- Interview. Former Democratic Party president Paul Ssemogerere says NRM’s democratic credentials is flawed because its justification for young leaders to replace the old guard does not apply to change to its top leadership, writes Eriasa Mukiibi Sserunjogi.
- Elections. I have been following elections since 1958 in this country and I have been part of the struggle for electoral reforms. Some were achieved and others have not been achieved. For instance, we struggled and eventually succeeded to have a change with multiple ballot boxes. We found that it was a source of systematic rigging where those responsible for conducting elections simply changed the symbols.”
You have been stressing the need for this country to sort out the way we change leaders …
I think we need an effective policy and mechanism to ensure there’s regular change of leadership at the highest level, notably the executive president. This appears to be an agreed-on principle among functional democracies that I know, and multiparty representative systems for good reasons.
First, the executive presidents enjoy installed privileges which their potential challengers do not have and it becomes undemocratic to claim that the electoral vote is a sufficient indicator of the legitimacy of an election under such circumstances.
Does that mean for leaders who have been there for a long time?
Yes, when the leader is not forced to leave and continues with these installed privileges. It’s always an unfair contest, there has to be a limit because if you don’t have a cap, one leader can become a kind of a life-time leader!
But democracy by definition anticipates free contest to allow many other people to come in and have their day by exercising power on behalf of the people. Somebody, for instance, has financial backing from State funds, which he uses while others cannot use it. You can’t say that is a fair contest.
Long-serving president Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore is praised by people for being a good leader. What do you have to say about him?
Lee was very undemocratic, he did very many good things but his model is not a good thing to talk of. Certainly, he was lucky that circumstances favoured him in Singapore to contribute to the country’s development, especially because of the Cold War and many other factors.
And they also talk about long-serving parties like China’s Communist party, which has been in power for 70 years and has steered the country to greater heights…
Yes, for a long time, non-communist parties were not allowed to contest.
There’s an argument that poor countries must first develop economically to have functional democracies since they thrive well in economically advanced countries. What is your view on that?
Then, they should say, we don’t want democracy. And I don’t see people in their right senses not wanting freedom and participation as well as influencing leadership. It is within their natural traits to feel that they can have an influence in deciding critical issues that affect them, including influencing choosing of leaders.
On the other hand, the argument of not changing, well that means you have to give up on democracy and have a different model. This is an argument which was abandoned long time ago when we had authoritarian kings. Yes, certainly, there were good kings, but also we had others doing very bad things.
And there was no way of removing them peacefully, you’ve got to remove them by violence, for instance, killing them and using other ways.
Is that what we what in this country? In China, you can see the cost; what cost the Chinese people paid to have Mao for such a long time, I concede that there was some development in China but at what cost? How many people were killed? How many were forced into exile? How many people were denied to play an active role in the development of their country? I have been to China and I was discussing with their minister of foreign affairs, and I recall some of the narrative by some Chinese officials about the fate of their parents under Mao’s rule. And these were Chinese officials!
They could not mourn during the period under which China went through during that time. And that’s why they had this revolution to get out under this kind of rule.
But still they have not succeeded to fully democratise, but it’s not as before.
But the Communist Party is still in charge…
The same party is in charge because it has not run a full course. And now if you happen to go to Hong Kong, you will observe that the struggle is continuing.
Back home, by 2021, President Museveni will have made 35 years in power…
(Interjects) Yes, and it’s regrettable, even you start by the NRM itself, the fact that the ranks of the NRM leadership have diminished drastically is a clear sign...
What do you mean by diminishing drastically?
The ranks have diminished because when NRM took power in 1986, if you look round, the fellow leaders with whom Museveni assumed power, you will find that many of them have fallen out with him and are bitter.
May be, some of them could have provided leadership to this country focusing on different priorities. But they haven’t been given opportunity. So, even within the NRM ranks, it is regrettable from a democratic point of view.
If you look at it from a point of view that people in NRM falling out are being replaced by young leaders, does that mean NRM is being renewed except at the top leadership?
If there’s a justification for young leaders to replace the old guard, why doesn’t the same argument apply to the top leadership? This argument is because the top leadership makes it impossible and finds it difficult to relinquish power because democratic mechanism doesn’t apply equally in respect to the top leadership.
And you can find this in the Constitution of the NRM and UPDF, where for instance, the leadership of the UPDF today under the High Command is virtually structured the same way as in 1996. The chairman is the same, and others have to take orders from him. Even the special powers of the president controls all the security organs, and Cabinet, including the Finance ministry.
Talking to a number of people even within the Opposition ranks, especially after the age limit constitutional amendment, many people seem to be resigned to the fact that President Museveni will still be around a while longer after 2021? What do you think? What’s your projection?
They were many who thought so and said so in Libya that I know personally under Gadaffi, in Egypt under Mubarak, in Ethiopia under Haile Selassie and Zenawi, in DR Congo under Mobutu, in Zambia under Kaunda, in Zimbabwe under Mugabe, many Europeans said so for the National Party in South Africa. There were many who said so, under Hitler [in Germany]. Yes! People were there who cherished what was going on. And I am not surprised that there are people who are cherishing what is going on now under Museveni.
But I am saying it’s not democratic, the argument is whether a good leader has to be in perpetuity. As a system, you deny other people the opportunity to be satisfied by change. There are those who are happy and many more than estimated are not happy.
Even if, there are many, when they see that there’s a problem of not realising their wishes, that is how the temptation comes to resorting to other means of realising change.
This is reflected in Uganda’s history; they were very many who were happy with [Dr Apollo Milton] Obote 1. To the extent that those Kabaka’s (Muteesa II) government and Democratic Party [DP], including the Secretary General at that time joined him. Many wanted him to stay on, but when time came, they saw no way of getting rid of Obote, and they had to use other means, including the army.
Idi Amin must have been very happy when Obote assumed power. Obote was with the army for a long time. In fact, he used it to overthrow the 1962 Constitution and to overrun the Bulange. And Idi Amin was in charge of the assault on the palace.
I have witnessed all these, and the system is wrong. It showed that things were going to be like that. Idi Amin fell out with Obote and struck.
The issue of electoral reforms has been talked about a lot. The Executive seems very reluctant going by the sequence of events until now. What is your take?
I have been following elections since 1958 in this country and I have been part of the struggle for electoral reforms.
Some were achieved and others have not been achieved. For instance, we struggled and eventually succeeded to have a change with multiple ballot boxes. We found that it was a source of systematic rigging where those responsible for conducting elections simply changed the symbols. We had evidence of this in the 1960s and the 1980s.
Our initiative minimised rigging but that’s not the end.
Passing the electoral reforms start with the Electoral Commission as appointed. But as of now, we can have bias installed in the process immediately from the word go when an intending candidate, in this case the incumbent president and the ruling party, determine who will lead the Electoral Commission. The script is written, the piper calls the tune!
Even at a more fundamental level, our executive president has got too much power compared to many former presidents. He should not exercise the powers he exercises in appointing the Electoral Commission.
An Independent Electoral Commission should be constituted. The intending political parties should be totally excluded from the exercise and you get an independent authority, may be the Judiciary or other arrangement, where partisanship doesn’t surface.
Or the parties involved must be on equal basis regardless of their numerical strengths in Parliament, which can promote political consensus so that in the end there’s no bias. For example, Ghana has got regional governments which play a part.
Then the other area is money, in my book that I wrote about the financial control for elections or for political activity. What we now have is a government-backed party in terms of finance.
Kyankwanzi and Sate House are government institutions, President Museveni and RDCs [Resident District Commissioners] are government institutions. These are all maintained and supported financially by government and their allies as electoral candidates.
Even the President himself says it, the condition for appointing RDCs seems to be an NRM cadreship. When we were in the Constituent Assembly. We rarely succeeded to abolish that post, we debated strongly. It was saved by putting forward an argument that the principal is necessary to oversee the government projects. Those appointed will work more or less as undersecretaries.
Even NRM members were on our side on this question, but towards the end, it was accommodated. Since that time, RDCs have become political activists.
I think this country would be better off without the RDCs. In fact, they undermine the integrity and autonomy of local governments and are considered to be above the police and district local councils.
The President controls the police and that’s why it is weakened. I would encourage political leaders who believe in democracy to open up this debate and gather more input.
We currently don’t have a sound electoral process. We should learn from some countries like the German model. Of all the models that I know of, I find her constitution and electoral process much better. Even for America, and in Africa, Ghana is a good model.
“I think this country would be better off without the RDCs. In fact, they undermine the integrity and autonomy of local governments and are considered to be above the police and district local councils. The President controls the police and that’s why it is weakened. I would encourage political leaders who believe in democracy to open up this debate.”