In Summary

Steady progress? On Thursday, Ugandan scholar Moses Khisa delivered a paper titled, ‘Shrinking Democratic Space in Uganda? A Crisis of Consensus, Contentious Politics and the War on Terror’ at Makerere University. The paper elicited debate across the political divide. Sunday Monitor’s Ivan Okuda combined the views and puts them in perspective.

President Museveni on Wednesday exercised a constitutional ritual and delivered the State-of-the-Nation Address. It is an opportune moment for any head of State to paint a rosy picture of the state of affairs while affirming commitment and ability to somersault over the challenges affecting the governed.

Mr Museveni, in his third decade of rule, has used the platform before to chest thump about how he knows not of a country more democratic than Uganda. It is now trendy for the Head of State to focus attention, as he did this week, on aspects of the economy such as the pet subjects of infrastructure development, energy, jobs and wealth creation and occasionally fighting corruption.

In Mr Museveni’s world, Uganda’s governance question was settled in 1986 when he and his Bush War comrades overrun the State and established what he promised was a fundamental change. Since then, as far as democracy is concerned, Uganda is good to go.

But is that a shared view?
A day after the President’s address, on Thursday the School of Law of Makerere University hosted Ugandans to a symposium that sought to interrogate whether democratic space in the country is shrinking, a development that feeds into evidence that the quest for democratic space, contrary to Mr Museveni’s consistent claim, is after all not settled.

At the symposium organised by the Society for Justice and National Unity and the Public Interest Law Clinic, Dr Moses Khisa, a Ugandan political scientist based at the University of North Carolina, USA, contended that, “Uganda under Mr Museveni and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) shows clear signs of democratic retrogress and shrinkage of democratic space, increasingly displaying authoritarian tendencies and veering-off the democratic rails.”

If Dr Khisa’s reading of events, for argument sake is taken as the gospel truth, it speaks volumes about a global trend that has seen several new democracies in Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe witness degenerating tendencies on the front of liberal and constitutional democracy.
In 2014, The Economist observed that, “Democracy is going through a difficult time as nascent democracies have stumbled or stagnated. There has been a renewed rise of populist, authoritarian regimes and alt-right parties in Latin America, the Middle East and Europe.”

Dr Khisa’s paper argues that among Western democracies, the triumph of incendiary populism and the rise of ultra-nationalist movements has chipped away at the hitherto sacrosanct belief in democracy as a superior form of government best captured in Francis Fukuyama’s celebratory ‘End of History’ thesis.
Worse still, the failure of what was billed as democratic revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa between 2011 and 2013 exacerbated a crisis of credibility and dented the trust in the basic rules and institutions of modern democratic practice.

Dr Khisa told his audience, “This rollback picked pace around 2005 and has since worsened with every successive general election-cycle. The quality of presidential and parliamentary elections has steadily dipped and been greatly undermined by the use of State coercion and patronage resources.

“The crisis the country faces was best demonstrated on the eve and in the aftermath of the February 18, 2016, general election when tension and uncertainty gripped the country, especially the capital Kampala, with heavy police and military deployment, part of a pattern and a replica of the aftermath of the 2011 elections.”

He opines that Uganda has since diverted from relatively consensual politics based on an inclusive elite bargain during the first decade of NRM rule and since the early 2000s descended into highly contentious politics, “the upshot of which is political polarisation and the erosion of much of the early democratic gains”.

He says: “Because the return to multiparty politics in 2005 was couched in the language of ‘let’s get rid of them’ (tubegyeko), meaning dispensing with internal critics and progressive voices, the country has not had genuine multiparty politics. This has been compounded by Museveni’s longevity in power, necessitating the instrumental use of the security imperative, especially fighting terrorism.”

Never existed
Veteran scholar and professor of Law Frederick Jjuuko doesn’t exactly agree there was ever such a thing as democratic gains in Uganda since 1986.
He passionately argued that there has never been substantial democratic space in Uganda and averred that NRM co-opted people from the Democratic Party (DP) in its first 10 years, “On condition of a no party state, a pact which didn’t create democratic space”.

NRM would then disguise its one party reconfiguration of the Ugandan State with the illusion that the Movement system, which received approval from some USA political actors and was aggressively defended by politicians back home like Ms Winnie Byanyima, was an all-inclusive model perhaps akin to an indigenous attempt at a home grown prototype of democracy.

The Constitutional Court would later, on the basis of a petition by Mr Kawanga Ssemogerere, lift the veil on what Dr Kizza Besigye has described as a fraud. The Movement was never a political system but a well-crafted, half clever attempt at muzzling political space, denying traditional parties such as the Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC) and DP the nutrients they needed to grow and possibly give NRM a run for its money.

Suffocating them through a deceptive political system which received legal cushioning as the Movement Act and later the 1995 Constitution recognised the Movement as a system, was a desperately needed tool of domination the NRM inserted in its tricks box from the start and successfully democratic space.

And yet, today’s sharpest critics of the NRM such as Dr Besigye, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, Dr Miria Matembe, Ms Winnie Byanyima, and others who have since fallen out with Mr Museveni and the NRM ostensibly on principle, are proud to associate with the early years of the NRM, an era Prof Jjuuko says was characterised by a closing of democratic space.
It is an eerie contradiction that today’s strugglers of democratic space had the umbilical cords of their early political careers attached to the cyst that NRM, under its Movement system, which with the benefit of hindsight has since been found to have been a political fraud of a generation.

In Prof Jjuuko’s view, NRM’s politics has been peppered with toxic ethnic undertones adding that on ascending to power, Mr Museveni rode on the back of support from the south while the east and north, which had resisted his State capture, suffered the vagaries of brute state violence, to near obliteration so one couldn’t talk of democratic space in those regions.
“Museveni has been consistently undemocratic from the start; he is averse to political organisation so you cannot have democratic space. He started when he was popular in the south and used force elsewhere but people now see him for what he is, there is no illusion,” Jjuuko asserted.

Mr Benson Tusasirwe, a lecturer at the School of Law, noted that right from independence there has never been democratic space, at least in substance, in Uganda and the global war on terror has given the State leeway to do everything wrong, giving rise to a security State while forcing leaders like Museveni to allow tokens of democracy to look good in the eyes of the West on whom many African leaders lean for legitimacy in the global space.

Dr Khisa cites how the USA in the run up to the 2011 general election coiled its tail on electoral reforms in Uganda after the twin bombings that shook Kampala, replacing agitation in Washington for free and fair elections in Uganda with sweeteners to Kampala as a partner in the war on the terror with Uganda taking a lead role and playing the big brother card in the region. But what does democracy, away from the ideals in the textbook script of the West actually mean to a Third World country like Uganda with majority of its population still struggling to answer food and water access challenges?
NRM deputy secretary general Richard Todwong called on scholars to “come down to reality. When the professors speak about democracy in the same space with those of us who are on ground and in practice certainly the views will be different. We should widen our intellectual space”.

Mr Todwong’s submission is a polite way to say those who speak about democracy are detached from reality.
And yet, the very ingredients of democracy are after all not alien to Third World societies in so far as they go to the root of human existence; such as respect for rights like life, dignity of the person, freedom from repression, social justice, the right to determine how they are governed, checks and balances on power, equality before the law and a chance at free and fair elections.

Mr Andrew Karamagi, a lawyer and activist who spoke as a panellist at the symposium, observed, “The people of Rukungiri (who voted an Opposition candidate in the Woman MP by-election) understand democracy, they know what a free and fair election means.”
He added that democratic space cannot flourish but only diminish for as long as Mr Museveni’s grip on power holds, “What we have are not elections but coronations of the king of Uganda, Museveni while the NRM is not a party but is like a ghost, it appears and disappears, not everyone sees it. Can the NRM disciplinary committee summon Museveni the way we see presidents in South Africa being checked by the ANC?”

Dr Tabitha Mulyampiti, a Women and Gender studies specialist, opined that Ugandans have actively played a role in democratic space shrinking as they have power to change the status quo if they so wish.
Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo said, “If democratic space was shrinking why did half a million people who fled Uganda to countries like Sudan return to settle and invest in their country? In 1986 we had 38 self-appointed historicals in Parliament, today save the 10 ex officios, all MPs are elected. Look at the level of participation of women.”

Mr Opondo, like Mr Museveni, is persuaded that democratic space in Uganda is expanding and the country is on the right path.
Masaka Municipality MP Mathias Mpuuga called for consensus building, asserting that, “The regime is in its departure lounge. We need safeguards even for the transgressions they have committed.”

When all is said and done, the puzzle that remains unfilled is how does Uganda become a fairer society for all and consolidate democratic gains since 1962 as it heals from the wounds of 56 years of political uncertainty?
Part of that process will involve consensus building as MP Mpuuga rightly said but who will bell the cat?

Khisa’s paper argues that among Western democracies, the triumph of incendiary populism and the rise of ultra-nationalist movements has chipped away at the hitherto sacrosanct belief in democracy as a superior form of government best captured in Francis Fukuyama’s celebratory ‘End of History’ thesis.
Worse still, the failure of what was billed as democratic revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa between 2011 and 2013 exacerbated a crisis of credibility and dented the trust in the basic rules and institutions of modern democratic practice.