Kenya’s and Uganda’s current affairs illustrate birth pains of democracy

Friday September 29 2017

The greatest lesson in Kenya and Uganda

The greatest lesson in Kenya and Uganda therefore is that the contest for the office of the president needs to be made less a do-or-die undertaking. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYANGAH 

More by this Author

The biggest stories in Kenya currently revolve around the Supreme Court’s decision to annul the August 8 presidential election results and ordering fresh polls.

In Uganda, the story making headlines is the presidential age limit debate and the expected tabling of a Bill in parliament by the ruling NRM party seeking to delete Article 102 (b) on presidential age limit from the Constitution.

The article limits the age for anyone running for presidency to 75 years and President Museveni will be 77 in 2021 when the next elections will be held.

The opposition fiercely opposes the move and says it’s intended to only benefit Museveni whom them they accuse of harbouring intentions to be president for life.

At issue in both countries is whether democratic institutions can freely discharge their constitutional duties without interference.

Kenya and Uganda face a practical test on whether different arms of government (i.e. the judiciary, parliament and the executive) can peacefully and successfully mediate political conflicts.

In Kenya, the judges have already played their part. The onus is now on the electoral commission to organise free and fair fresh elections.

In Uganda, the challenge is for parliament to make a decision that serves the broader national interest, which is democratic consolidation.

What do the two stories tell us about democracy in the two countries and what can other East African countries learn from them?

Independence of the judiciary

First, the Kenyan case demonstrates that institutions are capable of playing their rightful constitutional roles.

However, as we have seen, for the independence of the judiciary to take root, it’s not enough for the judges to act independently; they need the support of all those who respect democracy.

For while President Uhuru Kenyatta said he accepted the court ruling, he later called the judges wakora (thugs) and there have been protests against the judiciary. This points to a lack of interest in judicial independence by some in the country.

Presidential age limit cap

Secondly, while democracy is seen as a game of numbers, the Ugandan case shows that this is not a silver bullet for preserving peace or consolidating democracy.

Those opposed to the removal of the presidential age limit cap contend that the majority won’t legislate in the interest of the people but for the president.

The lesson here is that citizens need to get actively involved and demand that their will and interest is served.

As things stand now, both cases are capable of leading to democratic consolidation or undermining it; depending on how the disagreements are concluded. However, the threat of violence in both cases remains.

In Kenya, for the Supreme Court ruling to lead to democratic consolidation, the final ruling will have to set a high bar for annulling presidential election results to avoid endless court battles while the electoral commission will need to ensure elections are free, fair and timely.

Unless political leaders in both cases act in the interest of the nation than personal, a stalemate is possible leading to a constitutional crisis in Kenya and political violence in Uganda.


The greatest lesson in both cases therefore is that the contest for the office of the president needs to be made less a do-or-die undertaking.

In practice, this means abandoning a winner-take-all political system in favour of a power-sharing arrangement. That also means reducing the powers concentrated in the presidency that makes controlling that office a source of misery for the excluded and advancement for the favoured.

For historically, in Uganda, from the struggles between Kabaka Yekka Party and President Milton Obote to Museveni’s five-year bus war to the current ping-pong between former bush war heroes and the opposition, the contest is about control of the presidency and — despite the bloodshed — a formula has not been found to pacify the contest for getting and retaining this office.

The same can be said in Kenya. From the days of conflicts between Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga to the struggles with President Arap Moi’s Kanu to the violence that followed the 2007-2008 presidential elections to the current standoff.

It therefore seems sensible to suggest a political system that advances democratic peace and undermines violence.

Christopher Kayumba, PhD. Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, UR; Lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd. E-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba