After years of oppression and civil war following independence, Uganda’s relative security means it has a generally positive – if sometimes controversial – image on the world stage. Considered one of the continent’s more prosperous states, it is the seventeenth-largest economy in Africa, and it continues to grow; furthermore, travel and tourism rates consistently rising also have a positive effect on both the nation’s GDP and its international image. On paper, Uganda is well on its way to achieving poverty goals set by the United Nations, and to improving stability and prosperity across the state.
That same stability, however, means the problems Uganda experiences with its electoral and democratic systems are regularly overlooked by the international community and its media, with the tensions in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan taking precedence in international headlines. Yet Ugandan elections have long been mired in controversy, and its citizens’ return to the ballot box on February 18th 2016 shines another light on this perennial issue.
Prior to the voting, the Ugandan government under President Museveni (the National Resistance Movement – NRM) are accused of deliberately and systematically infringing opponents’ rights to campaign effectively. Amongst the allegations levied against the NRM are intimidation of journalists and control of access by candidates to media coverage of the elections, putting the alternatives to Museveni’s government at a significant disadvantage. The state-owned Uganda Broadcasting Company – expected to be an impartial commentator – gave the incumbent president 44% of its airtime, as opposed to 24% and 4% for his two main rivals. Furthermore, social media in Uganda was blocked by the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) after suggestions that sites like Facebook and Twitter were being used to campaign, despite official campaigning ending two days before the election took place. Similar controversies have surrounded elections in Uganda previously, and the day of the election saw many citizens disenfranchised by lack of appropriate materials. Moreover, women’s rights were particularly affected, as extremely long waiting times in the hot sun meant those with young children and babies increasingly had to give up their vote in order to fulfil their family responsibilities.
President Museveni is due to be sworn in once again as Uganda’s leader on May 12th, and tensions surrounding the event remain high. The Ugandan security forces are reportedly stepping up measures to ensure that the ceremony can go ahead amid concerns that the president’s biggest opposition rival, and former personal doctor, Kizza Besigye will lead protests on the day. Besigye is capable of rallying significant support amongst the populace; in 2011, he and his party arranged the ‘Walk to Work’ protests that sparked a violent response from the government, which resulted in a number of civilian deaths. Bisigye was arrested whilst campaigning for the February election at a rally and he was accused of holding a public meeting without the government’s permission, thereby violating public order laws. Despite this arrest, and multiple others, Bisigye is insistent on fighting the government, claiming that votes were rigged and he has been deliberately targeted. He was placed under house arrest on 16th February, days before the election, after police used tear gas on the crowds outside of his campaign rally.
Understanding Uganda’s problems with democracy requires an understanding of the history of both the state and its government. Formerly a colony under British rule, the country gained official independence in October 1962. The east-African nation’s president, Yoweri Museveni, is one of the continent’s longest serving leaders; co-founder of the group that removed Idi Amin in 1979, and subsequent leader of a rebel force that took power in 1986, he has ruled Uganda for thirty years, and has continuously come under criticism for the transparency and legitimacy of the elections that have maintained his position of power. Multi-party politics have only been reinstated in Uganda since 2005 – something achieved, to the government’s credit, via popular referendum – and questions remain from both the opposition and non-government organisations about the state’s attempts to quash opposing voices by ballot fraud, arbitrary arrest, or extreme use of force.
Access to free, fair and democratic elections has been something the international community – most often through the United Nations – has held up as a standard that all states should seek to achieve. To place the Ugandan issue into the context of international law, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes clear that every person, without qualifiers, is entitled to (1) “freedom of opinion and expression,” (2) “freedom of peaceful assembly and association,” and (3) the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” The Declaration goes on to state that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.”
What is clear about Uganda’s current situation is the fundamental rights of the populace are being denied, as they are barred from their presidential candidates entering into the race with equal opportunity to be successful. Museveni’s re-election means that the question of who will succeed him – some suggest his son or wife – has been further avoided; the accusations that the election was rigged only causes further tension in a nation where its political leadership is so often controversial, despite significant progress over its thirty year tenure. Regardless of how the situation is resolved, doing so is imperative; destabilising the nation puts the entire region at risk, and the current state of affairs contravenes the human rights of all Ugandan citizens.