An autocratic ruler under political siege invariably resorts to underhanded methods to maintain control. Yet history teaches us that such measures are unlikely to save a ruler from a determined people united in peaceful rebellion.
Thirty years ago this month, a long-ruling dictator was in the same place that the Ugandan ruler is today. Ferdinand Marcos, who had been president of the Philippines since 1965, had gone through the usual steps of state personalization.
Barred from running for a third term, Marcos declared martial law in 1972. Then he changed the constitution to enable him to stay in power.
Assured of the backing of the United States, which considered him a trusted ally and guarantor of stability in a volatile region, Marcos consolidated power in his hands, those of his wife, their only son, their three daughters and Gen. Fabian Ver, his loyal chief of the armed forces.
However, when Marcos attempted to steal the election held on February 7, 1986, the people of the Philippines, including a coalition of political parties, military defectors, an army reform movement, religious groups and leaders, all united in opposition to the hijack of their country, poured onto the streets of Manila and other cities.
Gen. Juan Ponce Enrille, the defence minister, and Lt. Gen. Fidel Ramos, the deputy chief of the armed forces, joined the people in rebellion.
The people were galvanized by one of the most ringing calls to patriotic duty, issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. “If a government does not of itself freely correct the evil it has inflicted on the people, then it is our serious moral obligation as a people to make it do so. We ask every loyal member of the Church, every community of the faithful, to form their judgment about the February 7 polls. Now is the time to speak up. Now is the time to repair the wrong. The wrong was systematically organized. So must its correction be. But as in the election itself, that depends fully on the people, on what they are willing and ready to do.”
Marcos threatened to unleash his army, but the people held firm. The United States abandoned him to his fate. The majority of the members of the regular Philippine Armed Forces had joined the People Power Revolution.
Gen. Ver, who remained viciously loyal to the collapsing ruler, wanted to use air power to attack the people. To his credit, the president firmly ordered him not to attack.
On February 25, 1986, Marcos and members of his family fled to Hawaii, assisted out by the United States.
The people of the Philippines succeeded because they dispensed with superficial differences and united in the interests of their country. Their success was expedited in part because they remained resolutely peaceful, and resisted the temptation to attack the pro-Marcos troops.
The People Power Revolution in the Philippines did not start after the election. It started with everyone who wanted change participating in the election. Without overwhelmingly voting for Mrs. Corazon Aquino, the main opposition candidate, their post-election rebellion, even a peaceful one, would not have been justifiable.
It is not that the ground was level or that the state and other institutions were neutral in the election. There was widespread state-sponsored violence. The Marcos campaign used state institutions and their vast wealth to try and shift the vote in their favour. The two national television stations refused to give airtime to the opposition candidates.
When voting ended, the leaders of the Philippines Commission on Elections (COMELEC), handpicked by Marcos, inflated his numbers and declared him the winner.
However, the National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), which had carefully tallied the votes, declared Aquino the winner.
The COMELEC’s fraud was confirmed when 35 of its computer technicians walked out in protest against the manipulation of the results in favor of Marcos. The dictator’s fate was now sealed.
There are a few lessons from the Philippines that may be valuable to countries that face Marcos-like autocrats glued to presidential thrones.
First, by overwhelming the rigging system with legitimate votes, the people undermine the electoral commission’s fraudulent agenda to steal for the incumbent.
Second, people of good conscience in the electoral commission, the police force, the army and other state institutions have the power and opportunity to stand on the side of the truth and of the people.
Third, when forward looking men and women of the police, army and other armed organizations decide to uphold their nation’s constitution, they defend the people’s freedom to assemble and to peacefully demonstrate without the use of arms. In Uganda’s case, this freedom is enshrined in Article 29.1(d) of the Constitution.
Fourth, it is mandatory to execute a parallel vote-tallying and declaration system.
Fifth, in the words of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, a united people, liberated from fear, have a moral obligation and constitutional right to overwhelm a regime by coming out in large numbers to force it correct the evil it has inflicted on them.
To do this, the people must be systematically organized and be willing and ready to reclaim their country, their citizenship and their rights.
MUNIINI K MULERA
TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 2, 2016
Letter to a Kampala Friend
By Muniini K. Mulera