Tuesday, July 30, 2013

THIS IS HOW DEMOCRACIES ARE BUILT



Tipping point, the term popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell, refers to how an accumulation of small events or actions over time can lead to huge social changes that when viewed without the context of the build up look spontaneous are often dramatic and many times irreversible.

As the events are occurring in real time it is hard to foretell their eventual impact or understand their relationship to each other as they can be separated by time and space as to seem unrelated occurrences.

With the benefit of hindsight historians may make the connections, providing a logical and coherent explanation for why things turned out the way do.

Events in the last few weeks – the appointment of General Aronda Nyakairma to minister of internal affairs, the extension of retired Chief Justice Benjamin Odoki’s term as the fourth in the line of presidential succession and even the maddening news that our honourable MPs are buckling under the weight of their own debt, contrary to the consensus among the chattering masses, are welcome road signs on the bump road to democracy.

There was vocal opposition to President Yoweri Musevni’s nomination of Nyakairima, former chief of defence forces, as minister while he still retained his commission in the army. Those opposed argued that Nyakairima would have to retire from the army to fill the position.  The attorney general however advised that the constitution does not expressly bar a military man from being a minister. A case is being filed or has been filed with the constitutional court to rule on the matter.

It was also reported that Museveni had extended Odoki’s tenure at the helm of the judiciary for another two years. Odoki attained the mandatory retirement age of 70 for his position in March, stayed on till June to hand over. The Uganda Law Society is protesting the development and the suggestion is that they too will challenge this development in court.

With each announcement we started frothing at the mouth, wondering what the president was thinking and mustering our best i-told-you-so voice we rehashed the line of how Museveni was burying democracy, wants to rule forever, he is treating the country like his personal property blah, blah, blah, blah.

When the 1995 constitution was passed with the provision that the suspension of political party activity would continue, the doomsayers were up in arms wailing how Uganda was finished and democracy had suffered irreparable damage. Now nearly 20 years not only is Uganda still here but political parties are back from the cold and finding their feet.

And like many of the laws on our books today, the 1995 constitution was lauded as a document that had the potential to take the country to the next level. But like many of our laws too, many have lamented that the constitution is hurt by our failures on the implementation side.

Also it should be understood that any constitution provides a broad framework for how society will be governed, with the details of how this is done found in lesser laws and administrative instruments. So often times as in the two appointments an issue of interpretation arises and guidance then has to be sought from the constitutional court.

Which is as it should be. It is impossible to draw up a water tight law that will cater for all possible circumstances that will occur into the future.

Interpretation of the constitution is then coloured by the politics of the day.

With on one hand the government trying to advance its own agenda, which may or not be in the interest of the general public and the opposition who also want to further their own agenda, which may or may not be in the interest of the general public.

Governments will always try to extend the boundaries of their power and the opposition out of necessity have to make sure this does not happen with whatever means they have at their disposal.

This is neither bad nor good, it’s just the way it is.

So the two appointments are government flexing its muscle. Going to court may or may not see a reversal of the decisions but will hopefully bring greater clarity to the subject and one more inch on the thousand mile walk to democracy.

Rounding back to the MPs and their indebtedness. This could easily be dismissed as a case of personal financial indiscipline were it not for the fact that MPS make laws, are supposed to oversee government on behalf of the people and do such things as approve the budget, we have to get concerned.

If there was any evidence that the house could end up selling their allegiance to the highest bidder the reports that overtures have been made to foreign governments to alleviate the honourable members’ plight was proof enough.

This could be a major stumbling block to democracy.

It is an illusion to think progress will be steady and ever forward or that it will happen in spurts and bursts. Most likely to will be small movements backwards or forwards happening everyday which taken individually don’t amount to much but taken in totally, over years, decades, centuries have far reaching effects.

What we are witnessing now is the messy business of building a democracy. There are no guarantees that it will have a happy ending but we have to wade through the murky morass to have a chance to get to the other side, there are no shortcuts.

Hence the tipping point.

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