The battle against COVID-19 should restart debate on Federalism – Part i – Norbert Mao

Uganda has so many districts but not many of them have the capacity to respond to emergencies and disasters. They are like the proverbial millipede which has many legs but the legs don’t guarantee speed. The battle against the coronavirus pandemic has stretched the capacities of local governments to the limit. We need bigger decentralized units that can share the burden of governance with the central government in a meaningful way.

Whether you call if federo or federalism, I believe that federalism is the highest form of decentralisation. Any government in Uganda therefore which is committed to decentralisation cannot deny federalism as an ultimate goal. Self-determination and freedom are other grounds for federalism.

Some people confuse federalism with monarchism. This has clouded the debate in a shroud of fear spread by xenophobic politicians. The debate should therefore be focused largely on administrative efficiency and the right of peoples to self-determination. There are individual rights and people’s rights. Federalism belongs to the latter category.

Let it also be said without fear that in the struggle for federo some leaders from Buganda have been easy pawns in the hands of the enemies of federalism. The somersaults by key Baganda leaders during the constitutional debate are still fresh in our minds. As long as individual Baganda politicians still have the incentive nay guts to
cut deals with the successive regimes for their personal gain, federalism will continue to hang like a carrot before the eyes of the donkey while the stick of tyranny is wielded to the detriment of the people.

This does not mean there are no positive signs. The most obvious one is that federalism is now firmly on Uganda’s political to-do list. Gone are the days when Ugandan’s were told that even a sound night’s sleep is a great favour “ushered in by the National Resistance Movement”.
federalism was on the AOB nay BOA (i.e. Business Outside Agenda). This has changed and politicians will ignore it at their own peril. This of course has invited opportunistic responses from the politically ambitious who posture themselves in a position where they can catch the most votes. All of us are open to this accusation but let each
person’s record speak for itself.

The second positive sign is that Buganda which is the flagship community as far as federalism is concerned are finding their own distinct voice in the NRM din. The politics of “kati twebaka ku tulo” uttered
in mega-decibels is slowly being dwarfed by legitimate demands from the grass roots. I frequently meet HM the Kabaka’s saza chiefs and they tell me that the countryside is aflame with serious demands. I frequently meet with members of the Lukiiko and Buganda Government Ministers who tell me that they are under a lot of pressure. Demagogues can take advantage of this but fortunately many of these
local leaders are well-educated, financially stable people capable of reasoning their way through the maze that is politics.

The third positive sign is that federalism is now a national issue. It has a firm supportive basis both in theory and in practice. Many communities in Uganda now want federalism to be discussed by the organs of the state in order that decisions are made. There is still need for serious political education in order to strengthen the convictions of federalism adherents and to illuminate their understand. Federalism will not be easily won. Those who want it must therefore be ready for a tough fight.

There are limits of course. For one federalism cannot take off in the absence of constitutionalism. Constitutionalism allows for a healthy tension between the various organs and units of government. Indeed federalism will bring about some tensions between the federal government and the federal units. There must therefore be acceptable mechanisms
of resolving these tensions. The supreme law must clearly delineate the margins of power and allow for an independent judiciary to interpret and arbitrate where there is tension.

In 1998 I attended a course on federalism at the Institute of Federalism in Freiburg, Switzerland. I can therefore speak with some authority on this subject. Those who struggle for federalism must know that unless they stand shoulder to shoulder with those crusading for
constitutionalism, they will be like a man who catches a big fish without the means to ward off the sharks. In the absence of the rule of law federalism cannot sprout. The struggles for federalism must therefore also be the struggle for good governance.