Apophia Agiresaasi, GPJ Uganda

Pioneering Female Politician Champions Federalism as Key to Achieving Democracy in Uganda


Article Highlights


Beti Olive Kamya-Turwomwe, first woman in Uganda to start a political party, says the key to attaining true democracy here will be creating a federal system of governance.

KAMPALA, UGANDA – “I didn’t decide to join politics,” says Beti Olive Kamya-Turwomwe, Uganda’s first woman to start a political party and second woman to run for president. “I was sucked in.”

The 53-year-old politician stands at about 5 feet 10 inches in a gray suit that is both formal and trendy. A former member of Parliament before running for president in 2011, Kamya-Turwomwe is also a widow, a traditionally marginalized population.

But above all, she is a political strategist, aiming to convert Uganda to the federal system of governance, which devolves power from the central authority to the regions. To advocate for this change, she started the Uganda Federal Alliance political party in 2010. She sees federalism as the key to achieving true democracy, which has so far failed in Uganda, she says.

After Uganda obtained independence from Britain in 1962, Milton Apollo Obote became prime minister. In 1966, he suspended the constitution, which had provided for decentralization through regional governments, and introduced one that consolidated all executive power in the presidency, which he assumed. He promulgated a new constitution in 1967 that abolished Uganda’s kingdoms and made it a republic.

Idi Amin overthrew Obote in a 1971 coup d’état. Amin presided over eight years of human rights abuses, atrocities and political chaos before fleeing the country in 1979. In 1980, Obote returned, claiming victory in elections that the opposition, led by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, contested.

The election conflict led to the first of two bloody guerrilla wars during Obote’s term. In 1985, after 500,000 Ugandans had died in the guerrilla conflicts, Museveni-led forces deposed Obote again.

Museveni won election as president in 1986 and instituted the Movement system, a type of no-party politics in which citizens could form political parties, but the parties could not directly field candidates for office. Critics, including international bodies such as Human Rights Watch, charged that this system sought to cement Museveni’s political dominance. In 2005, a referendum ended the Movement system, replacing it with a multiparty system that permits parties to field candidates.

Still, Museveni has held onto the presidency and is now in his fourth term. Opposition parties disputed the results of the last three elections, but each time, the Supreme Court of Uganda has upheld the results.

Human Rights Watch released a report in October 2013 that criticizes the government for failing to prosecute its highest officials for large-scale graft.

The country’s political history has informed Kamya-Turwomwe’s political ideas, she says. She identifies the political system – not the nation’s leaders – as the root of the problem. As president of the Uganda Federal Alliance, she is making her mark on Ugandan politics by advocating for a new system – one that divides power to set the nation’s leaders up for success.

Her entrance into Uganda’s political fray was neither deliberate nor spontaneous, she says. She joined the field slowly, unaware of the impact she would one day have.

In 2000, after having worked in business and as the executive director of the Uganda Wildlife Authority, she began writing a weekly column about political and social issues in the Daily Monitor, a national newspaper, she says. She soon made a name for herself as a political analyst, and various media houses invited her to participate in political debates.

Initially, she belonged to the largest opposition party in the country, the Forum for Democratic Change, in which she served as special envoy in the office of the president. She also served as a member of the eighth Parliament from 2006 to 2011.

But she and a few colleagues came to believe that electing the right leaders from the right parties could not alone solve Uganda’s problems, she says. They decided Uganda needed a new political system. With Kamya-Turwomwe as the leader, this breakaway group formed the Uganda Federal Alliance in 2010 to advocate for this change.

“We realized one common thing: that all leaders come as good revolutionaries and after that, they all become dictators,” she says. “The problem of Uganda is not the presidents it has had, but absolute power conferred upon them by the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.”

The 1995 constitution established Uganda as a presidential republic with executive, legislative and judicial branches in which the president is both the head of state and the head of government. It built on a 1993 statute providing for decentralization, but critics liken this to delegation rather than devolution of power.

Even the best leader would not be able to overcome the problems inherent in the political system, Kamya-Turwomwe says. The solution she proposes is to establish a new system: federalism, in which a central authority and smaller political units such as districts or states divide the political power.

The most effective system of governance is one in which the smaller units serve as a check on the power of the central authority and vice versa, she says. If Uganda adopts this system, it would eradicate autocracy here. It could work in many other African countries too.

“Our ideology is also designed for youths,” Kamya-Turwomwe says. “We teach them that the last 50 years have been squandered and they should not allow the next 50 years to be squandered.”

In addition to challenging the political system, Kamya-Turwomwe, a mother of six grown children, confronts stigma against widows in a conservative country where they typically occupy a marginalized role.

Tindiwegi Fiona, a 57-year-old widow, says she draws strength from Kamya-Turwomwe’s example and is proud of her bravery. People expect widows to stay at the margins of society, and some face poverty when their late husbands’ relatives take their matrimonial properties.

“Kamya is a strong woman,” Fiona says. “She inspires me.”

Kamya-Turwomwe says a woman’s marital status should not influence the way society perceives her, even when she is on center stage. She credits her strong personality for enabling her to sail through the challenges in a political realm that discriminates against widows and women.

“There is some metal in my DNA,” she says.

Kamya-Turwomwe is determined to welcome other women into the political realm, she says. The Uganda Federal Alliance also seeks to empower women in the political arena by ensuring that they gain representation at all levels of political engagement, from the grassroots to national positions.

In the Ugandan parliamentary and presidential elections in February 2011, Kamya-Turwomwe ran for president on behalf of the Uganda Federal Alliance. She was the only female contestant in a race of eight candidates and the second female contestant for the office in the country’s history.

Vying for the office of the presidency in Uganda as a woman was challenging, and criticism came from unexpected quarters, she says.

“Fellow women, including parliamentarians, said I was overambitious,” she says. “Some of them were my friends.”

But she was able to draw grassroots support from women who campaigned and voted for her, she says.

In the end, Museveni won the election with 68 percent of the vote, and Kamya-Turwomwe came in fifth. Election observers from the European Union reported that although logistical and administrative failures disenfranchised an unacceptable number of voters, the Ugandan government conducted the elections in an open and free environment.

Kamya-Turwomwe is satisfied with the election’s outcome.

“I achieved all my objectives,” she says. “I launched the party, ideology, and introduced myself and key people in the party to the electorate.”

Sarah Ntozi, a programs officer with the Uganda Debt Network, an organization that promotes good governance in Uganda, says Kamya-Turwomwe should continue contesting for the office of the presidency. In the meantime, widows, women and other Ugandans are missing her articulation of women’s issues in Parliament.