Monday, March 7, 2016


During President Yoweri Museveni’s final campaign ahead of the February 18th poll, while live on UrbanTV the host, after outlining a litany of wrongs that stood out during the last three months of campaigning asked me, “Is this democracy?”

“It is an evolving democracy,” was my reply.

The eager young host was obviously unimpressed by the response.

"Sometime into his first term President Barack Obama fighting to get support for healthcare legislation famously said “Democracy is a messy business,” and went on to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “It is the worst form of government except for all the other ones that have been tried.”...

And even then he was talking about the decision making process. The evolution of a democracy is even messier.

The challenge for many of our countries that aspire to higher forms of democracy, is that many of our elite watch tv, travel or even live in more developed democracies and are impatient for developments at home to keep up with what they see happening elsewhere.

This is a good thing and a bad thing.

To aspire to a higher state is essential, even critical for any form of development. However our impatience to improve quickly can make us miss some fundamental steps along the way. The problem with this is that you will inevitably have to retrace your steps to remedy the situation, often at great cost to society.

I remember when the 1995 constitution was promulgated, it was touted as one of the best constitutions in the world. It probably still ranks up there with the best but the same cannot be said of our democratic practice.

Democracy was not and cannot, be written into existence.

The American Declaration of Independence, which serves as the foundation on which the US Constitution was built, has the immortal declaration that “All men are created equal”.  But we know that that country’s black population never got to vote until 100 years after independence and segregation laws were still on the books well into the 20th century.

The practice has had to catch up with the text and even now, there is still controversy whether “all men are created equal” given the political, social and economic struggles the African Americans and other minorities are engaged in daily to rise to their full potential.

As somebody said the other day, the constitution is a set of ideals to which we aspire, the question then becomes who is responsible for bringing these aspirations to fruition?

The knee jerk reaction is to point to the government, which is to put the responsibility where it should lie, but this would be to ignore the real nature of governments.

"To be in government is to wield power over society. Power by its nature is more likely to concentrate rather than diffuse power away from itself. To expect governments to open up democratic space for people out of the goodness of their hearts, is to misunderstand or ignore how power operates....

So then clearly democracy has to come from the actions of the potential beneficiaries who are the people.

The constitution says all power belongs to the people and we should take that on face value.

Getting out to vote, the ruling party caucusing to push laws or their views through parliament, political contestation along party lines and court challenges of the outcomes of the polls are helping moving our democratisation process forward.

As unbearable as it seems even the current standoff between the government and the opposition is part of the process. Of course its resolution can have disastrous consequences or not, but with the hindsight of history Ugandans (hopefully living in an even more democratic society) will be able to say all this was needed to happen for democracy to advance.

Evolution is messy business, advancing sometimes three steps forward and before taking two steps back, meandering off the true course before finding its way again and oftentimes at greater cost than was necessary.

For us who are in the thick of things, where we can’t tell the forest from the trees, we need to stay the course, even if through the fog of political bickering and manoeuvring we cannot see the next step on the ladder.

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