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SPECIAL REPORT: Restore term limits, Ssempebwa insists

Even before Mugabe, the typical African leader has not voluntarily handed over power to a successor

A renowned constitutional lawyer, PROF. FREDRICK SSEMPEBWA chaired the Constitutional Review Commission that handled amendments to the Constitution in 2005. He is remembered for his principled stand against the removal of presidential term limits, although the amendment was nevertheless adopted. Delivering a key-note address at the inaugural delegates conference of the nascent People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Ssempebwa called for the restoration of term limits, among other comments on Uganda’s politics. Below is his address in full:

The theme for your conference raises a question. Why is it relevant to talk about planting seeds of peace, constitutionalism and good governance at this time in the history of the country? If the struggle against colonialism was about constitutionalism and good governance, should one talk of planting seeds after over forty-five years of independence? If it is relevant to talk about planting seeds today, how does that reflect on the country’s achievements?
To appreciate the relevance of the theme, it is of help to summarize the history of our people’s struggle for peace and good governance.
The struggle was not triggered only by the injustice of colonial rule. Even before colonialism the people were vigilant about peace and good governance. Whether they were ruled by kings or chiefs, the people had mechanisms of fighting abuse of authority. The vote was non-existent but bad leaders could be replaced. Allegiance to the king or the chief was in return for protection of life and property. A leader, who ceased to guarantee these, would be forced out of power and replaced. In some communities, such as Buganda, the rules of succession were well defined.

Colonialism brought in a new dimension. It destroyed the capacity of the people to confront had leadership. It incorporated the people into a money economy through a combination of force and some returns to labour which were grossly inadequate, in short, colonialism oppressed and exploited our people.

As a reaction to this oppression and exploitation, our forefather’s struggle was much focused. They pressed for the right to representation. They demanded a role in processing and marketing their produce. In other words, the struggle was for a just society in which the new mode of production would have social value and not simply a means of complementing the economy of the metropole; a society in which they would have a right to make decisions affecting their livelihood; a society of both formal and substantive equality.

The struggle was derailed by the process of formal independence. The only real achievement celebrated in October 1962 was independence from foreign masters. But, from the foreign masters, indigenous masters were inherited, drilled in the same methods of oppression. For the purpose of entrenching their stay, the indigenous masters even improved on the methods of oppression (concentration of power in themselves, oppressive laws such as detention without trial, and general suppression of human freedoms and rights including the right to life).

With the overthrow of Amin’s dictatorship in 1979, it was believed that the seeds of peace, constitutionalism and good governance were being sowed. Unity and reconciliation were necessary preconditions. The politics of unity under the UNLF were designed as an interim arrangement to sow the seeds of peace and good governance.

“Movement” is a relative of “umbrella” under UNLF and was embraced because of the belief that it carried similar objectives. Though an ardent supporter of party politics, I must admit to flirting with the UNLF/Movement politics of unity. Unlimited access to political office and the freedom to participate, contribute and criticize without restrictions of party loyalties are intriguing elements in the process of democratization.

The politics of unity cannot survive where the leadership of the day claims to be the custodian of unity and the omnipotence over the “correct” decisions for the rest of humankind. Sharp differences within the Movement were inevitable. We now have the diversity of party politics. Is it possible to have unity in the context of this diversity? We shall revert to this later. It is now opportune to consider the manner in which seeds of constitutionalism and good governance are being planted through party politics.

False start

It is evident that the transition to multi-partyism is taking a false start. This is disappointing but not surprising. In the last two decades, a message has been sent to the people that political parties are an evil to be avoided altogether. All of a sudden the evil could be tolerated and rationalised as a move to get rid of those “who felt conscripted to the Movement System”. Purify the system so that Movement Asili could continue.

Of course there were also internal and external pressures which made it possible to legislate multi-partyism into existence. This enabled parties to register. Beyond this, everything is being done to ensure that parties remain briefcase organisations. If legalising parties through their legislation constitutes planting the seeds, then the seeds, just like CHOGM flowers, are being strewn on rock and are struggling to germinate. This is the challenge that you and other democratic forces face. The following aspects of the challenge are possibly on the agenda of your conference but are important to summarize.


Multi-partyism cannot take root under conditions of intolerance.
Tolerance implies respect for the other side and its views. The leaders in power behave as if they are omniscient and as such are destined to rule in perpetuity. The other parties become non-issues. They can be tolerated but not beyond their registration as parties. The normal political activities must be curtailed on the ground that they interfere with the smooth running of governance. The inevitability of change is beyond their imagination. They are not in a position to appreciate that change is rendered more palatable where an atmosphere of tolerance had prevailed throughout their stay in power. Constant party dialogue is suggested.

Constant dialogue contributes to an appreciation of the relevance of every party. Dialogue engaged in by party leaders would have a civilizing influence on politics at the grass roots. Confrontation at the top breeds violence at the grass root, especially at election time.

It is the opinion of this presentation that the inter-party mechanism for dialogue should be reactivated as a medium of dialogue on national issues.

Fair competition

In democratic systems, political parties present the opportunity for political succession. Whether elections lead to change of regime or not, a system is viewed as democratic if it guarantees fair competition. African political parties have to grapple the situation whereby a party in power organises and participates in elections from an advantaged position arising merely out of incumbency. The current developments in Zimbabwe should be a good lesson. Even before Robert Mugabe, the typical African leader has not voluntarily handed over power to a successor.

Botswana is an exception. However, there, as in Tanzania after Julius Nyerere, a dormant party has continued in power.
In theory, an African president has been removable by vote. In practice, the African president has used all the machinery in his hands to stay in power for ever. Elections are rigged.

But Zimbabwe and Kenya where rigging fails, the entire election can be disregarded. Some of us contribute to pushing our presidents into this culture of clinging on to power. We praise them as they were the messiah without whom, there will be doom.
Uganda is full of men and women with excellent leadership qualities. We can identify them from the cabinet itself. One can go beyond to look at successful leaders of institutions both government and non-governmental. All successful men and women in their calling, small or big, have a developmental vision.

It can be said as was said of Nigeria, that the problem bedeviling the issue of political succession is lack of belief in institutionalized leadership. The turmoil of the past has created a “saviour mentality”; the perception that an individual can save the nation. This perception is responsible for creating around a president, the aura of invincibility and the feeling that he is indispensable. The saviour mentality is the instrument the praise-singers use to campaign for the perpetual rule of an individual.

There is an element of the saviour mentality in our political organisations. It is sweetened by the word charismatic. This should be avoided in your party. If allowed to flourish; it may lead to the following results. In the first instance, even if you are inclined to change a leader, it may be difficult because of the perception that no other person can be equally effective.

Secondly, the fortunes of the organisation will be tied to the individual to the extent that the organisation dies with the individual. In matters of the state this can be costly if not catastrophic. It may imply that every new leader has to dismantle whatever is on the ground so as to effect his/her vision.
No single individual has the vision to build and sustain an organisation.

Equally, no individual can claim the vision to develop a nation. The country is developed by collective vision of the people which is enshrined in the systems in, and institutions of governance. A system of leadership will produce good leaders in an organisation. Without a system, the individual is asked to hand pick a successor.

When we argue for term limits, it is not merely because a president should be changed. The argument is that the term limits should be part of the foundation upon which systems and institutions of governance should be built in order to avoid the saviour mentality that breeds perpetual rule. It is also an argument for stability; to avoid a situation of starting afresh whenever the vision departs with the holder.

I venture to suggest that members of a political party should insist on institutionalised leadership. Otherwise the “saviour mentality” in the party could be transposed to the national leadership.

Uganda believed that the seeds of constitutionalism had been sown through the term limit. The seeds were not permitted to germinate. Therefore, the issue of political succession is very much alive. We discuss the issue not just because there must be change in leadership for its own sake. Democracy should ensure that there is change if it is needed. The experience of Africa is that leaders overstay not because of popular choice but because they manipulate the system. They control all the institutions of democracy, including electoral commissions, and those of force such as the Police and the Army.

In Zimbabwe, the army has declared that it will never protect the Opposition leader even if he is popularly elected.
Would Ugandans want to reach a situation such as that in Zimbabwe where the only alternative left is violence? I would be surprised if it is not the agenda of your party to restore term limits at the earliest opportunity available.

Movement legacy

One legacy of the NRM one party/no party system of governance is the incorporation of institutions of government with those of the one party/movement “system”. I personally believe that that security organs such as the Army, the Police and the Intelligence need to be politicised. They must be conscious of the problems of the country and possible/alternative solutions. They must be conscious of their duties to maintain the sovereignty of the nation and to protect the lives of the people. This implies that they are aware of the people’s rights and freedoms and appreciate the interplay of individual rights and the public interest. Therefore, the move by the NRM to politicise the security forces and the bureaucracy is praiseworthy.

Whereas the NRM deserves commendation for the move to politicise those institutions, they must take responsibility for having done so very badly. The purpose of the politicisation was to incorporate these government institutions into a partisan relationship with the one party/movement “system” of politics. The legacy is that these institutions of government continue to relate to the NRMO as if it was still the single political organisation. Their mission under the Movement was to suppress alternative organisations. They continue to do so by banning any form of activity in which the public would appear to show support for the opposition.

A court pronouncement that the responsibility of the Police to keep law and order does not extend to prohibiting assemblies has been received with such furor that the conclusion of partisanship on the part of the Police becomes inescapable.

True, the Police must protect the public from those bent to disrupt law and order. Does it follow that the only way of discharging this responsibility is to exile political gatherings and demonstrations? What else other than partisanship can explain the rationalisation of banning a political gathering on a ground that the gathering was going to trespass on land which is the subject of a court dispute? This very land is used everyday for car washing and other activities under the eyes of the Police.

Incidentally political parties cannot be consoled by having been reserved safe areas for their public activities. The Police have dismantled a political gathering in a safe area. Clearly the mission is continuing.

Poverty, ignorance

Thanks to our complete surrender to globalisation and liberalisation, the poor have become poorer. The urban-based group of political leaders, bureaucrats, businessmen, professional, artisans and traders are a minority. The evidence of their conspicuous consumption in the form of town mansions and cars creates a false sense of well-being. It is the rural poor that form the majority. The implication of this for the parties is lack of material based support at the grass root. In fact, party functionaries at the lower levels look to the top for facilitation.
Because of poverty, political parties cannot adequately mobilise the people. The ruling party in Africa (including Uganda) is privileged because it can mobilise through the bureaucracy and the facilities at central and local government levels in spite of formal prohibitions against the practice. With this privilege, the leaders in power turn around and cynically refer to the weakness of opposition parties.

Political patronage

The opposition political parties must address the challenges of political patronage. The party in power will take every opportunity to lure support through dangling “benefits”. In Uganda, districts have multiplied at election time. Promises of roads, power and even wealth are thrown about. The underlying message is that it is only the ruling party that can accord a better life.

The ruling party through its leaders in government commands resources which they can corruptly turn to political patronage. This was done by the Moi regime in Kenya to collect money for party use. For example, the Moi regime sanctioned the fictitious export of gold and the construction of non-existent public facilities such as roads. The regime also wantonly allocated valuable land and sometimes already occupied by public institutions such as schools in order to raise party funds.

The opposition parties like yours have a big responsibility to counter patronage and corruption. You should send out the message that it is the function of government to work towards a better life for the people, that political patronage is nothing more than corruption for which leaders should be impeached.

Principled alliances

Every political party has the capacity for alternative leadership to provide. However, the above and other challenges may call for strategic and principled alliances. I would compare an alliance to a courtship of an intended spouse. It is triggered by a flirtatious relationship, speeded up by an infatuation and tamed by companionship. If the marriage takes place at the stage of companionship, it is more likely to succeed. Two or more parties are flirting where their relationship is based on the idea of capturing power from another party. When the possibility of capturing power is real, the relationship becomes one of infatuation. This is the stage usually mistaken to have crystallised an alliance. It is crucial that the relationship is tamed at this stage in order that there might be companionship after the immediate objective. I would say, therefore, that the alliance whose sole objective is to defeat the ruling party is not principled. It is not principled because it has not strategised on the period after elections. What direction would an alliance government take? What would be the alliance’s goals in terms of development? These should be carefully mapped out. The enthusiasm arising from the desire to defeat a common enemy cannot sustain an alliance. It is the agreed principles which can sustain it. The national Rainbow Coalition (NARC) of Kenya is a good lesson. Its action plan did not go beyond defeating Moi and rearranging the power structure so that the president (Mwai Kibaki) would share power with a prime minister (Raila Odinga) and other Cabinet posts equitably divided. There were no policy objectives to keep the alliance together when disagreements over power sharing arose.

Constructive engagement

Earlier on, reference was made to the possibility of unity in diversity. I also referred to the necessity for tolerance and dialogue. Is it possible or fruitful for our parties to be in dialogue over basic issues of the national interest? Should organisations which are out of power (not present in Parliament) have a role in national affairs much beyond being pressure groups? Is it possible to identify core issues of the national interest on which political actors could develop a consensus? For Israel, survival as a nation and holding onto its territory is a core issue. In Western economics as represented by Britain and USA, a freedom of enterprise is a core issue.

Differences are about strategies of sustaining the freedom.
It is not possible in this address to provide adequate answers to the above questions. I simply venture to suggest that our political parties could be united by constant dialogue on important issues of the national interest if only to evolve a national ethos that will guide every government.

Take the economy for example. There is no clear direction. The very life of the country is subject to an individual’s infatuation with industrialisation/investment. We are promised wealth (Bonna bagagawale). What is this industrialisation/investment? What is the strategy for making every Ugandan rich? Is money gong to be distributed from the Treasury? PPP and other parties could come together to analyse the future of the economy in the context of globalisation. Consensus is desirable on questions such as:

. whether emphasis on processing relying on ever changing and costly foreign technology and other services is developmental;
. whether it is possible to create centres of technological development in order to avoid being perpetual consumers in the global market;
. Whether the level of agricultural output can support an efficient industrialisation programme and if not what to do about it.
The membership has ample time to deliberate on what is good for this country. Finally, I note that you are graced with membership largely drawn from the youth. The youth are a reservoir of energy and resourcefulness for research and mobilisation, and the capacity to break restrictive barriers.

I am sure I have disappointed you by not delving directly into issues of constitutionalism and governance. I have not attempted to scale successes against failures in the continuous journey to democracy. I believe these could be the subject of interaction in the course of the conference.

I need only add that because the scales appear to be tilted on the side of failure, we all have a hard task ahead; a task to prevent a dictatorship in bloom from maturing into hard wood. The signs are very clear. Parties can exist but no politicking. Parties can be formed but they should hold assemblies only by the grace of the state. Parties should become alive only at election time. By the end of your conference, you will most probably have sown the seeds of transforming the above image of party politics.


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