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Evolution of Uganda’s constitution

The Evolution of Uganda’s Constitution from Colonialism to the Present

Uganda is a landlocked country in East Africa that has a rich and diverse history. The country has experienced various political and constitutional changes since the arrival of the British colonialists in the late 19th century. This article will trace the evolution of Uganda’s constitution from colonialism to the present, highlighting the major events and actors that shaped its development.

The Pre-Colonial and Colonial Era

Before the British colonization, Uganda was composed of several independent kingdoms and chiefdoms, such as Buganda, Bunyoro, Toro, Ankole, and Busoga. These kingdoms had their own political systems, cultures, and traditions, some of which were influenced by the Arab traders and Islamic missionaries who visited the region. The kingdoms often engaged in wars and alliances with each other, as well as with neighboring countries such as Rwanda and Congo.

The British interest in Uganda began in the 1860s, when explorers such as John Hanning Speke and Henry Morton Stanley visited the region and reported on its natural resources and potential for trade. In 1894, the British declared Uganda a protectorate, which meant that they had control over its foreign affairs and defense, but allowed some degree of internal autonomy for the local rulers. The British also introduced Christianity, education, taxation, and administration to Uganda, which had a profound impact on its social and economic structure.

The British favored the Buganda kingdom over the other kingdoms, as they saw it as a loyal and civilized ally. They granted Buganda a special status within the protectorate, which gave it more privileges and powers than the other kingdoms. This created resentment and resistance among the other kingdoms, especially Bunyoro, which had lost much of its territory to Buganda under the British influence.

The British also faced opposition from some of the religious groups in Uganda, such as the Muslims and the Catholics, who felt marginalized and discriminated by the British and their Protestant allies. In 1899, a Muslim rebellion led by Kabaka Mwanga II of Buganda broke out against the British rule, but was crushed by the British forces. In 1919-1920, another rebellion known as the Banyoro-Baganda War erupted between Bunyoro and Buganda over land disputes, which also involved religious tensions between the Catholics and Protestants. The British intervened and suppressed the rebellion, but not before thousands of lives were lost.

The Independence Constitution

The first attempt to draft a constitution for Uganda was made in 1955, when the British appointed a constitutional commission headed by Sir Andrew Cohen to review the political situation in Uganda and make recommendations for its future governance. The commission proposed a federal system of government for Uganda, with a central government responsible for national matters and regional governments for local matters. The commission also suggested that Buganda should have a special status within the federation, with its own parliament and executive. The commission also recommended that Uganda should have a bicameral legislature, consisting of a House of Representatives elected by universal adult suffrage and a House of Chiefs representing the traditional rulers.

The Cohen commission’s proposals were met with mixed reactions from the various political parties and groups in Uganda. Some of them supported the federal system and Buganda’s special status, while others opposed them and demanded more representation and autonomy for their regions. Some of them also called for immediate independence from Britain, while others preferred a gradual transition to self-government.

In 1958-1959, another constitutional conference was held in London to discuss the Cohen commission’s proposals and negotiate a new constitution for Uganda. The conference was attended by representatives from Britain, Uganda’s central government, regional governments, political parties, and interest groups. After several rounds of deliberations and compromises, a new constitution was agreed upon and signed on October 9, 1962.

The 1962 constitution granted Uganda independence from Britain and established a parliamentary democracy with a federal system. The constitution provided for a ceremonial head of state (the Queen of England represented by a governor-general), a prime minister as the head of government (elected by the House of Representatives), a cabinet (appointed by the prime minister), a bicameral legislature (the House of Representatives and the House of Chiefs), an independent judiciary (headed by a chief justice), and a bill of rights (guaranteeing civil liberties and human rights). The constitution also recognized four federal states (Buganda, Bunyoro, Toro, Ankole) and ten semi-federal districts (Busoga, Acholi, Lango, Kigezi, Teso, Bukedi, West Nile, Sebei, Elgon, Bunyole) within Uganda. Each state or district had its own legislature (elected by the people or appointed by the traditional rulers), executive (headed by a president or a chairman), and judiciary (headed by a chief judge). The constitution also allowed for the possibility of creating more states or districts in the future, as well as granting more autonomy to the existing ones.

The 1962 constitution was hailed as a landmark achievement for Uganda, as it marked the end of colonial rule and the beginning of self-government. The constitution was also praised for its inclusiveness and flexibility, as it accommodated the diverse interests and aspirations of the various regions and groups in Uganda. However, the constitution also had some flaws and weaknesses, such as the lack of a clear division of powers and responsibilities between the central and regional governments, the imbalance of representation and resources among the regions, the ambiguity of Buganda’s special status and relationship with the central government, and the vulnerability of the constitution to amendments and changes by the parliament.

The 1966 Constitution

The 1962 constitution did not last long, as it soon faced several challenges and crises that threatened its stability and legitimacy. One of the main sources of conflict was the rivalry between Milton Obote, the prime minister and leader of the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party, and Kabaka Edward Mutesa II, the president of Buganda and leader of the Kabaka Yekka (KY) party. The UPC and KY had formed a coalition government after the 1962 elections, but they had different agendas and visions for Uganda. The UPC wanted to create a strong and centralized state that would promote national unity and development, while the KY wanted to preserve Buganda’s autonomy and influence within the federation.

The tension between Obote and Mutesa escalated in 1964, when Obote accused Mutesa of plotting a secessionist movement in Buganda with the support of some British officers. Obote also accused Mutesa of harboring weapons and rebels in his palace. Obote ordered an investigation into Mutesa’s activities, but Mutesa refused to cooperate and claimed immunity as the head of state. Obote then tried to amend the constitution to remove Mutesa’s immunity and powers, but he faced resistance from some of his own cabinet ministers and members of parliament, who sided with Mutesa. Obote responded by suspending the constitution, dismissing his cabinet, declaring a state of emergency, and arresting his opponents.

In 1966, Obote introduced a new constitution that abolished the federal system and centralized power in his hands. The new constitution made Obote both the president and prime minister of Uganda, with sweeping executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The new constitution also dissolved the regional governments and legislatures, and replaced them with provincial administrations appointed by Obote. The new constitution also revoked Buganda’s special status and privileges, and reduced it to a mere province within Uganda. The new constitution also banned all political parties except for the UPC, which became the sole legal party in Uganda.

The 1966 constitution was met with widespread opposition and resistance from various regions and groups in Uganda, especially from Buganda. Mutesa rejected the new constitution and declared Buganda’s independence from Uganda. Obote responded by sending troops to invade Buganda and capture Mutesa’s palace. The invasion sparked a violent confrontation between Obote’s forces and Mutesa’s loyalists, which resulted in hundreds of casualties and thousands of refugees. Mutesa managed to escape from his palace and fled into exile in Britain, where he died in 1969.

The 1966 constitution marked a radical departure from the 1962 constitution, as it transformed Uganda from a federal democracy into a unitary dictatorship. The 1966 constitution also violated the principles of constitutionalism, such as popular sovereignty, separation of powers, checks and balances, rule of law, human rights, and constitutional amendment procedures. The 1966 constitution also alienated and antagonized many regions and groups in Uganda, who felt betrayed and oppressed by Obote’s regime.

The 1967 Constitution

The 1966 constitution was not meant to be permanent, as Obote promised to draft a new constitution that would reflect the aspirations of all Ugandans. In 1967, Obote convened a constitutional commission to review the 1966 constitution and propose amendments. The commission was composed of members appointed by Obote himself, who were mostly loyal to him and his party. The commission did not consult or involve any representatives from other regions or groups in Uganda, nor did it seek any public input or feedback on its proposals.

The commission submitted its report to Obote in April 1967, which recommended some minor changes to the 1966 constitution. The report suggested that Uganda should adopt a republican form of government, with a president elected by an electoral college composed of members of parliament. The report also suggested that Uganda should have a unicameral legislature (the National Assembly), 

To be continued in my next article

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Written by Alexander Levixon (1)

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Constitutional History of Uganda

Part II of Uganda’s constitutional development