“It is better to reform than to have a political revolution” – lessons for Uganda

During the debate leading up to the Reform Act of 1832, Thomas B. Macaulay a Whig member of British Parliament made a memorable observation: “It is better to reform than to have a political revolution”. The successful 1830 revolution in France sounded a warning about what could happen in England if the middle class and industrial leaders’ demands for participation in the political process were not addressed. The Whigs who won the 1830 general elections “realized that concessions to reform were superior to revolution”. An election reform bill was introduced and became the Reform Act in 1832. The law gave explicit recognition to the changes that accompanied the Industrial Revolution including creation of the working class. The Reform Act of 1832 together with repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 saved Britain from the 1848 revolutions that swept across Europe. The working class demands that were not accommodated in the Reform Act were taken care of in the second half of the 19th century.

Many Ugandans believe that if UPC that won the contested 1980 elections had made concessions with the opposition and formed a government of national unity, Uganda would probably have avoided the destructive five-year guerrilla war and the subsequent NRM government that some consider worse than the Amin regime. NRM government needs to begin to think about making political concessions to the disgruntled opposition groups to avoid a revolution. Refusal to do so would be unwise. There are political tremors in the country already. They should be prevented from developing into an earthquake with disastrous consequences for all Ugandans in or out of power. In order to help NRM decide wisely, let us look at what happened in countries where concessions were rejected and where they were accepted.

In France commoners (all French except nobility and clergy) made up 97 percent of the total population. They are the ones that paid taxes and performed manorial dues to the nobility and paid tithes to the church. Yet they were denied upward mobility in religious and secular institutions. Their demands for change were denied. In the elections that preceded the convening of the Estates General (parliament) in May 1789, the commoners by virtue of their numerical superiority demanded that the number of deputies from the Third Estate (commoners) must be equal to the combined number of deputies from the First (clergy) and Second (nobility) Estates that constituted 3 percent of the total population. The request was granted but the Estates would meet separately and vote by order, not by head, leaving the Third Estate still disadvantaged 2 to 1 because the clergy and nobility supported each other.

When the Estates General met the king, Louis XVI, ordered that the three Estates meet separately and vote by order as in the past. Third Estate deputies made up of middle class professionals and commercial executives objected and walked out. They formed the National Assembly because they constituted the majority of the French people. They were joined by liberal deputies from the First and Second Estates and deliberated radical changes needed in the privileges enjoyed by high clergy and nobility. The rest of deputies joined the National Assembly when the mood had already changed against the interests of the privileged minority, leaving no room for concessions. In the end, the feudal system and divine right of kings were scrapped, Church properties including land were nationalized and a constitutional monarchy and later a republic replaced absolute monarchy. If the Ancien (Old) Regime had made concessions with the commoners, it is possible a revolution might have been avoided.

In Russia, the Tsars resisted ending serfdom because they needed support of the nobility that accumulated wealth by ruthless exploitation of serfs. When serfdom formally ended in 1861, it left land and other issue like taxes unresolved. The peasants continued to be squeezed and conscripted for unending wars. When troubles against the monarchy began in 1917, the peasants got an opportunity to settle scores. Russia experienced serious food shortages, sending prices through the roof that provoked demonstrations in urban areas and reduced morale among soldiers whose rations were drastically reduced during World War I. To make matters worse, peasants refused to sell food, aggravating an already bad situation. Second, Cossacks (peasant soldiers most loyal to the Tsar) abandoned him and joined demonstrators. Peasants and Cossacks were attracted to and swelled Bolshevicks numbers when Lenin promised them peace, bread and land. These developments contributed significantly to the demise of the Romanov dynasty. Political changes might have turned out differently had the king and nobility made concessions with the serfs.

During African decolonization process, Britain and France realized that change was unavoidable. They made concessions with liberation movements that were mutually beneficial. Former British colonies joined the Commonwealth, received British aid and technical assistance and continued commercial relationships, ensuring British continued influence in Africa. Similarly, besides the creation of a Francophone club, France entered into defense, economic and technical alliances that ensured continued French control of former colonies.

When the minority white regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa realized that guerrilla fighters would not be defeated, they compromised. Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia even allowed Rhodesia to become a colony again in order for Britain to arrange a constitutional conference in London that paved the way for independence in 1980 and guaranteed the security of minority white Rhodesians in independent Zimbabwe. Similarly, when De Clerk became president in 1989, he too realized that South African guerrilla fighters would not be defeated. He entered into negotiations with the African opposition that resulted in releasing Mandela and other political prisoners and unbanning liberation movements. A negotiated settlement including a constitution and government of national unity were reached under the leadership of Nelson Mandela and African majority rule. Visionary White South Africans read the writing on the wall and accepted the reality.

By contrast, Portugal that resisted concessions suffered a military coup in Portugal because the army was unhappy with colonial wars. The colonies were lost as well. Portuguese settlers in the former colonies were chased away and future relations between Portugal and former colonies were badly damaged. To make matters worse, Mozambique joined the British Commonwealth.

The message being conveyed to NRM leadership is that keeping fellow non-NRM Ugandans out in the cold is not a wise policy decision. You are creating conditions for a revolution that will likely treat you like the French and Russian nobility and kings were treated in 1789 and 1917 revolutions respectively. Thus, Macaulay’s statement made in 1830 that “It is better to reform than to have a political revolution” has relevance in Uganda of 2012.

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