for them to experience a democratic change of government when the constitution still gives the president the powers to appoint the chief justice, the inspector general of police, the army commander, and the chair of the electoral commission. The answer is not simple, as it depends on various factors, such as the level of popular mobilization, the strength of the opposition, the role of civil society, the influence of regional and international actors, and the willingness of Museveni and his allies to respect the will of the people.

Some analysts have argued that Uganda’s political system is ripe for change, as evidenced by the growing discontent among the youth, who make up more than 75 percent of the population, and the emergence of charismatic leaders like Kyagulanyi, who have challenged Museveni’s legitimacy and popularity. They have also pointed out that Uganda’s history has shown that change can come through popular uprisings, as in 1979 when Amin was overthrown by a coalition of Ugandan exiles and Tanzanian troops, or in 1986 when Museveni himself toppled the regime of Milton Obote with his rebel army.

Other analysts have cautioned that Uganda’s political system is resilient to change, as demonstrated by Museveni’s ability to manipulate the constitution, co-opt or repress his opponents, and maintain control over the security forces and state institutions. They have also noted that Uganda’s politics is deeply divided along ethnic, regional, and religious lines, which could undermine the prospects of a peaceful and inclusive transition. They have further warned that Uganda’s strategic importance in the region and its relations with powerful countries like China and Russia could limit the pressure from external actors to support democratic reforms.

The future of Uganda’s democracy remains uncertain, as Museveni shows no signs of relinquishing power or allowing a level playing field for his rivals. The opposition and civil society face numerous challenges and risks in their quest for change, such as harassment, intimidation, violence, and legal obstacles. The people of Uganda deserve a better governance system that respects their rights and aspirations, and that delivers on their social and economic needs. The constitution should be a tool for empowering them, not for entrenching them under a powerful president.

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