Why does the need to stay in power generate conflicts in East Africa?

Tuesday October 10 2017

In Uganda, since the overthrow of King Mutesa II of Buganda in 1966 by Milton Obote and Iddi Amin’s coup in 1973, peaceful transfer of power has remained elusive. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYANGAH

In Uganda, since the overthrow of King Mutesa II of Buganda in 1966 by Milton Obote and Iddi Amin’s coup in 1973, peaceful transfer of power has remained elusive. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYANGAH 

By CHRISTOPHER KAYUMBA
More by this Author

Recently, two journalists from different media houses called me seeking a comment on the probable effect of the current political stalemate in Uganda and Kenya on the East African Political Federation.

In particular, the journalists sought to know how the perennial instability in the EAC countries might affect the viability of the political federation.

I told them that that while the idea of a political federation is superb, actualising it is still a long way away because of contradictions within these countries; unresolved political differences between some leaders; divergent political systems; conflicts over trade including restrictions on free movement of people and goods.

After the call, I realised that since independence, there have been cycles of violent conflicts in the EAC countries (except Tanzania) with the central trigger being the need to control the office of the president. This problem is still prevalent in the region today.

Burundi has since independence in 1962 suffered three military coups, a civil war and is today still struggling to deal with the consequences of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial third term.

In Uganda, since the overthrow of King Mutesa II of Buganda in 1966 by Milton Obote and Iddi Amin’s coup in 1973, peaceful transfer of power has remained elusive.

In 1980, President Yoweri Museveni waged a five-year bush war on account of alleged vote rigging. In 1986 Museveni promised a fundamental change after gaining power.

Today, the struggle for him to remain in office remains thirty years on, even as some NRM legislators seek to remove the presidential age limit of 75 years from the Constitution.

In Kenya, despite constitutional changes informed by the 2007-2008 post-election violence, the contest for the presidency is yet to be pacified as the current stand-off between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga shows.

In Rwanda, gaining independence in 1962 was preceded by bloodshed. President Gregoire Kayibanda was overthrown by Major General Juvénal Habyarimana in 1973 who was later killed in a plane crash in 1994 sparking the Genocide against the Tutsi.

So, why does the quest for the presidency generate conflict and how can it be pacified?

There are those like Museveni who blame the problem on leaders who stay too long in office — but he has since modified this to: “Leaders who stay too long in office without being elected.” Others blame the problem on dictatorship, weak institutions and human-rights violations.

While these reasons seem plausible, there is another that is not discussed as much and that is the role of presidents in the distribution of wealth.

Presidents in the region have historically acted as “distributors-in-chief” of wealth, with some even ring-fencing the office to protect that privilege.

This is partly due to too much executive power. With the power to appoint (and dismiss) almost anyone, the fight for this office becomes a zero-sum contest.

To make the presidential race more peaceful, a middle-ground needs to be reached. It should be informed by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s approach and lessons from the Kenyan Constitution, as well as the need for power-sharing.

Nyerere’s success lies in advancing a common Tanzanian national identity; refusing to worship wealth and overseeing a peaceful transfer of power.

The Kenyan Constitution sought to reduce the powers of the presidency by redistributing them through devolution.

I suggest power-sharing at the executive level, with 50/50 sharing of cabinet positions between the winning party and other parties. I foresee the contest for this office becoming less attractive than it is right now.

But these are just ideas of a layman who knows nothing about what political power does to those who have it.

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