Uganda’s 2026 polls roadmap laden with all-too-familiar supreme law review talk
Uganda may be three years away to the next elections but talk of another constitutional review is firmly back on the roadmap. This time, one man who had been pushing for the very reforms is now in the hot seat and wants the public to trust him with the job.
Norbert Mao had been, for years, part of the wider face for the opposition push for legal reforms seen as a way to settle unresolved political contests that have played out for nearly four decades of President Yoweri Museveni’s rule. Now as the Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, he will lead the government narrative of the reforms.
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Unsuccessful past attempts
It all began, again, on August 2, when the Electoral Commission released the roadmap for the 2026 polls expected to cost Ush1.3 trillion ($354.8 million. But opposition leaders including Dr Kizza Besigye, Robert ‘Bobi Wine’ Kyagulanyi and other politicians in Parliament, argue that this is an exercise in futility.
That is unless the country undertakes serious reforms to have respect for the Constitution, conduct credible elections, submit to civilian authority and show accountability in campaign financing.
Mr Mao said last week that his ministry has kicked off the constitutional review that will bring a raft of changes to the country’s supreme law. That includes critical electoral reforms that the opposition and civil society have unsuccessfully pushed for years.
Mao directed the Law Reform Commission to compile proposed reforms from different sections of the country and kick start the process.
On August 7, the Justice Minister presented some of the proposed reforms to President Museveni during a weekly Cabinet meeting.
“We have many proposed amendments at the ministry. Ninety per cent of what Ugandans are concerned about is already with us,” Mao said during a meeting on the status of stateless persons in Uganda in Kampala last week.
“I assure Ugandans that the constitutional review process is not going to be one of running around the country but one that is going to tackle the real issues that keep Ugandans awake,” he added.
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An opposition politician since 1996, Mao joined government last year, becoming minister. He pledged to deliver critical electoral and constitutional reforms that he had championed with opposition colleagues.
Among these reforms were to reinstate presidential term limits in the constitution, restrict cabinet positions to 21, review the appointment of Electoral Commission, remove army representatives from Parliament, repeal the office of Prime Minister and that of district resident commissioner, restrict creation of new administration units, among others.
Test of loyalty
Among the raft of proposals, the Law Reform Commission has tabled is the plan to create more than 30 new constituencies for 2026 polls. This is contrary to the agreed opposition compact, which Mao was part of. This could create a political gerrymandering strategy that is designed to favour President Museveni and the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement.
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Mao also said the new proposals include restoration of term limits, laws on election financing and land law reforms. Opposition leaders, though, warn that without addressing the long-standing grievance of how the electoral commission is appointed, as well as political gerrymandering, the reforms will fall short.
“A deviation from what we agreed will see opposition reject them. Before [Mao] entered an MoU with President Museveni, he was a part of us. He knew our position, so we are waiting for him to see the kind of reforms he is talking about,” Shadow Attorney General Wilfred Niwagaba told NTV last week.
In the 2016-2021 Parliament, Mr Niwagaba tabled a private members Bill, with electoral and constitutional reforms, some of which had gathered support from members. However, it fell short of the two-thirds majority vote needed to endorse it. At the time, Covid-19 rules meant fewer MPs were allowed to attend plenary sittings.
The Bill sought to reinstate the Presidential term limits, remove army representation from Parliament, restrict the number of ministers to 21, permit political parties to challenge the Presidential elections and change the name of the Uganda Police Force to Uganda Police Service.
Other changes were to repeal the office of the Resident District Commissioners, repeal the office of the Prime Minister, involve the Judicial Service Commission in the appointment of members of the Electoral Commission, and establish a panel of Speakers for Parliament.
Proponents of the constitutional reforms asked the government to institute a constitutional review commission that would go around the country collecting suggestions from people. The government, instead, settled on the Law Reform Commission, citing lack of funds.
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Most of the proposed political reforms that are supposed to be made are orders from the Supreme Court and amendments proposed by private members. After the 2016 presidential elections, the Court made key recommendations in the ruling following a petition by former presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi.
These included enacting a law to guide use of technology in elections, such as the biometric machines, and addressing the issue of donations especially by the incumbent during the campaign period disguised as service delivery.
The Court also recommended the need for the public broadcaster to offer equal time to all presidential candidates and extending the period within which a presidential petition can be filed and determined by the Supreme Court.
Other proposed amendments are on gender issues and schedule three of the constitution that determines citizenship and ending the direct involvement of police and military in the elections, which the opposition and activists say influences the outcome.
The country’s Electoral Commission has also added to the heap of electoral reforms with a raft of proposals that could see prisoners and Ugandans living abroad cast ballots, starting with the 2026 General Election.
In June, the opposition launched consultations on proposals for the amendment of the Constitution to introduce reforms that parties hope will improve the country’s political landscape.
Mathias Mpuuga, the Leader of Opposition in Parliament, says this was due to frustrations over government’s delay to table the reforms before the House, coupled with constant blockading of piecemeal amendments especially by opposition legislators.
“In the past three years, there have been vain attempts by the government to initiate constitutional and electoral reforms. It is this deliberately obscure stance that prompted some of our colleagues, like Wilfred Niwagaba to initiate Constitutional (Amendment Bills,” Mpuuga said.
The opposition process, Mpuuga said, was foiled to make way for a government process and that Parliament should assert its role and sufficiently apply itself to the legitimate demands of current times.