By J. Senyonjo
Classic federalism is by its very nature a democratic system due to its detailed checks and balances on power at all levels. Democracy in a country like Uganda, with indelible ethnic regions and biases, can best thrive on a foundation of federalism; powerful federal regions are likely to protect the rights of their citizens against encroachment from the sometimes hostile, or indifferent, central government. Federal systems are designed to ensure that central governments do not arbitrarily interfere in local administration, including law and order responsibilities. These are left to regional and local governments, the two other levels of government in a federal system.
Federal constitutions demarcate power and responsibilities among the three tiers of government in order to guard against one tier encroaching on another tier's jurisdiction. Moreover, since regional governments do not owe their existence and power to the central government but to their electorate, there is no room for directives from the central government that are not in the interest of the regions’ peoples.
Now the question of whether the semi-federal situation of 1962-1966 better placed Ugandans to defend individual liberties than the current unitary status quo is an interesting one. It is a great opportunity for me to reiterate the inadequacy of “federo for those who want it”, and why it's better, in a country like Uganda, to have federalism for all. You will note that Buganda, the only true federal region in the 1962-1966 arrangement, stood up against the autocracy of the central government in the interests of her people and her federal powers, but because most other regions did not have the same privileges and powers, and resented her for them, she was largely a lone voice in the wilderness.
Imagine, if a federal system had been shared by all regions in 1966, and that their governors had met to discuss the increasingly arbitrarily behaviour of the central government towards regional autonomous powers and citizens' civil liberties, contrary to the constitution; imagine too that, as in most, if not all, federal systems, each of the regions had a legally constituted militia, would the central government have easily usurped the constitution?
Moreover, in genuine federal systems, regions have a role in amending the constitution since they are integral players whose powers and people are affected by any drastic change, so it would not have been enough for the Prime Minister to intimidate the national parliament into passing his “pigeon hole” constitution. He would have had to do the same with all the independently elected regional legislatures. Imagine the amount of coordination and planning that it would take. Would high-level members of the army allow themselves to be used to abuse their regional legislatures? If they did, couldn't the regional militias and police forces get in their way? After all, the army's constitutional role is external defence, and it would be overstepping its mandate.
The Prime Minister's task would also have been much more difficult at the national level because genuine federal systems generally have two chambers, one representing constituencies, and another one representing all the regions equally, regardless of each region size, or population. It would have been an uphill task indeed, for the Prime Minister to bring both chambers along, coercion notwithstanding.
So yes, my sense is that, indeed Ugandans’ civil liberties would have been better protected under a federal system understood, and subscribed to by all.
Democracy and Federalism are thus so intertwined in the Ugandan context, and in much of Africa, that they should be enshrined in the constitution concurrently. Recent examples of wrangles and strife in Bunyoro, Karamoja, Acholi and Lango clearly show that the collective civil and individual liberties of the people in the regions are often either trampled on, or neglected by the machinery of the central government which is often not competent enough to appreciate the subtleties of local interests and politics.
History shows that once the civil liberties of any section of society are trampled on with impunity, it is just a matter of time before the civil liberties of others suffer a similar fate. Federal regions protect against such abuse, and in a complex multi-ethnic country like Uganda, can therefore be considered guardians of democracy.