Since coming to power in a "protracted people's war"

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Though the current leadership has been marked by corruption and abuse of power, Uganda's controversial "movement-based" system of "no-party democracy" has provided a promising framework for democratization in Uganda. Critics oppose the movement structure because it does not conform to specific ideas of multi-party democracy developed mostly from the Western experience. Although corruption by the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM, or Movement) threatens democratization in Uganda, the no-party system itself does not violate the principles of democracy, as some critics contend. The experience of Uganda, and much of the South in general, with multi-partyism illustrates many of the problems associated with political parties such as regional, ethnic and religious conflict in the political arena. The concept of "no-party" or "movement" democracy is an important political innovation that addresses the circumstances of Uganda. In spite of its innovative model for democracy, many NRM leaders have defied the constitution and used their power over a relatively weak civil society in order to advance their own agenda. Even so, Uganda is today more democratic than it has ever been its history.

Since coming to power in a "protracted people's war"1 in 1986, the NRM has sought to display its commitment in principle to a form of democracy sensitive to Ugandan conditions, while in practice violating many of these principles. From the inception of the Movement's resistance campaign, its leadership has adopted the approach that political parties have been responsible for exacerbating sectarian tensions throughout the country's history.2 Thus, although political parties are in theory allowed to exist, they are not permitted to field candidates for any elections, hold meetings, distribute membership cards or carry out any other business associated with political parties.3 By contrast, the NRM by law must be representative of the entire country. Thus, it is classified as a "movement", of which all Ugandans are members and is exempt from all restrictions applicable to political parties.4 In practice in recent years, the NRM has openly violated the constitution by refusing to democratize its structures and acting increasingly like any other political party. In addition, Movement officials, though stressing the temporary nature of the "no-party" structure, have not articulated a timetable for a transition to multi-party democracy, nor have they explained a clear rationale for what conditions must be met for that transition.5 This has led some to question whether Uganda is currently headed towards democracy or one-party rule by a partisan NRM.6

Some critics do not restrict their criticism to individual Movement officials, but claim that that because it violates the right of freedom of assembly, the movement system itself cannot be considered democratic. Proponents of this view generally identify political parties as inseparable from democracy.7 Democracy literally means "people's power" or "people's rule", but the concept has been considerably refined since it was first used in ancient Greece. According to Howard Handelman,

Full democracy [is] a political system in which most of the country's leading government officials are elected; there is nearly universal suffrage; elections are largely free of fraud and outside manipulation; opposition-party candidates have a real chance of being elected to important national offices; and minority rights as well as general civil liberties are respected, including free speech and a free press.8

This definition presupposes that democracy is primarily representative rather than directly participatory. It also presupposes the unity, or at least legitimacy, of the nation and maturity of civil society.

Supporters of Uganda's current constitution argue that it comes closer to representing "African democracy" than more widely held Western views. In many pre-colonial African societies, representative and/or participatory government was not uncommon, including in many regions of what became Uganda.9 Thus, Amii Omara-Otunnu has argued, "Whether the age-old techniques of consultation and participation can be adapted to promote democracy in the current circumstances of Uganda and/or other African states is an issue which deserves critical attention."10 The NRM maintains that its "no-party" system is meant to fit the current circumstances of Uganda. However, some Movement officials themselves have not operated according to the principles and laws of no-party democracy, increasingly making the NRM seem more like the ruling party in a one-party state. These actions clearly contradict the constitution and have only been made possible by deliberate attempts by those in power to undermine the political sway of civil society. In spite of this, the no-party system and the NRM itself have remained popular, as it has been the first system of government since pre-colonial times to provide stability, economic progress and popular participation in most of the country in an environment not torn by sectarian violence and conflict.


Uganda's history of ethnic and regional division exacerbated by political parties has made the NRM's "no-party" platform attractive to many people despite its restrictions on some political freedoms. Though the area of pre-colonial Uganda had a long tradition of centralized and representative governments, the British colonial policies of indirect rule and so-called "sub-imperialism" were effectively used to divide and rule the population.11 The British worked to develop southern regions, particularly Buganda, but they neglected the north of the country, from which they recruited most of the military, a practice that continues into the present.12 Along with religious conflicts between Muslims, Protestants and Catholics, colonial policy set the stage for the subsequent divisions after decolonization.

Since independence in October 1962, Uganda's failure to develop a functional democracy has been the result of the unleashing of many colonial divisions. Conflict based on unequal regional development, ethnic favoritism by the state, and religious tensions have all played their roles in promoting many of the horrors that independent Uganda has experienced. After being "granted" independence, Uganda became an independent republic with a Protestant northerner, Milton Obote, as prime minister and the king of the Buganda as president. This arrangement led to sharp ethnically charged tensions, resulting in Obote's dismissal of the President and the declaration of a one-party state in order to supposedly avoid sectarian strife.13 Seizing on the unpopularity of this move, General Idi Amin, a Muslim from a different part of the north than Obote, seized power in an initially popular coup in 1971. Amin did not attempt to create a democratic image for his government, and instead used xenophobic propaganda, divisive internal policies, and extensive state violence in order to maintain power.14 Amin's reign ended in 1979 at the hands of an invading Tanzanian army and an anti-Amin coalition, the United National Liberation Army (UNLA). One momentary leader under the UNLA, Godfrey Binaisa, made a similar argument to that which the NRM would make half a dozen years later by calling for a ban on all political parties in order to avoid "the politics of religion, sectarianism, rivalry and hatred."15 For the leaders of ethnic-, regional- or religious- based parties, this policy was unacceptable and Binaisa was removed from office.

Current Movement officials often point to the subsequent elections of 1980 as a clear example of how multi-party democracy failed Uganda. The election involved four parties, each with a definitive ethnic and/or religious affiliation: the northern Protestant dominated Uganda People's Congress (UPC) led by Milton Obote, the Democratic Party (DP) with mostly Catholic support, the Conservative Party (CP) representing almost exclusively Buganda, and the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) led by Yoweri Museveni based primarily in the southwest.16 Obote used his support among the northern-dominated military in order to rig the elections in favour of the UPC. Though it was the DP and not Museveni's UPM that was cheated in the elections (Museveni himself lost to a DP candidate and his party only won one seat), UPM leaders decided to begin a guerilla war under the title of the National Resistance Army (NRA). Over the next five years, approximately 500,000 people, mostly civilians, were slaughtered, mainly by Obote's northern troops in southern Buganda. In January of 1986, Museveni and his army overtook the capital, Kampala, and set about the economic and political restructuring of Ugandan society.17

NRM Ideology and Accomplishments

It is against this backdrop that the NRM (the NRA's civilian wing) sought to initiate a reformed democratic political system. The three primary goals of the NRM spelled out in its 1985 "Ten-Point Programme" were to enforce the "elimination of all forms of sectarianism", democratize, and oversee the economic, social and political development of the country.18 In its publications, the NRA uses the word 'sectarianism' to refer to any form of ethnic, religious or regional divisiveness.19 As Uganda's first leader from the south of the country, Museveni may have seen ending sectarianism as both a positive step for the nation and a strategic political move in order to legitimate his authority. In the Ten-Point Programme, he stated, "In our case, for democracy to be meaningful and not a mockery, it must contain three elements: parliamentary democracy, popular democracy and a decent level of living for every Ugandan."20 In terms of development, Museveni has repeatedly referred to Uganda as "backward", especially during the 1980s.21 Economic reform, involving a diversification of agriculture and the establishment of new industries in urban areas, has been a key goal of the NRM. Equally important to the NRM's vision of development is the creation of legitimate political institutions that reject sectarianism and promote the advancement of human rights and the equality of marginalized sectors of society, especially women.22

After an initial crackdown on political opposition23, the NRM leadership set up a Constitutional Commission and a popularly elected Constituent Assembly that in 1995 created Uganda's current constitution that spells out the principles of movement-based democracy.24 National elections for President and Parliament are held every five years in addition to regular local elections, but candidates are not allowed to officially associate themselves with political parties, though the NRM may support whichever candidate its leadership chooses. Written into the constitution is that every five years Uganda's form of government (either multi-party or no-party) will be subject to a referendum by the Ugandan people. So long as the no-party system is in place, the ruling movement must be broad-based, non-partisan and representative of the all Ugandans in order to distinguish it from a one-party state, which is explicitly prohibited.25 In addition to these democratic reforms, Uganda has made considerable progress in certain economic and social sectors, such as promoting the advancement of women and the reduction in the spread of AIDS. Uganda now has one of the best performing economies in Africa, growing at about 6.5 percent since 1987 with inflation falling from 250 percent in 1987 to 6 percent in 1999.26 Thus, in the 1996 elections, it was not very surprising that Museveni won almost three quarters of the vote against a candidate who was (unofficially) endorsed by a coalition of opposition parties in an election judged to be free and fair by international observers.27

Criticisms of the Movement System

Despite the enormous progress made under the current constitution, many critics claim that its restrictions of political parties under the movement structure is contrary to universal principles of human rights. Many conclude that the NRM is laying the groundwork for a one-party state, not democracy. However, critics such as Human Rights Watch concentrate their concerns on the structure of the constitution rather than the corruption and abuse of power by the NRM leadership. In the words of that organization's 1999 report, it views the movement political system as "hostile to democracy". Though they are careful not to refer directly to Uganda as a one-party state, the authors of the report strongly indicate that they believe that that is the direction in which it is headed. Quoting Naomi Chazen, they draw a comparison between no-party and one-party rule: "Many African countries became one party states after achieving independence, attempting to build party mobilizing governments in which 'participation was open to all those who accepted the government's ideology and identified with its goals.'"28

These critics do not accept the difference between a political party and a movement spelled out in Uganda's constitution, and thus, they believe that the movement system inevitably will lead to the repression of opinions not consistent with those of the ruling movement's leadership. As Giovanni Carbone has questioned regarding the nature of Uganda's constitution-making process, "Although the constitution formally prohibits a one-party state (art. 75), limitations to party politics and the legal protection enjoyed by the Movement inevitably raise questions about both the democratic character and the sustainability of the polity."29 Human Rights Watch focuses on "Uganda's Obligations under International Law" and explicitly refers to the freedoms of Association and Assembly as defined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).30

Human Rights Watch's criticisms of the 1995 constitution itself are misplaced given that political repression in Uganda is due not to a weak constitution, but to Movement officials who abuse their power and systematically violate that constitution in order to serve their own political interests. Unlike the political arrangement that Uganda adopted at independence, the current constitution is the result of a seven-year process in which Ugandans from the entire country were themselves active participants. The Constitutional Commission received recommendations from all 870 sub-counties in the country as well as hundreds of civil society groups.31 Unlike the majority of similar documents in the South that dump a Western-styled democratic set-up into a completely different context, Uganda's constitution explicitly addresses many of the problems left unresolved by its British-modeled 1962 counterpart.

Contrary to the assertions of some critics, Uganda's constitution does ensure the legitimacy of the democratic process under movement structures. Article 70 section 1 states

The movement political system is broad based, inclusive and non-partisan and shall conform to the following principles-- (a) participatory democracy; (b) democracy, accountability and transparency; (c) accessibility to all positions of leadership by all citizens; (d) individual merit as a basis for election to political offices.32

Thus, there is a clear distinction made between a one-party state and a no-party state, primarily that a "movement" in the latter system must have structures that permit anyone with any political views to advance his or her ideas.

The criticisms of the no party system neglect to acknowledge the major progress that it has brought to Uganda. Human Rights Watch contends, "The NRM has effectively excluded itself from regulation by characterizing itself not as a political party but as a 'movement', fusing its structures with those of the Ugandan state, and creating a pyramid of 'movement' structures from the village level to the national level."33 This depiction does not accurately reflect the reality of Ugandan elections, which are free of intimidation and rigging and allow candidates from a broad section of the political spectrum to compete independently of party allegiance.34 The results do have a serious impact on government policies and peoples' lives. Even Human Rights Watch was moved to acknowledge at one point, "…the level of local participation in these (April 1998) elections was impressive. The council system allows significant civilian participation in the conduct of local government."35

Corruption and Abuse of Power by NRM Leaders

Though the no-party system has been enormously successful at bringing unprecedented public participation in government and reducing the amount of overt sectarian divisions in politics, the current leadership of the NRM has openly defied the laws and principles of this system. The corruption and abuse of power displayed by Movement officials is not a result Uganda's system of government, but a violation of it. Due to the political power built up by certain members of the NRM's leadership, including President Yoweri Museveni, they have been able to illegally act as if their own political agenda represents that of the entire Movement, the Ugandan state and the Ugandan people.36 As mentioned above, this is in clear violation of article 70 of the constitution and is inconsistent with the concept of a movement as defined in the Ten-Point Programme.

The Movement leadership has abused it power in many ways, each of which are contrary to the principle of no-party democracy. Instead of reaching out to a variety of religious, ethnic and regional groups, the NRM has become overly represented by the southern Banyankole.37 President Museveni has exploited conflicts in the north and in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in order to detain and arrest political opponents, ostensibly under violation of treason laws. This type of posturing has led many to wonder whether he would be willing to accept the results if a referendum did demand a shift to multi-partyism.38 There is also much concern that he may attempt to ignore the constitution and seek a currently illegal third term as president in 2005. The number of cabinet posts in the NRM held by those associated with political parties has steadily declined in each succeeding cabinet. As Nelson Kasfir notes, "Given its claim of inclusiveness, it is paradoxical - under any rationale - that the NRM has resisted internal democratization."39

The failure of the Movement to live up to many of its ideals is tied to continued civil strife in the north of the country. The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), consisting of a few officers left over from the reigns of Idi Amin and Milton Obote who have not accepted any of the numerous amnesty proposals by the NRM, continues to conduct guerilla warfare in the north of the country. Its leader, Joseph Kony, claims to be a messenger of God who will establish the Ten Commandments as law, but his campaign has little to no support in Uganda where as many as 800,000 people in the north have been internally displaced. The LRA has become infamous for its abduction of children, whom its commanders use as fighters and sex-slaves.40

This conflict, which the government has recently escalated with the so-called "Operation Iron Fist" to wipe out the rebels, has provided the NRM with the opportunity to intimidate its political opponents and infringe on their freedom of speech. In October 2002, the main opposition newspaper The Monitor was forcibly closed by the military for supposedly publishing a false report of a helicopter crash in the north.41 Politicians tied to opposition parties have been repeatedly detained on various pretexts, the most common of which is treason, which carries a mandatory death sentence upon conviction.42

These repressive actions taken by the NRM's leadership indicate that it is not truly ready for the democratization process. However, this tendency is due not to a fundamental flaw in the system of government, but rather to corruption and the defiance of Parliament, the Judiciary and the Constitution itself by many NRM leaders. NRM officials have abused their power to register NGOs in order to ensure their cooperation with the objectives of the NRM leadership.43 Thus, these leaders have systematically worked to undermine the effectiveness of civil society to oppose their attempts to consolidate power. As Giovanni Carbone assesses, "The Movement's need to develop a better organisation has been repeatedly recognised. Since the 1994 electoral campaign for the Constituent Assembly (CA), the NRM has actually been acting as a quasi-party, dealing with candidates and results in partisan terms."44

Any political system in a society in which civil society does not exert strong power and the military is controlled by an elite few risks the danger of disintegration if those in power are not committed to its principles. Some critics have charged that much of the political repression in Uganda is due to the no-party system of government. An assessment of no-party democracy as outlined in the Ten-Point Programme and the constitution reveals that no such repression is permitted by that system. Some observers believe that Movement officials are manipulating what was created as an excellent system in the process of democratization into a stepping stone to one-party rule.45

Regardless of these drawbacks, the current Ugandan government has brought economic progress and democratization unprecedented in independent Uganda. At the local level, participatory democracy is reality as each village or local unit elects officials based on individual merit and vision for the community. As Jeff Haynes states, "The point is that Museveni has been able to bring political stability and economic steadiness to most of a country that has hardly experienced either since independence in 1962."46 The question now is whether or not Museveni and the rest of the NRM are committed to the constitution of which they oversaw the creation. Will the NRM remain a "movement" as defined in article 70 or, if it transforms into a political party, will it accept a shift to multi-party democracy if Ugandans demand so in a referendum? These questions focus on the individual conduct of the NRM leadership, not on the reformation of Uganda's political system. Thus, given the relative stability of Ugandan politics since it was enacted, the no-party system deserves careful attention and praise, even if the actions of some of Uganda's leadership do not.

1 Yoweri Museveni. Selected Articles From The Uganda Resistance War. Nairobi: NRM Publications, 1985. p.11

2 Yoweri Museveni. The Path of Liberation. Kampala: Uganda Government Printer, 1989. p.5

3 Government of Uganda. The Constitution - Transitional Provisions. "", 3 July 2003.

4 Human Rights Watch. Hostile To Democracy: The Movement System and Political Repression In Uganda. New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999. p.2-3

5 Nelson Kasfir. "'No-Party Democracy' In Uganda" in Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner (eds.) Democratization In Africa. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. p.213

6 Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 57-65.

Kasfir, "'No-Party Democracy'", 213.

7 for example Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 15.

8 Howard Handelman. The Challenge of Third World Development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003.

9 Kevin Shillington. History of Africa. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. p.206-209

10 Amii Omara-Otunnu. "The Struggle for Democracy in Uganda." The Journal of Modern African Studies, Volume 30, Issue 3 (September 1992), 444.

11 Thomas O'hara. "Democratic Representation: A Ugandan Model" in Contemporary African Politics: A Comparative Study of Political Transition to Democratic Legitimacy. Lanham: University Press of America, 1999. p.89

12 Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 29.

13 Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 30-31.

14 Kasfir, "'No-Party Democracy'", 204-205.

15 quoted in Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 1999. p.34

16 Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 33-34.

O'hara, Democratic Representation, 90-93

17 O'hara, Democratic Representation, 90.

18 Museveni, Selected Articles, 50.

19 Kasfir, "'No-Party Democracy'", 202.

20 Museveni, Selected Articles, 50.

21 for example Museveni, Path of Liberation, 19. or Museveni, Selected Articles, 44.

22 Sylvia Tamale. When Hens Begin To Crow: Gender and Parliamentary Politics in Uganda. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999. p.2

23 Omara-Otunnu. "Struggle for Democracy", 449.

24 Oliver Furley and James Katalikawe. "Constitutional Reform in Uganda: The New Approach" African Affairs, Volume 96, Issue 383 (April 1997), 246-252.

25 Government of Uganda. The Constitution - Representation of the People. "", 3 July 2003.

26 O'hara, "Democratic Representation", 95.

27 Jeff Haynes. "'Limited' Democracy in Ghana and Uganda. What Is Most Important to International Actors: Stability or Political Freedom?" Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Volume 19, Issue 2 (2001), 198.

28 Human Rights Watch, Hostile to Democracy, 26.

29 Giovanni Carbone. "Constitutional Alternatives for the Regulation of Ethnic Politics? Institution-building Principles in Uganda's and South Africa's Transitions" Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Volume 19, Issue 2 (2001), 236.

30 Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 15-27.

31 John Waliggo. "Constitution-Making and the Politics of Democratisation in Uganda" in Holger Bernt Hansen and Michael Twaddle (eds.) From Chaos To Order. Kampala: Fountain Publishers, 1995. p.27-28

32 Government of Uganda. The Constitution - Representation of the People.

33 Human Rights Watch, Hostile to Democracy, 3.

34 Kasfir, "'No-Party Democracy'", 208-209.

35 Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 45.

36 Haynes, "'Limited' Democracy", 200.

37 Carbone, "Constitutional Alternatives", 237.

38 Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 6.

39 Kasfir. "'No-Party Democracy'", 213.

40 Human Rights Watch. Abducted and Abused: Renewed Conflict in Northern Uganda. "", 15 July 2003.

41 Human Rights Watch. Uganda Attacks Freedom of the Press. "", 5 July 2003.

42 Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 6.

43 Human Rights Watch, Hostile To Democracy, 103-104.

44 Carbone, "Constitutional Alternatives", 237.

45 Kasfir, "'No-Party Democracy'", 213.

46 Haynes, "'Limited' Democracy", 201.

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