Separation of Powers: Does Uganda have 'Proper' Democracy?
President Yoweri Museveni and leader of government business in parliament Nsibambi.

Separation of Powers: Does Uganda have 'Proper' Democracy?

Gideon Munaabi examines this notion called Separation of Powers.

By Gideon Munaabi
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First published: April 17, 2007

Separation of Powers: Does Uganda have 'Proper' Democracy?
If French political thinker Baron de Montesquieu, who coined the term 'Trias Politica' which translates into 'Separation of powers' referring to a model for the governance of democratic states were still alive, he would definetely not be amused by the current use of these words. This is because although modern 'democratic states' like Uganda have adopted this model in their constitutions to protect democracy and prevent dictatorship, this is only so on paper as two of the three arms of the state; the judiciary and the legislature are only respected when 'there is need' and disregarded when the executive finds it fitting.

In a true democracy, separation of powers is a situation where the three arms of the state: The executive (or government), the legislature, and the judiciary have independent powers and areas of responsibility. By distributing the essential business of government among the three separate but interdependent branches, the framers of national constitutions, including Uganda's very own 1995 Constituent Assembly delegates ensured that the principal powers of government are not concentrated in the hands of any single branch.

But is this notion of separation of powers really being upheld in today's democracy and particualrly in Uganda where we have lately experienced a clash between the executive and the parliament as well as spats between the executive and the judiciary? The writer examines some scenarios where the executive in Uganda clashed with the other two arms of the state in light of this notion called separation of powers.

Case 1: The NTV saga
On Wednesday April 4, 2007, the Ugandan Parliament became a drama theater when the executive showed the Members of Parliament (MPs) that they were just units making up a paper tiger in a heated debate over the refusal or delay by the Ugandan government to re-allow Nation TV (NTV) to broadcast in Uganda. NTV signals were switched off by Uganda Broadcasting Corporation TV (UBC TV) on the instructions of the Broadcasting Council (BC) on January 27, 2007. Its signal was re-instated two days later by UBC but was again switched off a day later by officials from the Broadcasting Council. Two of NTV's transmitters were also confiscated by the BC.

MPs from both the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and the opposition put up a spirited fight to ensure the station re-opened immediately but the government ministers insisted that the government could not have NTV re-opened. This debate followed two resolutions by the Parliament of Uganda to have the TV station re-opened by mid night April 2, 2007.

The Minister of Information, Ali Kirunda Kivejinja, said the station had failed to fulfill its pre-license obligations and that the Broadcasting Council (BC) was ready to get it back on air "as soon as legal and procedural requirements have been complied with." This is in spite of his earlier briefing to the same parliament that the NTV closure was a small administrative matter between the station and the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC), which could easily be sorted out.

In the April 4, 2007 debate, the Ugandan government failed to commit itself to any timelines to re-open NTV despite pleas from the Members of Parliament who accused the executive of deliberately undermining the authority of the parliament and frustrating an investor. "We have done our part and stated our position which is that NTV should be reopened. We leave the rest to the executive," the Deputy Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga wrapped up the debate.

By Thursday April 14, 2007 when this article was written, the Ugandan government had not switched NTV back on air, meaning that the parliament's resolutions were just a waste of time and the whole saga was a sign of abuse to the notion of the separation of powers as coined by Montesquieu.

Case 2: (The PRA saga)
On March 1, 2007, Ugandan security forces raided the High Court in Kampala and re-arrested a group of Peoples Redemption Army (PRA) treason suspects who had been granted bail by a judge. This followed an earlier incident in 2005, when paramilitary personnel laid siege to the same High Court and re-arrested the 22 treason suspects who had been granted bail. After the second court siege, the judiciary (judges, magistrates and other court workers) went on strike on March 5, accusing the Government of Uganda of violating the independence of the judiciary.

The judges noted that there was repeated violation of the sanctity of the court premises, disobedience of court orders with impunity and constant threats to the independence of the judiciary. "We want the executive to apologize for the events that have been occurring at the High Court, and reassure us that these events will not be repeated," demanded the deputy Chief Justice, Leticia Kikonyogo.

Oscar Kihika, the president of the Uganda Law Society said there had been repeated government interference and refusal to comply with orders of the court, particularly with regard to the PRA suspects. "The manner in which organs of the state under the executive arm of government have defied court orders, and even gone ahead to arrest suspects that have been granted bail on court premises, is very frustrating." He is quoted to have lamented.

On April 7, the Internal Affairs Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda said that although the police had respected the court's decision to release the suspects on bail, the suspects had to be re-arrested and charged with murder.

Case 3: Sale of Uganda Commercial Bank
Although Uganda's 6th Parliament blocked the sale of Uganda Commercial Bank (UCB), the Ugandan government went ahead to sell the bank, abusing the notion of separation of powers in a democracy.

President Yoweri Museveni poses for a photo session with his current cabinet ministers, the Chief Justice of Uganda and the Speaker of Parliament outside Uganda's parliament building
President Yoweri Museveni poses for a photo session with his current cabinet ministers, the Chief Justice of Uganda and the Speaker of Parliament outside Uganda's parliament building.

What does this mean for democracy?
Since political scientists have still failed to agree on a clear definition of democracy, it also remains hard for its elements to be agreed upon. Whereas some of us were taught that democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people in our school days, what is practically happening actually gives it a new definition; the government of SOME people, by SOME people and for SOME people. In the same manner, political scholars still have divergent views about the notion of separation of powers.

The proponents of separation of powers believe that it protects democracy and forestalls tyranny while the opponents (such as Professor Charles M. Hardin) say that regardless of whether it accomplishes this end, it also promotes executive dictatorship and unaccountability, and tends to marginalize the legislature. That is why some political scientists believe that no democratic system exists with an absolute separation of powers or an absolute lack of separation of powers. None the less, some systems are clearly founded on the principle of separation of powers, while others are clearly based on mixing of powers.

One wonders whether Uganda is embracing the former or the latter. Like, political scientists tell us, politics is the art of managing society, no matter which method is employed to achieve this.

By Gideon Munaabi
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First published: April 17, 2007
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Gideon Munaabi is a journalist and public relations practitioner with Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd. He has been and continues writing widely for different publication locally and internationally. He is a founding member of Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and is currently the chairman of the organisation.