’Ugandans Must Demand Reforms’ [interview]

An active campaigner for political and electoral reforms over the past year, GODBER TUMUSHABE is the assistant director of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS), a policy think-tank. In this interview with Sulaiman Kakaire, Tumushabe explains why everyone must embrace the campaign to clean up our electoral process.

It has been said that government influenced your exit from the Aocates Coalition for Development and Environment (Acode) because you were critical of its policies.

I don’t think so. What happened with my leaving Acode was part of a much bigger strategy that informed the forming of Acode around 1997. We formed it with Arthur Bainomugisha, the current executive director, and Onesmus Mugyenyi, the deputy executive director.

We wanted to create a dynamic and robust think-tank. Building that think-tank meant that you have to build it beyond personalities. For the 14 years I was executive director, [we] invested much time in building the finance and intellectual human resource of the organisation.

So, we formulated our five-year strategic plan, which ended in 2007. In 2008, we adopted a 10-year strategic development plan. In 2010, after realising that the organisation had developed in all those respects and was beginning to suffer from founder member syndrome… I had to move out.

I discussed with my colleagues that since my contract would be expiring in 2013, I would not seek its renewal. And that is how I left and the team is doing well and I am supportive.

So, where did the perception that government kicked you out come from?

At the time I left Acode, government was uncomfortable with my work and particularly the work related to the oil and gas sector. I think there is some truth in the perception that Acode was under intense pressure [to get rid of me].

But what the public does not understand was that the Acode [strategic] plan predates the government action. So, either way, this pressure was mounted at the time I was leaving.

How do you fit in this electoral reform campaign?

I believe in big ideas. Before I came from Kenya to start Acode, I left a well-paying job in Nairobi. I was working then at the African Centre for Technological Studies. But I said I needed to start an organisation that does independent research and takes it to the policy arena.

So, leaving Acode I was 46 years [then]… I said I must start a truly regional policy think tank that is truly African in the East African region. I and a colleague started the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies (GLISS).

We deal in strategic policy issues like agriculture and food security, democracy and rule of law, climate change and energy diplomacy we deal with the [entry] of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in East Africa. The BRICS have entered in East Africa but there is no research on the policies of these countries in East Africa, and how we are to benefit.

Under the democracy and rule of law program, we are doing three things: a scorecard on the rule of law in East Africa, the campaign for electoral reforms in Uganda and the Situation Room (SR), which we do together with NTV-Uganda and Uganda Youth Network, [organising] policy-focused debates for political players.

For instance, if we are talking about decentralisation, we have had it since 1992, but other than having many district chairpersons, resident district commissioners and councillors, there is consensus that service delivery has failed.

So, the SR has organised a platform where NRM can tell us what plans they have to make decentralisation effective, and the opposition FDC can also tell us how they are going to make it better, while UPC can challenge the two by proposing a better one. From this, we expect voters to make informed choices. So, I am participating in the capacity of civil society.

And your private capacity? You recently aised FDC when it was formulating its Policy Agenda…

Of course I have provided aice to DP, FDC, among others, in my private capacity and that [Policy Agenda] is one of them. For the last 15 years, I have aised government [in civil society].

And as a professional, I also felt that I have a duty to aise political parties on how to run their affairs. I do so because of their role in society. So, there is work that I do with these institutions.

How far is the campaign on electoral reforms?

We [GLISS] are the secretariat for the electoral reforms campaign. We provide the intellectual and technical support to ensure the implementation of the Citizen Compact, a document that lists all proposals for electoral reforms.

It [document] came out of a consultative process involving political parties, religious leaders, civil society and academia. After the national consultation last year, all the convenors and sponsors met and we outlined a structure for taking forward the process of implementation.

I think it would be ostrich mentality to pretend that the current electoral system can deliver free and fair elections in 2016. Secondly, government has demonstrated absolute unwillingness to engage in the reforms since 2001. So, I think that the government is not willing to carry out electoral reforms until we as citizens come out to demand it.

Are you suggesting that citizens should engage in civil disobedience to push government to accept the reforms?

If you as a citizen demand for reforms and government refuses, what can you do? A civil disobedience campaign becomes the only option. And that is what we have been pushing for.

Where is the critical mass to effect these changes and rally behind your reforms?

The critical mass is you and me. There is no society that has been changed by masses. They are changed by leaders…this is what people like Mahatma Ghandi, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Jnr did.

It is not a group that we have to go to Kololo and make a consensus. The point that I am making is that each of us in Uganda should claim a citizenship and that requires that me as a citizen I have certain responsibilities, for instance, that when I pay taxes and obey the law, the state must play its part…there are certain duties that are imposed on me, including defending the Constitution… I think the idea of a critical mass is not the point but the point is that you as a citizen are ready to take the challenge.

But even the elites who would have provided leadership are not interested.

I agree that the majority of the elites are in a comfort zone. But you see the elites live in a bubble. Because you and I think that when at every end of the month we get a cheque, things are okay.

We think that if the education system fails, we shall take our children to the private schools if the health care system fails, we shall go to the private hospitals…if roads are not working, you can buy a bigger car.

Then some of the elites are part of the patronage system. But you see in countries where a regime has been pushed out of power, there are two groups that are at play. There are the elites and there are the unemployed youth.

The elites are at a higher level where there is economic success but they reach a point where they want freedom. Now the problem with a dictator is that you cannot buy freedom. There is no amount of money you can give this group to buy freedom.

The second group [unemployed youth] are looking for jobs. In cases like Tunisia and Egypt, these ones identified their problem as being dictators. The objectives [of the elites and the unemployed youth] were different, but they all identified the common problem to be the dictator. And from that, they developed an alliance that pushed these guys out of power.

But some political parties are weak.

That is true. The NRM government has frustrated the operation of the political parties in many ways. It has bought most of their big leaders [and] it has refused to operationalise the law on funding political parties. How can they operate? So, it is not that the civil society is bigger than political parties, but it is that context that makes them appear weaker.

Some people have said that without reforms, the country should not bother with elections in 2016!

Ugandans will have to decide. Even when you know that the road you are taking is where you will find casualties, do you still want to follow the same road? Every aspect of our society has said we need reforms to clean our electoral system and the government with a high level of impunity has said no or as usual played delaying tactics.

Can we continue to trust a government of this nature and then continue to trust it to even organise elections? If we go to the polls, who is the arbiter? Do we just accept any result that is announced? I have argued time and again that Ugandans must take responsibility for ensuring free and fair elections. And the time is now.

Source : The Observer