What lessons can Uganda learn from the French Revolution?

By Eric Kashambuzi

Uganda has entered a phase of intense debate about its future which is commendable because everyone has a chance to express their opinions provided it is done in a civil manner (threats and calling names are counterproductive) to produce constructive outcomes for every Ugandan. As the debate continues it may be useful to draw lessons from history because what Uganda is going through is not new. Conflicts between governors and the governed over political, economic, social, cultural and spiritual matters have happened before. The French Revolution (1789-99) seems a good place to start. As you read the following paragraphs try to see if there are similarities to what is happening in Uganda.

The French state reached a peak in performance and prestige in the early years of Louis XIV’s long reign. He began his personal rule in 1661 and died in 1715. The king’s many wars and heavy expenditure on the royal court overburdened a rich country with industrious people. To maintain the high level of expenditure, new and heavier taxes were imposed on the middle class and peasants. The nobility and clergy were exempt from paying all taxes. Louis XVI introduced fiscal and economic reforms including cutting government expenditure and abolishing trade guilds which restricted economic growth.

Implementation ran into difficulties because of heavy criticism from the affected stake holders especially the nobility. The king got scared and dismissed the controller general of finance (minister of finance). The new minister resumed borrowing and increased spending, making the financial crisis worse. Public administration was also in disarray. Various departments had ill-defined and often overlapping functions, delaying action on important or urgent matters. Costly wars and extravagant royal expenditure by Louis XIV, XV, and XVI bankrupted the state. As the financial and administrative crisis mounted, the minister of finance was fired, signaling the king’s failure to address problems. The mushrooming political, economic and social complaints led to the French Revolution.

The political complaints included regular abuse of power by the monarchy. The king with absolute power could order the arrest of anyone on any charge and have them tried in secrecy without a jury. The principal economic complaint was associated with the unfair system of taxation that fell disproportionately on the middle and lower classes and the already overburdened peasantry that paid the highest taxes. The peasants were heavily exploited by both the government and the nobility. The social complaints revolved around the unequal structure. The nobility and higher clergy formed a small but privileged class at the top of the social pyramid. The Church owned half of France’s land but paid no property taxes. The nobility enjoyed tremendously and was supported by government pensions. The rest of the population was angry at heavy taxation and restrictions imposed on them in church and government career advancement. They did not participate in national decision making process. They were thus taxed without representation.

To avoid further borrowing, the king convened the Estates General (parliament) in order to raise taxes. The Estates General had not met in 175 years! On May 5, 1789 the Estates General began deliberations. Louis XVI ordered the three estates to meet separately and vote by estates not as individuals. The Estates General was divided into three estates or social classes. The First Estate represented the clergy, the second the nobility and the third the rest of the population but members were chosen from the middle and lower classes, not from peasants. The Third Estate had the most members and represented some 98 percent of the population. Because voting was done by estates with each estate having one vote and the first and second estates voting together on issues, the third estate had no way of outvoting the other two estates. Upset by this arrangement, the Third Estate refused to participate in the discussions. Joined by a number of aristocrats from the Second Estate and many especially parish priests from the First Estate, the Third Estate formed a National Assembly in which representatives would vote as individuals rather than by estate thereby outvote first and second estates. They vowed not to disband until a new constitution had been drafted. Members of the Third Estate wanted government reform to give them a share of power moderate enough to assure peace and stability. If the king had agreed to this proposal, he would have given France a constitutional and moderate revolution, with himself as leader. Instead, he chose to stick with the nobility and clergy to preserve the feudal institutions. The king ordered the National Assembly to disband. The National Assembly had no alternative but insurrection because it had vowed not to disband until a new constitution had been produced. Surrender was not an option. Fearing that the king might order troops to disband the Assembly, Parisians mostly poor, hungry and downtrodden (read the poor and hungry in Kampala) mob took matters into their own hands. On July 14, 1789, crowds stormed the Bastille a prison for political dissenters hoping to obtain weapons with which to fight the king’s army. The storming of Bastille (a fortress prison that stood as a hated symbol of the arbitrary rule of French kings) was a success for the masses. In honor of that moment, July 14 is a national holiday celebrated every year in France as the Bastille Day. While crowds gathered and collected guns in Paris, peasants in the countryside staged their own protests. They invaded nobility homes, destroyed their property and seized records of peasants’ feudal obligations to the nobility. Protests in Paris, other towns and the countryside sparked the flames of the French Revolution. The moment for moderation was lost.

The revolution was primarily against feudalism. For more than three centuries feudal institutions had survived in France. The nobility and clergy had lost relevance. Instead of dispensing justice the nobility had increased injustice and the clergy had become a social parasite. The institution of monarchy had lost value as protector against aristocratic and clerical abuses. To do away with these injustices the National Assembly adopted a Declaration of the Rights of man (there was also a declaration of woman). It introduced the slogan of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Also included in the document was the notion of resistance against oppression. The Declaration further stated that “men are born free and remain free and equal in rights”. Feudalism was declared dead, the powers of the king were limited and the government was empowered to make appointments in the Church and Church land was seized and sold to peasants at low prices. The outcomes of the revolution included a shift in political power from the nobility to the bourgeoisie (middle class); nationalist feeling increased; and the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity spread to other parts of Europe and eventually to the rest of the world. These ideals are incorporated in Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) which states “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”.

What lessons can Uganda draw from the French Revolution? First, France had an oppressive political, economic and social system that favored a minority (the nobility and clergy that constituted some 2 percent of the French population) and punished the majority of peasants, middle and lower classes that constituted some 98 percent of the total population. Under the NRM government, Uganda has a similar system that is favoring a minority of the population and is oppressing the majority of Ugandans. Second, the demand of the Third Estate for moderate reforms to give them a share in governmental affairs that would assure peace and stability was rejected by the king leaving the National Assembly no choice but to rebel. Similarly calls on NRM to negotiate a transitional government to accommodate all parties and prepare for genuine multi-party elections have fallen on deaf ears leaving opposition groups no choice but to resort to civil resistance in the first instance. There is still a window of opportunity which Uganda should utilize so that it does not miss the moment of moderation as France did.