KAMPALA – H.E. Jan Sadek, European Union Ambassador-Designate to Uganda has said that the world is witnessing a difficult time for democracy, as demonstrated in the latest report from the Varieties of Democracy initiative in Sweden, which shows that the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is down to 1989 levels when the fall of the Berlin Wall reshaped the world.
He noted that the global democracy picture today may seem bleak, but there is hope and resilience; such as in European history with its struggle against religious intolerance, dictatorship and repression, and its successful separation of religion and politics.
Sadek made remarks during the annual event to mark International Day of Democracy – IDD Kampala.
He says IDD is always an occasion for nations who believe in the democratic model to protect the rights of all groups in society, to reaffirm their commitment to those values.
“It offers us a chance to pause and reflect on the importance of democratic institutions and processes, but also to take a critical look at how democracy is evolving and to examine the many challenges we face.”
Mr. Ambassador says Ugandan history bears examples of the sometimes conflicting relations that exist between moral authority and political power, giving an example of the tragedy of the Martyrs of Uganda.
“Authoritarian regimes are on the rise and they are combating religious freedoms and are using state religion to mobilise against freedom and to pervert moral values.”
From the African continent, Mr. Ambassador also says there are religious leaders being involved in promoting freedoms, defending democracy, and challenging political power.
“In southern Africa, there were many examples of this in the fight against Apartheid. We should also recognise the wisdom of those leaders who have been able to preach religious tolerance and freedom of belief as a way of promoting a multicultural environment and developing a sense of belonging to a nation. Uganda is certainly an example of a country where religious leaders have played this role.”
Mr. Ambassador says politics and religion should not be put into competition. “Both are fully needed in well-functioning societies.”
“Nation and people need the moral compass provided by faith and hope, whether it is provided by religion or any other form of spirituality. But nations and people also need those political debates and an open political environment guaranteeing freedom of expression, of assembly and political participation of all.”
Giving the keynote address, Prof. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, an Associate Professor of Ethics and Identity Studies at Uganda Martyrs University said that while the influence of spirituality on the everyday has significantly changed today, religion still plays some role in influencing everyday choices.
According to the 2014 Census, 39% of Ugandans are Roman Catholic, 32% Anglican, 11% Pentecostal Christian, 14% Muslim, while other religious groups and those with no religious affiliation constitute 5%. Agnostics and atheists combined are only 0.2%. Thus, over 99% of Ugandans are affiliated to some religion.
He says the historical role of religion in shaping the governance of the country needs to be understood within the above context – both in consideration of the precolonial and postcolonial dynamics.
Prof. Ssentongo says for a clear conversation on the role of religion in shaping democracy in Uganda’s history, they need an operational understanding of democracy which he says it should seek to maximise the happiness of people and to minimise suffering.
He notes that elections are just one component, but, for many, they have come to mean the entirety of democracy because “it speaks to the importance of this component, since if people have no power to determine who governs them then other elements like accountability, responsiveness, etc. become difficult to achieve.”
He notes that quite often, assessments of religious contribution to democracy are limited to direct speech or activism by religious leaders against undemocratic practices.
Religious voice and patronage
Prof. Ssentongo says on many occasions, some religious leaders and umbrella bodies have been outspoken against undemocratic practices and they have sometimes come out to suggest alternatives.
He notes that the response of the state has mainly been five-fold: “Sometimes it has been dialogue; sometimes silence; sometimes violence; sometimes reminding religious leaders that it was not their business; and sometimes material inducement.”
“President Milton Obote, an Anglican, had a lukewarm relationship with the Catholic Church under Archbishop Joseph Kiwanuka, especially following his government’s move to take over church schools. When Archbishop Kiwanuka died in 1966 and was succeeded by Emmanuel Nsubuga, Obote saw this as an opportunity to mend fences with the Catholic Church – since even the Protestant group had split into two factions, one supporting Obote, another sympatic to the Kabaka that had been overthrown by Obote. At a church service at Rubaga Cathedral, Obote personally handed over a present of a Mercedes-Benz to help the Archbishop with his duties.”
He says that donations to religious leaders have taken interesting new twists under President Yoweri Museveni.
“At almost every consecration of a new Catholic or Anglican Bishop, a car has been donated by the President. Some not only get car gifts but also the privilege of convoys with military escorts. The irony is that there has been no public report of any of the ‘men of God’ seeking to establish the source of funds for the random cars that are never accounted for. I imagine that it is conveniently assumed that the source must be the official presidential budget for donations. Besides, and for more convenience, isn’t it impolite to look a gift horse into its mouth?” he asked.
Prof. says important as religion might be, it has been and can be used to serve various pretexts. He says it could as well bring forth inadvertent outcomes contrary to the good faith with which its initiatives might arise.
“For instance, during the 2016 elections, in fear of a possibility of violence, different religious leaders prayed for and urged people to remain peaceful. Constant messages urging people to keep peace ran on different TV stations.”
Prof. notes that it is clear that religion has been critical in Uganda’s journey of building democracy – both as a progressive and problematic factor.