The playwright or Hollywood scriptwriter has plenty of material to produce a great drama, even a thriller, out of the military invasion of the Ugandan Parliament on April 15, 1966 and on September 27 this year.
As usual, the movie goers, like newspaper readers, are bound to get the impression that the 2017 invasion was a replica of the one in 1966. The tendency to gloss over the details creates false impressions. The devil, as they say, is in the details. The two events, both of them extremely consequential, were in fact quite different.
First, the 2017 invasion. Too fresh in our minds to warrant detailed description. Summary: Yoweri Museveni, the 73-year-old president who has ruled the place for almost 32 years, appears to be in full control of the state. He wants to keep his gig until he dies or quits on his own terms. So, he wants Parliament to amend the Constitution to enable him to stand for election after he turns 75.
But first he must deal with a group of MPs, including members of his ruling party, who are opposing his scheme. With Speaker Rebecca Kadaga’s cooperation, the president sends in military men and women, most of them in plain clothes, to invade the Chamber of Parliament, where they severely beat and arrest the opponents of the Bill, leaving several injured.
Meanwhile, the president must give the whole plan a veneer of public involvement through “consultation.” Ruling party MPs, armed with plenty public cash, fan out across the country to “consult” with the voters. Police, RDCs, crime “preventers” and other “security” teams are on hand to ensure that “consultations” yield the desired result. Opponents are terrorised and denied the opportunity to express their views on the matter.
The end result is known. Article 102(b) will be amended to remove the presidential age limit. But, not withstanding the great invasion of parliament, there will be the usual claim that it was done through a democratic process.
Now, the 1966 edition. Apollo Milton Obote, the prime minister, has spent several months fending off an attempt by a coalition consisting of some of his cabinet ministers, President Edward Luwangula Muteesa II (who is the Kabaka of Buganda), Daudi Ocheng MP, and Brigadier Shaban Opolot, the army commander, that wants to remove him from power.
The story is well known and well documented. Suffice to say that the plotters have tried both constitutional and military options to overthrow Obote. Thwarted attempts to arrest him on at least two occasions have tipped the contest toward inevitable confrontation.
The military coup is set for Tuesday, February 22, 1966. Obote gets wind of it. On the fateful morning, the police arrest five of his ministers during a cabinet meeting. The men – Grace Ibingira, Emmanuel Lumu, Balaki Kirya, George Magezi amd Matiya Ngobi – are part of the plotters of the coup.
Two days later, Obote suspends the 1962 Constitution. Claiming to be acting in the interest of “national stability and public security and tranquility,” he assumes all powers of the Government of Uganda and embarks on rule by decree.
To legalize his coup d’état, Obote needs a new Constitution. He orders Godfrey Lukongwa Binaisa, the attorney general, to do the needful. Binaisa, together with Nkambo Mugerwa, the Solicitor General, and Kofi Crabbe a Ghanaian draftsman, sets to work. They write it in one night.
The draft of the new Constitution is to be tabled before Parliament the next day, April 15, 1966. However, the MPs are not given copies of the draft document. To avoid any hiccups, a military invasion of parliament is ordered.
One eyewitness who has written an excellent account for posterity is Omunyoro Baganchwera Barungi, Clerk to the National Assembly at the time. In his book, Parliamentary Democracy in Uganda: The Experiment that Failed, Omunyoro Barungi writes: “On the day the new constitution of 1966 was introduced in the National Assembly, an outside observer standing at a distance from Parliament House, would have rightly mistaken the precincts of Parliament as part of a military post or garrison. Bands of heavily armed soldiers were stationed in the beautiful and well-maintained parliamentary gardens that were used from time to time for cocktail parties and other government functions. Members of Parliament were searched not only at the main entrance of the building but also in the Division Lobbies as they entered the Chamber.
“Typical of Ugandan politicians none but one member protested against such high handedness in dealing with Honourable Members of Parliament.” That brave MP is Shafiq Arain, a Ugandan Asian.
Binaisa pilots the Constitution through Parliament. The opposition MPs, together with four government MPs, walk out in protest. A vote is held and 55 MPs vote in favor of a document they have not read. Only 4 oppose it. All are offered a chance to read the draft after the fact. They will find their copies in their mail boxes. And so Uganda’s Pigeon Hole Constitution is born.
Whether or not the Hon. Narendra Patel, the Speaker of Parliament, had sanctioned the military invasion is not clear. What we know is that, unlike Kadaga, Patel was a fair-minded speaker who had allowed opposition MPs great latitude to challenge Obote and his government. For example, it was Patel who allowed Daudi Ocheng to move a motion on February 4, 1966 urging the Government to suspend Col. Idi Amin of the Uganda Army. Patel would have been aware that Ocheng was part of the ant-Obote plotters.
There is a hierarchy even in the world of evil deeds and other crimes. To those with sharp memories, it is obvious that the 2017 invasion is worse than the terrible event of 1966. Whereas both military invasions were major violations of the sanctity of parliament, the 2017 one struck deep in the heart of a country that has been struggling to find its feet since the collapse of the experiment 51 years ago.
The 1966 invasion set the stage for military control of the legislature and, five years later, a military coup that would destroy everything. The 2017 invasion has snuffed out the faint flicker of hope that Uganda might find its way out of the dark hole into which it was thrown by the events of 1966. Fifty years of history and experience have not changed the ruler’s attitude.