Friday, March 23, 2012

Transition 34 (Dec 1967 – Jan 1968) on the Uganda Constitution

Picked up this letter from here specially for my Constitutional law students -

The letter below, about Obote's coup against his own government (a.k.a. 1967 Constitution), was written by one Makerere student, Mr. Sebukima, under the the nomme de plume of  'Steve Lino' and it appeared in Transition 34 in 1967-1968.

Predicatbly, the cholagogue of Uganda's politics, Milton Apollo Obote (MAO) was not amused. He had his gestapo hound the editorial staff of the Transition till they got the name and address of the author. Needless to say, Mr. Sebukima was put in detention along with the editor of the magazine, one Rajat Neogy, Abu Mayanja, etc.

Without further ado, here is the letter.


Transition 34 (Dec 1967 – Jan 1968)


Dear Sir,

In Transition 33 (p. 10) Mr. Akena Adoko tried to defend the Uganda Constitution and to answer some of the criticisms levelled against it. This was a commendable effort on his part, but, in the last analysis, he would have perhaps have served the Constitution better, if had kept quiet and not written such a lame defence of it.

He begins his article with the wild assertion that “there is a consensus of opinion that the way the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda was introduced, and passed, with most of its provisions, deserve the highest praise”. I don’t know how Mr. Adoko obtained his “consensus of opinion”, but I do know, as all the honest citizens of his country know, that the Uganda Constitution was introduced in the worst possible way. It was proposed and introduced by a government which had outlived its legal life; it was introduced to a Parliament about ten percent of whose members were either in detention or otherwise politically incapacitated; it was introduced at a time when the most important single unit of the country, and the capital, were (and still are) under a state of emergency. If Mr. Adoko thinks that this was the best way if introducing the constitution, his standards must be very low indeed. No doubt the Constitution and the manner of its introduction have received praise from the ministers and many U.P.C. members of Parliament, from men like Adoko and sycophants in general. And perhaps this constitutes his “consensus of opinion”.

Mr. Adoko’s attempt to justify the Detention Act in Constitution is pathetically limp, at best only does disservice to his intellectual and academic distinction. He gives really three reasons to justify the Act: that recently in Buganda the was a “Social Giant” who was above the law, and in whose name people perpetrated illegal acts; that in Uganda people tend to identify the Central Government with the erstwhile colonial government and therefore avoid it and try to frustrate its efforts; and finally, that the general public does not understand an elaborate system of justice. Therefore, concludes Mr. Adoko, Uganda needs and must have a Detention Act.

Mr. Adoko has curious system of reasoning. The “Social Giant” he speaks of, we all know, was driven out of the country at gunpoint last year. If indeed, he was a threat to justice, his removal would have meant, if anything, better justice and not a Detention Act. There is in fact no reason why the Government should have drafted the Constitution in reference to him at all. And let us suppose (for argument’s sake) that Adoko’s allegation that the agents of the “Social Giant” committed some acts of violence and went scot-free is true. Is this a situation which requires a Detention Act to deal with it? If a man goes and burns down someone else’s house, why should the police not arrest him, take him to court, and have him condemned by the normal process of justice? And if Adoko thinks the Detention Act is needed to protect the victims of this colossus and his agents, where is the Detention Act to deal those gunmen who shot and killed many innocent people (no doubt unrecorded in official statistics) and destroyed the property of others?

The other two reasons cannot deceive even a child of six; if the people regard the Central Government as a hostile, alien body, they will regard it even more so now that it has made itself potentially the enemy of any single individual in the country (by virtue of the Detention Act), and filled each one’s life with fear and uncertainty. (I should note, for Mr. Adoko’s benefit, that the Protectorate Government, though always regarded as foreign and hostile, never resorted to Detention Acts).  As to the argument that the people have yet to learn to appreciate an intricate system of justice, and they therefore need a Detention Act, one can only deduce the following: since the majority of Ugandans do not know English, those who know it should give it up and reach down to the level of the masses; since only a small section of the population is literate, literacy should be given up in this country - - in the interest of the masses etc. No Mr. Adoko, your reasoning will not do.

On the question of the presidential powers, Mr. Adoko contends that the powers conferred upon the Uganda President by the new Constitution are no more than those conferred upon executive heads of state elsewhere, and in particular, those of USA President. Such a deliberate attempt to mislead the people by a high official of the Government throws very dirty light on the Government. Mr. Adoko knows (or should know) that the US President has no power to nominate even one member of Congress at all: that he may not detain anyone without trial, and that any act of his can be challenged by anyone in the Supreme Court. Mr. Adoko should also know that the U.S. President has no power to extend the life of Congress by even one day. Moreover, the U.S. Constitution is a genuine federal Constitution with several centers of Executive power. When therefore, Mr. Adoko, argues that the U.S. President is the be-all and end-all of executive power in the U.S.A., one can only conclude that he is either ignorant of the facts or cowardly shunning them. He has only to look at the recent history of the Civil Rights movement t realise how limited the U.S. President’s powers can be.

I should like to add (largely for Mr. Adoko’s benefit) that even if the U.S. President had the same powers as those of his counterpart in Uganda, there would still be this basic difference; that in the first case the framers of the U.S. Constitution were realistic and discerning enough to provide to provide effective checks against abuse of power by the President. The architects of the Uganda Constitution, it would seem, were more concerned to give the President the power of life and death over the whole of Uganda.

As to the removal of the President, Mr. Adoko would have us believe that every five years the people will be called upon to elect a new President or re-elect the out-going one. The Honourable A. Mayanja, M.P., has already pointed out in Transition 32 (p. 20) how very susceptible to abuse the new method of choosing the President is, and how it leaves his responsibility to the people “amorphous and indirect”. When one looks at it closely, one cannot help wondering whether in the end one cannot help wondering whether in the end this all-important Chief of State will be “elected” by more than one hundred or a hundred and fifty people, at the very maximum. For if we take for granted that the Presidential Candidate will be selected by his Party’s Executive Committee (of which he will presumably be the Chairman), it means that only the said Executive Committee, and those National Assembly Candidates who will “declare” for him on Nomination day will in fact choose the President. If this handful of men and women is what Mr. Adoko calls “the people” to whose mercy the President is subject, one wonders what the rest us citizens are!!

One could go on unmasking the fallacy of the rest of Mr. Adoko’s argument one by one. For example, his ridiculously simple rebuttal to the criticism of the government’s decision to abolish monarchies. Not all the parties, he says, pledged themselves to preserve kingship. “The Uganda People’s Congress, for instance, promised to maintain the dignity of kings, i.e. as long as they were kings.” It is demoralising to see such a high official of the Uganda Government debase himself to such an extent. Would the Uganda Government sell Uganda to Britain or the U.S.A. and hope to justify themselves by saying they promised to maintain the integrity of Uganda only as long as Uganda existed?  Would the O.A.U. enslave Africa to the USSR just by arguing that they pledged themselves to promote the interests of Africa only as long as Africa existed? Mr. Adoko, such reasoning can only discredit the Uganda Government. We know, you do not need to tell us, that Uganda M.P.s are not ambassadors but representatives. Nevertheless, it is an accepted principle of any government that deserve to be labelled “democratic” that if such a government is about to take a step which amounts to a reversal of policy declared at the time of elections, it should seek a fresh and clear mandate from the electorate for the particular step. And I don’t think that any honest citizen of this country can doubt that abolition of monarchies was tantamount to a reversal of the Uganda Government’s policy—declared in 1962.

As I say, all Mr. Adoko’s arguments could be pulled to pieces like this. However, it is enough to emphasize what I said at the beginning that although it is a very commendable effort (and indeed very courageous) to try and defend as democratic such a democratically indefensible Constitution, in the end Mr. Adoko would have defended it better if he had left it as it is, without exposing its weaknesses further.


Steve Lino
P.O. Box 16005

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