Gen. Museveni in a familiar salute from the pages of history — twilight after 30 years?
[Africa Commentary: Uganda Elections 2016]
If democracy were measured by the regularity and number of elections, Uganda would be one of the most democratic countries in Africa.
Alas, that is not the case. In nearly 30 years, the opposition consistently “lost” elections, not because they were incompetent or not politically savvy. Rather, the conditions under which they contested elections were made to guarantee success for Gen. Yoweri Museveni.
In the preceding four elections: 1996, 2001, 2006 and 2011, President Museveni supposedly won in spite of the opposition’s accusations of election fraud. The President always dismissed them as the usual loser’s complaints.
However, both local and international election observers always found evidence of rampant vote rigging, buying of and theft of votes. In the 2001 and 2006 elections, the nation’s High Court accepted evidence of election rigging only to bow to pressure from the incumbent not to nullify the election.
Although international election observers were always welcome and expected to be independent and fair, they always proved disappointing. While they acknowledged election fraud, they always refused to take serious action against the regime that they support financially and with military training and weapons.
Observers from donor countries often preferred to be complicit with the regime in stifling democracy as if to imply that election fraud in developing countries is normal and acceptable when it should not be. When he addressed the African Union (AU) in July in Ethiopia, President Barack Obama wondered why any leader would want to stay in power for so long.
The President should also wonder how they stay in power for so long. Surely, President Obama must have been feigning ignorance for the purpose of making a point. In any case, the attempt to effect regime change has become a five year ritual in Uganda.
As the February 18, 2016 election approaches, the challenge to effect a peaceful power transition has risen to the forefront once more. Uganda does not have a good history of peaceful regime-change. Since independence in 1962, the country has had a series of forceful turnovers. The late President Milton Obote was removed by coup d’état twice: 1971 and 1985.
The notorious “life president” Idi Amin Dada, was ousted in 1979 by a combined military force of Tanzania’s military and assorted exiled Ugandans. Following a five-year guerilla war, the short lived General Tito Okello Lutwa regime was removed by Museveni’s National Resistance Army in 1986. To appreciate the enormity of the challenge for the opposition to effect regime change, a little history of the struggle will help here: When President Museveni took power in 1986 after signing a power-sharing peace agreement with Gen. Okello, he vowed to stay in power for no more than 10 years. From 1986 to 1996, the country was ruled by the National Resistance Movement (NRM), his political party.
Although the regime promised to deliver democracy, it banned conventional politics allegedly to foster national unity. In reality it was a deception to hide the goal to disable political parties: the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), the Democratic Party (DP) and the Conservative Party (CP). This allowed the NRM to consolidate its power at a time when it was still very weak.
Under pressure from the old political parties and the international community, the NRM regime conceded to the demand to restore elections. However, this was by no means a democratic process because the election was based on “individual merit”–which was away to empower the NRM. Political parties were still banned.
The best the opposition parties could do was to collectively support the candidacy of Dr. Paul Kawanga Ssemwogerere, then leader of the DP to contest against Museveni in the 1996 presidential election; he lost. In 2001, the NRM continued to conduct the election under the “no-party” system. Candidates again contested the election on the basis of “individual merits.” Not surprisingly, the opposition candidates lost to the incumbent, with Dr. Kizza Besigye who had been President Museveni’s personal physician when they were guerrilla fighters, as the major challenger.
It was obvious that without exercising their rights to organize politically, the opposition had no chance to compete on an equal footing. Therefore, they demanded a return to a multiparty system. The regime organized a referendum in June 2005 to decide whether to allow a multi-party system. The referendum was overwhelmingly approved, thus rejecting the “no-party” system.
Dr. Besigye was again the main challenger in the 2006 election; Museveni, who hand-picks the election commission, was declared the victor. In the 2011 election, history repeated itself. The opposition parties: UPC, DP, CP were joined by Dr. Besigye’s new political party, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), in a new alliance, the Inter-Party Cooperation (IPC). The alliance disintegrated before the election.
A sub-set survived as the Reform Agenda (RA). Dr. Kizza Besigye led the alliance against President Museveni. The outcome was the same as before — Museveni was again declared the victor.
President Museveni never had any intention of allowing democracy to flourish in Uganda. For him, power emanated from the barrel of the gun and it has been sustained by the same. In all four elections, the opposition was not allowed to organize politically. While the regime expects the opposition to follow the rule, it always plays by a different rule.
It uses an elaborate political patronage system which works to perfection in a situation where the government is the major employer. The regime also relies on threats or actual violence to politically intimidate its opponents. Opposition leaders are often arrested and jailed on trumped up charges of “treason,” “corruption” or “rape.”
Opposition leaders’ movements are restricted whereas the ruling party can move freely. Human rights are violated with impunity. What happened on October 10, 2015 was a shameful and outrageous example of how President Museveni’s government treats its opposition citizens. During an arrest of FDC members to block them from attending a rally, the Ugandan police manhandled Ms. Zaina Fatuma by stripping her naked, dragging her on the tarmac, hauling her onto a waiting police pickup truck and tying her with a rope like an animal.
In the past, the US and the EU, Uganda’s biggest donors, often looked the other way or let President Museveni escape with a mere slap on the wrist. This is because Uganda’s army has been based in Somalia combating Al-Shabaab; fighting a proxy war on behalf of the West.
Donor countries should not allow President Museveni to sweet talk them into believing that without him, the Great Lakes region comprising Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, DRC, South Sudan, Rwanda and Burundi will become unstable. After all, over six million people perished in this region in the last 30 years with President Museveni in power due to his militarism.
He’s alleged to have orchestrated together with Paul Kagame then leader of Uganda-backed Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) the shooting down of the plane carrying the Juvenal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntayamire, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi respectively, sparking the 1994 Rwanda genocide. In 2005, the International Court of Justice found President Museveni’s army liable for plundering resources and killing civilians in the DRC and ordered Uganda to pay up to $10 billion in compensation.
He incarcerated nearly 2 million Ugandans in concentration camps for over 10 years where the World Health Organization said more than 1,000 people died of preventable causes per week; meaning more than half a million may have perished. The Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia and Burundi have all suffered from President Museveni’s militarism.
While donor countries are not expected and are not supposed to fight for democracy on behalf of Ugandans, they should not enable tyranny by helping his regime financially, with military material, logistics and intelligence. Many times such help meant for fighting terrorism or for fighting HIV/Aids and malaria end up helping him suppress his own citizens.
In spite of the difficulties the opposition is currently experiencing in consolidating its strength, hopeful signs abound that President Museveni can be defeated in a free and fair election. Most citizens are tired of 30 years of the same tyrannical rule and are ready for change.
In fact, the demand for change is growing bolder and stronger as shown by the large size of crowds attending opposition meetings, which always forces the regime to panic and become even more repressive.
It is said that at a certain stage, the revolution devours its own children. In Uganda the ruling NRM party has now reached that stage. It has so much discord that it is split into two camps with one faction, led by Amama Mbabazi, Museveni’s former prime minister, joining the opposition.
President Museveni’s faction held its primary election recently and it was riddled with cheating, fighting, and mismanagement. Consequently, many more members are fleeing to the opposition.
The opposition needs a united front; they have to subordinate their individual interests to the common goal of securing a peaceful termination of the present dictatorship. To assist in this process, donor countries should abandon their apparent belief that only President Museveni can ensure stability in the country and the Great Lakes Region.
With rampant corruption, high employment, poverty, police brutality, and election fraud, the country may be pushed to the brink; the populace may snap and resort to violence.
What Uganda needs most is a new political environment where elections will be free and fair. This can help pre-empt the kind of social explosions we’ve seen in North and West Africa.