By Joan Atuhaire

On 14th January 2021, Ugandans will go to the polls to elect a president to lead the state for the next five years. Having been in office for an uninterrupted 35 years, incumbent President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is the longest-serving President in the history of Uganda and currently the fourth longest-serving African leader behind Paul Biya of Cameroon, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea and Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo.

Though “more elections are taking place on the continent than ever before,” Africa is facing a (third) wave of democratic recession. In contrast to the military coups of the mid-1990s, it is the erosion of democratic institutions in many countries that is leading the move towards autocracy.

President  Museveni first assumed office in January 1986 following success in a five-year guerilla war he waged against the government of President Milton Obote. For the next 10 years, there was no election organised until 1996 when he was elected to his first term following the promulgation of a new constitution in 1995 which is still in use today with a number of amendments to his favour.

He has since then been re-elected every five years in elections described by his opponents and a number of independent observers as falling far below the threshold for a free and fair process. After changing the constitution at least two times, elections in Uganda are increasingly becoming a stage-managed process to re-elect the incumbent. Uganda’s neighbours like Kenya and Tanzania have in the recent past been able to change presidents every 10 years.

Uganda’s 2021 elections.

Museveni’s main challenger in the coming polls is music popstar turned politician, Robert Kyangulani Ssentamu of the National Unity Platform (NUP), popularly known as Bobi Wine. Former army commander Mugisha Muntu, Norbert Mao, Joseph Kabuleta Kiiza and six others are also running for the country’s top job.

The launch of the campaign period was marred with weeks of violence with over 18 people killed following the arrest of Kyangulani on 18th November 2020 as he submitted his nomination papers. The current government has created an atmosphere of fear among opposition politicians by disrupting their public rallies and denying them access to media houses for live broadcasts to sell their agenda, despite the incumbent enjoying the same services himself.

Uganda’s elections in the recent past have been characterized by state-sponsored violence against opposition candidates and their supporters, and other acts that deprive them of basic human and democratic rights. In the 2016 presidential election, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate Dr Kizza Besigye was a victim of constant harassment by state agencies, violence, arbitrary arrests and detention. In this election cycle, the trend is the same, just that all this is happening in the middle of a global pandemic with little attention given by the international media on the developments in this little-landlocked East African country.

Today the Covid-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult to guarantee free and fair elections as regulations are selectively enforced with a bias that favours the incumbent. As in previous elections, there’s been a series of deliberate attacks on various freedoms that promote the principles of transparency, fairness and equity in the Pearl of Africa. Some of the fundamental freedoms affected include;

Freedom of expression
The state has waged war on the people’s freedoms of expression using all means possible. Despite the legal provisions protecting the people from exercising this right, attempts have been made to either bar particular individuals from airing out their views or having their message reach wider audiences. A few months ago the red berets popular with the people power movement were gazetted by the army and banned from public use. This move was followed by a statement from the Uganda Communications commission that banned media houses from hosting individuals clad in that manner.

A similar attack on this right happened in Hoima where opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi paid for airtime on Spice FM, however, acting on orders from senior government officials the police denied him access to the station. Other opposition candidates like Patrick Amuria face the same fate as they are denied airtime to sell their agenda to their electorate and yet the scientific election outcomes are highly dependent on the candidate’s media presence.

The attacks on Kyangulani and by extension the entire opposition have not spared journalists either. Just a week to the elections, the Inspector General of Police Martin Ochola attempted to justify the attacks on journalists, claiming that “it is for their own safety.”

Freedom of assembly
The outbreak of COVID-19 facilitated a ban on mass gatherings as a move to curtail the spread of the deadly pandemic. When Uganda declared total lockdown due to the pandemic, both opposition and regime apologists were following these guidelines to the letter. However as the electoral tensions kicked in and the unrealistic reality of digital campaigns manifested, these guidelines were thrown under the carpet and their enforcement politicised.

The 70 person rule, social distance and mask regulations have since then been brutally enforced with regard to opposition leaning candidates and their agencies while members of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) have been offered protection to go about their business as usual. A case in point was Kyagulanyi’s brutal arrest as he went to campaign in Kalangala last week. He and many members of his team were arrested on grounds of defying COVID guidelines. To date, some of his aides like Nubian Lee remain under police custody.

The NUP party spokesperson responded to this saying “It’s continued intimidation. The state is trying to slow us down, to intimidate our candidate and citizens. But we are determined. We are very strong. We are going all the way. We must remove the dictatorship.”

The regime has created an atmosphere of fear among opposition politicians by disrupting their public rallies and using arbitrary arrests yet he continues to ride on his popularity as head of state and misuse state apparatus to his advantage

Freedom of association
Belonging to either side of the political spectrum no longer assures one of safety during the forthcoming elections as political, socio-economic and ethnic tensions continue to rise by the day. Whilst the regime preaches a secure future, the opposition strongly rides on its defiance campaign and it is at the pivot where the future of democracy lies in either the bullet or ballot.

In November, Uganda witnessed its worst set of riots over the last 10 years after Presidential candidate Kyagulanyi was arrested in Luuka district on charges of breaching Covid guidelines. The official report by the Uganda police pathologist declared at least 50 people dead and many more injured in the two-day protests meant to demand his unconditional release.

Majority of the victims who were either protesters or innocent civilians caught up in the facade were shot by armed men both in uniform and civilian wear and to date, there’s been no accountability for the lives lost. While it’s true that some protesters took advantage of the situation to loot and engage in violent protests, police brutality was at its peak and Museveni only came out to assure the public of more violence terming it as “his area of expertise” if the protests continued.

It’s important to note that the tactics employed by Museveni against his challengers are not new, in some of the last election cycles (2006, 2011 and 2016), Museveni’s main challenger Dr Kizza Besigye of the FDC was subjected to assault, arrests, and dispersion of his campaign rallies. Several times, police officers and military officials barricaded his house, and in effect putting him under house arrest and without supplies of essentials such as food and water.

With just a week left to the polls, the regime is in panic and employing tactics it has always relied on as fast and effective. There are widespread arrests and detentions of human rights defenders, for example, the recent arrest of human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo, excessive use of force and threats by security operatives among other acts geared at intimidating the masses and silencing all attempts to hold the state accountable. There are speculations of more widespread violence as the security agencies, courts of law and the electoral commission continue to selectively and subjectively interpret and enforce laws.

His arrest fits a pattern of an increasing crackdown on dissent and attacks on civil society in Uganda by agents of the state security establishment as the country nears its next general election scheduled to take place next month on 14th January 2021. We are particularly dismayed by the timing of this arrest that comes at a time when Nicholas was leading Civil Society efforts to challenge cascaded attacks by state agencies against civil society organizations and initiatives, including the recent freezing of NGO accounts by the Financial Intelligence Authority.

-Statement by Action Aid in reaction to Nicholas Opiyo’s arrest

Remedying this situation 
Africa as a whole benchmarks international (western) standards whilst conducting the respective elections. Today, the U.S, one of the world’s strongest democracies, is showing cracks with regard to their November 2020 where incumbent Donald Trump has refused to accept the results of the elections despite eventually agreeing to support the transition to the Joe Biden administration.

Even as the US faces challenges in its democratic systems, Africa has over time demonstrated that it has either weak or no systems at all. Little wonder the great continent now functions as a bedroom for greedy dictators with limited respect for democracy in the countries they lead.

Just like Museveni, Presidents Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Alpha Conde of Guinea, and the late Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi have all facilitated constitutional amendments in their respective countries to extend their stay in power. A constitutional amendment is the first step in election rigging yet we have continued to condone them. Uganda, in particular, has had at least two amendments that have resulted in the scrapping of term and age limits.

We still have a long way in ensuring the collective benefit of the people as opposed to individual benefit and this starts with reinstating our regional blocks. Our regional and global blocks need to take back their powers through a new wave of leaders and intervene in the issues affecting the continent. Taking notes from the ECOWAS intervention in Gambia (2017) and Mali (2012), these blocks should operate to protect the fundamental rights of the peoples at all costs.

Ironically, Museveni is known for famously saying “Africa’s problem is not the people but leaders who overstay in power.” Unfortunately at the time, the youthful leader did not believe that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Today he is arguably one of Uganda’s problems. I believe that for us to solve such systemic issues, Africa indeed needs a new generation of leaders committed to returning the power back to their rightful institutions.

Institutions like the regional blocks owe it to us to hold leaders accountable to the people they lead. The concentration of power in the hands of rulers which undermines fundamental rights such as press freedom and democratic principles must end with our generation. It’s about time we start to develop think tanks and personalised systems of leadership that work for our different African contexts.