In a paper presented at a public symposium at Makerere University’s School of Law last week, I attempted to locate the current political crisis in Uganda in the collapse of minimum consensus embodied in the 1995 constitution.
Modern democratic government of whatever stripe and tenure must be anchored on a set of institutions, and the rules of the game that structure and condition actor-behaviour.
The national constitution is the primary source of the rules that translate into functional institutions, governmental bodies and state agencies.
But how do the rules of the game come about? First, they can be imposed, as in colonial conquest and forceful occupation, or through autocratic leadership that can be in the form of a military junta regime. Imposition of rules of the game and the institutional landscape that it produces is untenable and an antidote to democratic government.
The second way is through negotiations and compromises by key political actors and the public. This approach takes the form of inclusivity and participation in accord with the underlying power distribution in society. It is the most likely path to durable democratic government.
The essence of it is to arrive at some minimum political consensus that embodies the aspirations and wishes of the public.
Inclusive politics is crucial in enabling the forging of minimum consensus which, in turn, can produce a set of progressive institutions (chiefly the national constitution), the basis of an emergent democratic system. The minimum consensus turns on the basic norms and beliefs about what is acceptable and what is considered outside of the bounds of political activity and engagement.
In the early years of NRM politics, under the broad-based system, there was an attempt to build minimum consensus on the basic rules, the culmination of which was the 1995 constitution that was relatively progressive and included several critical checks and balances.
The constitution granted autonomy to parliament and independence to the judiciary, making both branches of government fairly functional and key pillars in deepening democratic government and public accountability. A slew of accountability institutions were created under the constitution.
But the minimum consensus embodied in the 1995 constitution has been ripped apart, starting in the mid-2000s with the deletion of presidential term limits and steady entrenchment of a life-presidency.
A big blight on the 1995 constitution was the continuation of the ban on multiparty politics. In a clear case of engineering and manipulation, the return to multiparty politics in 2005 was used as a bargaining chip by Mr Museveni to remove term limits and continue to engage in motions of elections that are nor free, fair or credible. Since 2005, Uganda has been on a downward spiral.
By undermining the existing constitutional order to suit the interests of regime survival, Museveni and the NRM have simultaneously eroded minimum consensus and triggered political polarisation.
This state of affairs has produced toxic politics and a highly adversarial relationship between the political opposition and security agencies especially the police, which for long was under the command of a decidedly partisan inspector general.
In addition to assaults on the constitution, the imperatives of clinging to power have necessitated undermining the institutional spaces created through and granted protections by the constitution.
In the judiciary, the appointment of cadre judges became a pronounced act after 2005. For parliament, the use of gerrymandering, outright rigging and state patronage resources to manufacture a super majority in the house speaks directly to the making of an authoritarian regime but one which is clever enough to instrumentally use democratic institutions like the national legislature.
The sum of it all is that Uganda has suffered a democratic backsliding as violations of civil liberties have increased and political freedoms been transgressed. The tension and uncertainty during election time and the fact that key opposition leaders are arrested too often all underline the crisis the country faces.
Returning to the drawing board to forge a new consensus is the only way out.
The author is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University.