Africa Uganda’s army MPs: Vanguard of democracy or time bomb?

Uganda’s army MPs: Vanguard of democracy or time bomb?

Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, President of Uganda
Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, President of Uganda

(AA) – With only nine months left until 2016 general polls, opposition parties and civil society figures want proposed constitutional amendments to tackle the contentious issue of special-interest representation in parliament, particularly when it comes to the army.

“We want the word ‘army’ deleted among parliament representatives,” Wandera Ogaalo, a lawyer for the Forum for Democratic Change, Uganda’s largest opposition party, told Anadolu Agency.

The opposition is calling for the amendment of Article 78 Clause (c) of the country’s 1995 Constitution.

The article stipulates that parliament have one female representative for every district and special representation for the army, youth, workers, persons with disabilities, and other groups. 

The current parliament contains ten representatives of the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF); 238 constituency representatives; 112 female district representatives; five youth representatives; five representatives of persons with disabilities; five workers’ representatives; and 13 ex-officio members.

Ogaalo insists that, by removing army representation from parliament, “we would be exempting it from partisan politics.

“In a multiparty dispensation, we are opening the army to a very dangerous position,” he said.

“We are robbing it of one essential quality – the quality that the army must be subordinate to every civilian authority in perpetuity,” said the opposition activist.

“I am not aware of any parliament in the world where the army elects representatives to sit in parliament,” he added.

Army representation in Uganda’s parliament began in 1994.

Representatives are chosen by the Army Council, which includes all members of the Army High Command; persons who had served as senior army officers on January 26, 1986; all directors of military services; commanding officers of brigades and battalions; and officers commanding equivalent military units.

Uganda’s Army Council is chaired by President Museveni.

The government’s justification for having the army represented in parliament is that it should be involved in the country’s political process in order to guarantee stability.

With only nine months left before general elections, a legal and parliamentary affairs committee – led by Chairperson Stephen Tashobya – is debating the Constitutional Amendments Bill, which was tabled by the government in late April.

The bill seeks to change the name of the country’s official electoral commission to the “Independent Electoral Commission,” restructure the electoral body, and lay down procedures for removing commission members.

It further seeks to raise the retirement age for justices and judges; allow the Judicial Service Commission to appoint certain judicial staff; provide corporate status for the Inspectorate of Government; and establish a Salaries and Remuneration Board, among other things.

But the proposed legislative changes related to the electoral body remain the most contentious, especially as Uganda gears up for 2016 general elections.

Opposition parties and civil society groups have recommended 17 amendments to the legal and parliamentary affairs committee for consideration, including scrapping the army’s parliamentary representation.

On March 2, Parliament Speaker Rebecca Kadaga received the text of 17 proposed electoral reforms, which were agreed upon by an “Inter-Party Organization for Dialogue.”

The organization is comprised of all of the country’s political parties – including Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) – along with the National Consultative Forum of Civil Society Organizations, which was drawn up specifically to negotiate proposed electoral reforms with the government.

-‘Vanguard of democracy’-

But calls to scrap the army’s representation in parliament are likely to meet stiff opposition from Museveni’s ruling NRM.

“The army is the vanguard of this democracy we are enjoying, so why do you want to deny them that right? It’s not correct,” retired army colonel Fred Mwesigye, a ruling party MP, told Anadolu Agency.

“Their [army MPs’] presence in parliament is symbolic; it bridges the relationship between the people and army,” he said.

Mwesigye, one of the 27 national resistance army fighters who attacked an army barracks in 1981 at the start of the NRA’s five-year war against the Milton Obote regime, insists it is not the right time for the army to leave parliament.

He noted that the amendment’s supporters were not the ones who brought the army into the assembly.

“They should wait until they come to power – then they can throw the army out of parliament,” Mwesigye said.

“As long as the NRM remains in power, the army will stay in parliament,” he insisted.

The bill needs the support of one third of the 386-member assembly, in which the ruling NRM controls 259 seats.  

As soon as parliament passes the bill, it officially becomes an Act of Parliament. It is then sent to the president, who signs it into law.

Fox Odoi, another NRM lawmaker, said there was a reason why the army was represented in parliament.

“The framers of the 1995 constitution were basically dealing with persistent coups that had become a hallmark of African politics,” he said.

“The Ugandan constitution attempted to cure this by making soldiers part of the legislative process – and they are still very relevant,” added Odoi.

Uganda is no stranger to coups and military takeovers.

The most memorable – and successful – coup took place in 1979, when the army seized control while then-President Milton Obote was attending a Commonwealth conference in Singapore.

The army then appointed Major-General Idi Amin Dada as head of the new military government.

MP Odoi argues that, based on previous military and violent takeovers the country has seen, “you can’t deny the presence of the army as a contributor to the relative stability that we have enjoyed in the last 30 years.”

Mwesigye, the retired colonel, agrees that previous governments were overthrown by the army because the army had been excluded from parliament.

“But the army closed that gap, which was created by the colonialists,” he told Anadolu Agency.

Medard Segona, an opposition legislator and shadow minister for justice and constitutional affairs, for his part, ridiculed this argument.

“Coups don’t take place because soldiers aren’t in parliament,” he told Anadolu Agency. “That is a pedestrian way of looking at things.”

Charles Rwomushana, former head of the political desk at State House, says every regime that ruled Uganda had a military wing.

He added that the NRM, with its National Resistance Army, was no different.

“What you call parliament was a military council that was expanded by adding civilians to it,” he told Anadolu Agency. “In fact, the army has been withdrawing [from the assembly] slowly.”

Rwomushana says the army still plays a major role in the decision-making process of the current parliament, which is chaired by Assembly Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, a civilian.

“The decisions that Museveni makes in the NRM caucus that he chairs are those that parliament passes,” he explained.

“Our civilian legislators think that by voting, shouting and legal drafting they are working – but it’s the army,” Rwomushana argued.

“In essence,” he added, “we don’t have a people’s parliament.”