The Bill is Thrown Out: Lessons in Democracy ( Or Not)

So the ‘controversial’ Marriage and Divorce Bill has been thrown out by the NRM Caucus that met today  8th April 2013. I am sure many people will be happy, throwing parties even, at the news of the demise. But beyond the noise and chest thumping at  ‘defeating’ the bill, I think we should take a deeper look at the manner in which this bill was handled and what it says about Uganda as a ‘democracy’.

First, the Uganda has a Constitution, which, according to Article 2, is the supreme law of the land. The Constitution contains clear provisions that uphold equality between men and women, that abhor discrimination on the basis of gender, and a specific clause on family rights, which by itself, must be given effect of law. Additional to the Constitution, Uganda is signatory to various human rights  instruments that address issues of discrimination and equality in the family setting. By being signatory, Uganda binds itself to ensuring that the laws are reformed to reflect and uphold the rights enshrined in these instruments. By rejecting the bill, the Government, through the caucus, is saying that we will not be a country that respects the Constitution or constitutionalism. And the rejection of the Marriage Bill is not the only pointer of this malady. The Public Order Management Bill,  which is currently before Parliament, is another clear indication that we do not respect our Constitution. If we did, we would not propose laws that so blatantly violate the Constitution. The very removal of presidential term limits, even before it was tested, was another clear indication that we do not respect the Constitution. It is quite interesting that when term limits were removed, MPs of the ruling party were given 5 million shillings each to have them removed. And once again, we see the giving of 5 million shillings for yet another abrogation of the Constitution.

Because of the controversy surrounding the bill, MPs were sent on a two week recess to consult on the bill. The consultations were largely lacking because there was no clear framework developed through which MPs were to consult to determine what they were consulting on, and how. Instead, each went, after most had declared their own views against the bill, and they descended upon their electorate. Very few MPs tried to explain the history and rational of the proposed changes or even go through the bill clause by clause, with their electorate. There was no agreed methodology – was one rally or three, enough to declare that a district or constituency had rejected the bill? There was no clear agreement as to how many people and of what calibre, each MP was to consult. The MPs went prepared to return a no vote for the bill. In my view that was not a fair exercise and so the results in and of themselves cannot be valid. I think in this case, the means justified the end. It was clear that even as MPs were sent on recess, they had already wanted to throw out the bill, so they went out looking to validate that result. They went out  not to consult on the bill,  but to mobilize more insults against the bill.

And then there is the issue of rule by caucus: we have seen the ruling party caucus become the  burial ground for bills or proposals that the head of state and head of the party does not want to see through – from the various corruption reports, to proposals for increasing the health budget last year, to various bills, including the famous clause 9 of the Oil Bill. As long as the President does not want something passed, all he has to do is call a caucus meeting, and they will do his bidding. And what we have is not democracy, but mob (in)justice. What we have is pure bullying and not leading – “do it my way, or it’s the high way.”  And because many MPs peg their political survival on the President, they will not want to be seen to go against what he says.

And so, while many people will celebrate and ululate because the bill has been defeated, I think it’s our democracy that has been on trial throughout this process and I think we have failed miserably on that front. We need a stronger commitment to true democracy in this country. It is not yet uhuru.

 By Jacqueline Asiimwe


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