Pending constitutional review in Uganda and the story of who will bell the cat?

With over 280 articles and more than five schedules, the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda remains one of the longest not just in Africa but world over. It is said to be ten times longer than the American constitution and a couple of times lengthier than many Constitutions on the European and other continents.

Since its promulgation, Uganda’s constitution has been subjected to various review processes.  Notably, in 2005, about 119 amendments were made to the constitution; some stemming from the recommendations made by the Ssempebwa Constitutional Review Commission.  A critical analysis reveals that the 2005 constitutional overhaul may have reversed rather than propelled constitutionalism. Such sentiments are inevitable because it was then that article 105(2) was amended to provide for unlimited terms for a president.  Some sections didn’t take this alteration lying down.  Since 2006, there have been voices that have consistently called for a revisiting of the constitution with a view of reinstating presidential term limits but also correcting other constitutional reversals that may have happened over time.

Prior to the 2016 general elections, civil society, political parties and other professional bodies demanded for electoral and constitutional reforms.  Although this was not the first time, it was the maiden attempt to galvanise the entire country around the question of electoral and constitutional reform.  There was an unprecedented momentum for reforms – across the political, social and economic divide.  It was felt across the country. 

Government tabled various electoral reform proposals in Parliament less than six months to the 2016 general election.  Parliamentarians of the yellow shade contended that time would not allow for proper and conclusive deliberations on the innumerable reforms.  Around about that time, I recall the chairperson of the Committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Hon. Stephen Tashobya promising a more elaborate process that would take into account the many reform proposals that had been received by his committee.  Without enumerating what form this process would take, it was sold as a priority one for the next administration (2016 – 2021). The executive too latched on the same idea and vended it like a post-dated cheque.

When political parties were writing their manifestos, they took note of the enthusiasm of the people towards reforms.  As parties and candidates eloquently and passionately spoke to their manifestos, they pledged their loyalty to champion the long-sought progressive political reforms. All major parties and candidates without exception vended a ‘reform agenda’ of sorts to the already softened electorate.

Today, we are talking about more than 100 days since the NRM administration was sworn in, and there is not much to show of its manifesto promise to institute a comprehensive reform process. 

Previous weeks have enlisted talk around a constitutional review process from the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Gen. Kahinda Otafire.  Nothing concrete seems to be heard about such an important process, which in my view would potentially kick-start the long awaited conversation around comprehensive reforms. 

History and experiences from other countries show us that the first year of a government happens to be the best time to carry out or initiate any meaningful reforms.  There after the focus begins to shift towards politicking and getting re-elected.  In essence, this is the time to reinstate the discussion around reforms.  And if indeed the NRM administration professed an honest commitment in its manifesto to lead the way for a constitutional review, then this is the time it should be seen to translate that written pledge into tangible actions.  Should that fail to happen in the short run, then it will be clear that the current administration’s commitment to reform was neither deep nor sincere in the first place.  In the eyes of the public, it will simply mean that the commitment to reform professed by the political party (now) in government was, but a mere campaign gimmick.

Lastly, when a reform process is finally called, let it not be dealt as a bargaining chip to simply seal political mileage.  It should be a rather open, citizen centered process that provides Ugandans an opportunity to express themselves on what kind of reforms they would like see for their country.


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