Federalism is about improving society through power sharing

The October 27, 2012 London conference on federalism in Uganda could not have been organized at a better time. It has given us the opportunity to examine the system under which Uganda has been governed for the last fifty years, the benefits and deficits associated with it and how to proceed in the next fifty years.

One thing should be made clear at the outset: the conference is about federalism which is a system of governance by sharing power between the central and local governments. Following consultations, my understanding is that the conference isn’t about kingdoms. However, fellow Ugandans who still have doubts should seek clarification from the organizers of the conference.

Since the launch of the Republic Constitution in 1967, Uganda has been governed under a unitary or centralized system of government that has concentrated power in the executive branch of government at the expense of legislative and judicial branches and local governments. Presidents in Uganda from Obote I to Museveni have governed like European absolute rulers including the Stuarts of England, the Bourbons of France and the Czars of Russia.

Uganda presidents like European absolute rulers have treated themselves as the state whereby power and decisions flow from the president. Louis XIV regarded himself as the state in the famous declaration L’etat c’est moi (I am the state). Louis XV declared that:

“Sovereign power resides in my person alone. … It is from me alone that my policies take their existence and their authority; … it is me alone that legislative power belongs, without dependence or division; … all public order emanates from me” (D. S. Mason 2005).

This was a centralized or unitary system of government based on the notion of the Great Chain of Being, meaning that society was organized hierarchically. At the top of the hierarchy stood the king, God’s divine representative. This is the system that Uganda adopted after the overthrow of the independence constitution in 1966.

Thus, since 1967 Uganda has been governed like the ancient regime of France or Russia where power has resided in the president and exercised through a hierarchical or tier decentralized system with power still firmly in the hands of the president and controls the work of local governments through the minister of local government or directly thereby frustrating initiatives and quick response to the needs of the people. The legislative branch has played a rubber stamp role or none at all in some major decisions.

Uganda presidents have exercised absolute rule by being head of state, head of government, head of the ruling party and commander-in-chief of armed forces; that is power is concentrated absolutely in one person in a country where there are no real separation of powers and real checks and balances.

Consequently, the 1966 constitution was passed by parliament without discussing or even seeing copies of it (they found copies in their mail boxes after the constitution was approved). President Obote drafted and launched the Move to the Left without consulting the people. President Amin chased away Asians because he was instructed by God in a dream to do so. President Museveni abandoned the popular ten point program and replaced it with structural adjustment program (SAP) without consulting the public. After a decision had been taken on SAP, a conference was convened in December 1989 to inform parliamentarians and ask them to endorse the new program with serious repercussions that included retrenchment of public servants, export of food and starvation of Ugandans, removal of subsidies on education, healthcare and agriculture and imposition of fees on education and healthcare, privatization of Uganda’s public enterprises and opening up of Uganda’s economy to cheap imports that have destroyed many domestic manufacturing enterprises with many job losses. The role of the state in the economy was significantly reduced in favor of market forces, laissez faire and trickle down mechanism.

After structural adjustment program failed to deliver as expected and was abandoned in 2009, NRM launched a Five Year Development Plan (NDP) without parliament’s approval. It wasn’t even presented to them, according to some members of parliament at the time.

President Museveni declared from the start of his presidency that he is the only person with a vision for Uganda and won’t listen to anyone. According to public complaints, Museveni has dictated many policies and taken many decisions including on military matters without appropriate parliament’s approval. These unilateral decisions rubber stamped by parliament or not at all have deprived Ugandans the opportunity to express their views on how they should be governed and the role they should play.

After fifty years of experimentation and observation with a unitary system of government and its failure to reduce poverty and its offshoots of hunger, disease and illiteracy, many Ugandans feel time has come to consider an alternative governance system that can improve the quality of life for all Ugandans rather than a few well connected families.

Ugandans have to be empowered by sharing authority and responsibility with the central government so that they can use their human and natural resource endowments, their culture and history and design and implement relevant and location specific programs that will improve society’s quality of life. Uganda is a diverse society with diverse resources, history, culture and institutions that can’t work optimally under one-size-fits-all policies which has virtually been the norm over the last fifty years.

The London conference offers Ugandans a timely opportunity to examine the merits of a federal system as an alternative to the failed unitary system. The conference should provide a platform for subsequent inclusive and comprehensive participation of all Ugandans. To this end, it has been suggested that a Task Force of experts with representatives from the four regions of Uganda – central, eastern, northern and western – should be set up to undertake more consultative work and make action-oriented recommendations regarding the road map on the way forward. Comments on Ugandans at Heart Forum have stressed, inter alia, comprehensive participation of Ugandans in this worthwhile endeavor so that people share their opinions on federalism. Each region should have at least three representatives comprising a man, a woman and a youth to fulfill the demographic requirement. Recognized experts from organizations should also be included in the Task Force.

UDU which has given much thought about Uganda’s unitary system of government and found it wanting believes that a federal system with checks and balances and a clear demarcation of responsibilities and authority between the federal (central) government and local governments stands a better chance than unitary system of improving society through better delivery of goods and services. UDU would like to participate in London’s follow-up activities. We have good experts on federalism and we hope they will be given an opportunity to share their expertise and experience in the Task Force or any other post-London conference arrangements.

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