28 years to nowhere

Not long ago, Uganda was viewed and considered by western politicians and media houses as an African success story, and President Lt. Gen Yoweri Museveni a ‘beacon of hope’ in the continent. The lavish praise, financial and political supports the international community gave Museveni and Uganda was huge. Yet 28 years down the line, the political and financial supports are rather invisible on the ground. Today, Uganda is a highly divided and polarised country. It is rent apart by corruption and plunders; humiliating poverty amongst the vast majority of the people (especially in the rural areas); an absolute culture of impunity; a deep moral crisis; the collapse of national institutions of development and governance. Surely, these are not features of a success story.

Democracy, elections and political climate

Uganda’s democratic development leaves a lot to be desired, and creates uncertainty for future prosperity. When the first elections with a multiparty system were held in 2006, there was excitement in the country that by 2014, the political arena would be levelled and all political parties able to operate freely. Unfortunately, the excitement quickly turned into frustration.

Opposition parties are constantly harassed and intimidated, and regularly denied to hold political rallies or protests - their primary political tools. There is also a systematic campaign to obstruct and shut down civic groups that engage the government on sensitive issues such as gay rights, corruption, transparency in the oil sector, and land rights. For instance, between 2011 and 2013, up to a dozen journalists and media outlets were charged with sedition and/or shut down by authorities for allegedly inciting riots, political unrest, spreading rumours or working for foreign powers.

Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party have not fully embraced multiparty politics and do not allow meaningful political alternatives. Consequently, they are now more entrenched in government and state institutions than during the days of his ‘no-party democracy’ system. The NRM’s near total accumulation of power has led to poor governance, corruption, and rising ethnic tensions in the country.

Elections in Uganda are as good as useless. Regarding the conduct of elections in the country, it is clear that Uganda is engaged in an historic struggle for free and fair elections. At the heart of this struggle is the electorate’s demand for genuinely free and fair elections in the country. Apparently this translates into two minimum demands: (a) an independent Electoral Commission, and (b) a clean and verifiable register of voters.

With the opposition political parties greatly outnumbered in parliament, it might take a while before it tops the country’s political agenda. Nonetheless, a loose coalition of Uganda’s main opposition parties exist, and is demanding the dissolution of the partisan Electoral Commission constituted by President Museveni, and the acceptance of specific electoral reforms. Museveni appears unlikely to yield on either count, hence, opposition parties and the government seem destined for a turbulent showdown as the 2016 elections approach.

Interestingly though, Museveni’s heavy-handedness and the corruption of senior leaders have sparked dissent within the NRM party. A group of NRM ‘rebels’ consisting of about 20 younger back-bencher MPs supports opposition demands for an impartial Electoral Commission and is critical of Museveni’s unwillingness to hold senior NRM leaders (e.g. the Prime Minister-Mbabazi, Foreign Minister-Kutesa, and Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister- Otafiire among others) accountable for corruption allegations.

Museveni also faces a challenge from some older party stalwarts who fought with him in the ‘bush war’ and want to succeed him as President. Press reports and anecdotal evidence suggest the President is increasingly isolated and unaware of the depth of resentment both within the NRM and beyond. One of the ‘bush men’ and senior army officer, Lt Gen David Sejusa fled the country in 2013 and has since founded a political pressure group to remove President Museveni from power by any means necessary.

Ethnic tensions have also sharpened as politicians on all sides have cultivated ethnic based support. Tensions among groups residing in oil-rich regions (Bunyoro and Acholi) are high as inhabitants accuse the NRM government of wanting to grab their land and ‘their oil’. The Baganda (the largest ethnic group in the country) are suspicious that General Museveni is quietly supporting smaller ethnic (e.g. the Banyala) group’s bid for autonomy within the Buganda Kingdom. This led to a deadly riot in 2009, and many observers fear it might happen again.

The underlying conflict derives from Buganda’s persistent attempt for a greater political role, with the ultimate goal of establishing a Buganda monarchy within the Ugandan state, which Museveni has sworn ‘will never happen, so long as he is alive’. His view is that the King of Buganda and other traditional rulers are unelected and lack political accountability. Of course, a semi-autonomous internal state would not only be a political threat to Yoweri Museveni but could also ultimately threaten Uganda as a unified nation-state. The stalemate over this issue continues, with no resolution in sight.

Conducting free, fair and peaceful elections in 2016 would improve Uganda’s image greatly. Failure in this area could relegate Uganda to the list of unstable African nations and seriously jeopardize its future stability and economic viability.

To hold credible elections, General Museveni must address the perceived partisanship of the Electoral Commission and make meaningful electoral reforms as soon as possible. But even if the General begins now to make good faith efforts to hold free and fair elections, he still may be unable to prevent serious, even stability threatening violence around the 2016 elections.

Some opposition parties and ethnic groups are openly threatening violence; and it is difficult to discern what President Museveni could do the coming months and years that would satisfy the political desires of so many people along ethnic and party lines who have been excluded from politics for so long.

Nonetheless, the path of Ugandan politics the coming three years depends largely on President Museveni’s vision and leadership. However, with remarks such as ‘peaceful demonstrators can go to hell’ for protesting leaves a lot to be desired because the right of assembly is an important cornerstone of multi-party democracy.


Human rights and corruption

Uganda’s recent human rights record is very poor, particularly with respect to arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and lengthy pre-trial detention.

Cases of police brutality, especially on opposition activists is rampant; and there are numerous credible allegations of unlawful detention and torture by security organisations like the Joint Ant-Terrorism Taskforce (JATT), the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence (CMI), the police’s Rapid Response Unit (RRU), the Kiboko squad and other paramilitary outfits. Continued abuses by these agencies damage the credibility and reputation of Uganda’s political leadership.

Despite the severity of the challenges, it is apparent that neither the law enforcement institutions nor the judiciary are capable of restraining government abuses of human rights. This is a big hinder in the democratic development of the country.

As for corruption, it has permeated the entire fabric of public life in Uganda. It is the norm for the NRM political leaders to freely allocate to themselves funds from the treasury. This is done by manipulating public procurement processes to benefit themselves, their friends, families and in-laws. The breath-taking and galloping corruption in Uganda is orchestrated from the centre of the state, and it is the main reason poor services are delivered to the people.

Although previous donor initiated programs to combat corruption through institutions like the Auditor General, the Inspectorate General of Government, the Public Procurement and Disposal Authority, and the Department of Public Prosecutions, helped increased the capacity of Uganda’s corruption fighting agencies, most of the programs have been phased out or abandoned due to lack of political will at the highest levels of the government. Impunity at high levels of government continues, diminishing trust in the regime and the public’s faith in democracy. In short, Uganda’s anti-corruption record is not impressive.

The issues raised above are interrelated and good indicators of President Museveni’s political leadership. Having been in power for 28 years, one wonders what else the current NRM leadership can offer Ugandans, and probably right to state that they have led the country to nowhere on the political path. The country is crying for change and new breeds of leaders.

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