5 February 2013

Uganda: Cabinet to Debate Constitution Change

Photo: UN
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Spurred by President Museveni's resolute pressure, the Attorney General is finalising proposed amendments to the Constitution that would, among others, deny bail to suspects charged with corruption, rioting, rape and defilement, The Observer has learnt.

Over the past three years, Museveni has pushed for these amendments, only to be opposed by politicians across the political divide and human rights groups. The critics of the proposed amendments accuse the president of seeking to legislate out of political expediency. This is particularly so because the president first mentioned the proposals at the height of walk-to-work protests; so, it was seen as an attempt to clamp down on political opponents, using the law.

Now, The Observer has established, the Attorney General will soon present the proposed amendments before the cabinet for approval. The deputy Attorney General, Fred Ruhindi, told us yesterday: "We are working on the proposed amendments and they will be presented before cabinet very soon, before they are presented to Parliament for consideration."

Ruhindi further said the bill would also consider some amendments that were deferred during the 2005 constitution review exercise.

"The proposed amendments will include those that have been proposed by the head of state and those that were not passed in 2005, as well as some new amendments that will be considered as suggested by the general public," Ruhindi explained.

Sources within the NRM have told The Observer that, among other proposals, Museveni wants Article 83 of the Constitution amended so that a Member of Parliament expelled from a political party automatically loses his or her seat. The president also wants powers to dissolve Parliament in case of a political impasse.

Whereas some of the president's proposed amendments can be construed as an attack on individual rights and legitimate political dissent, Ruhindi says Museveni's ideas will be considered and assessed within the confines of the law.

"When the head of state proposes an amendment, it is considered and the gist of democracy is that something is first debated and consulted upon before it is passed into law. This is not like the Idi Amin regime where an issue would be passed through decrees," he said.

But Peter Walubiri, a constitutional law expert, told The Observer that habitual constitutional amendments may end up breaking the foundation of its creation.

"The spirit of the Constitution serves as its foundation but if we keep on changing the foundation it will be more like changing the foundation of a building ... which can end up destroying the whole structure," he said.

In reference to the last amendments that removed term limits and the latest initiative, Walubiri said the Constitution should not be amended to serve individual wishes of the executive but, rather, to capture the common wishes of the citizenry.

"This is a sacred document that should not be taken to be a one-man's paper, and if we are to continue with this trend, it spells doom for our democracy," he said.

MPs response:

In 2011, a snap survey conducted by The Observer showed that 45 of the 70 NRM MPs surveyed were undecided on the issue. As debate on the controversial proposals gained momentum within NRM in 2011, the party caucus constituted a six-member team to examine them.

The team, led by the prime minister and NRM secretary general, Amama Mbabazi, also included former Attorney General, Khiddu Makubuya; Local Government minister Adolf Mwesige; deputy Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Oulanyah (Omoro county); Wilfred Niwagaba (Ndorwa East); and Elizabeth Kalungi (Woman, Kanungu).

Niwagaba told The Observer at the time that he does not support the proposals.

"As a member of the committee carrying out consultations, I would not comment as yet, but my personal position is that I don't support the proposal, however much it is justified."

Katuntu speaks:

The shadow Attorney General, Abdu Katuntu, welcomed the move to amend the Constitution. He said it is an opportune time for the country to make amendments in line with the principles of good governance and constitutionalism. "Although I do not support some proposals that will affect individual rights and the presumption of innocence, I welcome amendments that will put the nation on the right course of constitutionalism," he said.

Katuntu plans to use this opportunity to propose amendments on behalf of the opposition. These relate to electoral reforms, land law, restoration of presidential term limits, and the composition of Parliament.

"The current electoral laws reflect a partisan element. We need them to be amended in such a way that is practical in a democracy that is under multi-party dispensation," he said.

Katuntu added that the law on the appointment of the Electoral Commission should be amended to make the process neutral. On land law, Katuntu says the current law has made it hard for land tribunals to function. In support of the recommendations of the Constitution Review Commission chaired by Prof Fredrick Ssempebwa in 2005, Katuntu argues that the composition of Parliament should be reconsidered.

"You cannot have an army in Parliament. The army is a national body, it is not supposed to be in partisan politics and what is done in Parliament is partisan politics," he said.

In a minority report, the Ssempebwa commission had advised that the police have not powers to authorise or prohibit rallies.

"In our view, the law should simply oblige the people intending to hold a public meeting to notify the police and the local authority of the area where the meeting is to be held. The role of the police is to maintain order during the meetings," the minority report said.

The report also advised that ministers should not be MPs at the same time, and that a censured minister should not be eligible for reappointment during the tenure of the Parliament that censured him or her, as well as the subsequent Parliament.

Other proposals:

It remains to be seen whether the amendments will include proposals from experts such as Ssempebwa's call for the total abolition of the death penalty. On his part, Prof Joe Oloka Onyango of Makerere University recently told The Observer that to make the office of the Attorney General independent and effective, the Constitution should be amended to make it a non-partisan position.

"This office is supposed to give legal advice to all government agencies but when you look at the way it functions today, it's more of an extended mouthpiece of the executive and this is so because the President is the one who appoints the bearer. So, there is a need to create it as an independent office," he said.

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