Election preview: Uganda

I’ve been complaining for years about the lack of coverage that (with occasional exceptions) Africa gets in our media. But the decline of foreign coverage in general has now reached such a point that it no longer looks like an exception – rather more like a trend-setter.

As far as democracy goes, Africa is still a laggard, but much less so than it once was. A wave of democratisation in the 1990s toppled authoritarian regimes across much of the continent; there has been some backsliding in recent years, but also a few surprising gains. This year, something like twenty African countries will hold elections: some of them sham ones and others less than fully democratic, but still an encouraging sign.

And so we come to Uganda, a country that hasn’t featured in this blog before, although it warranted a Crikey story back in 2006. It goes to the polls today in presidential and parliamentary elections (the two are independent, on roughly the American model) that will clearly fall short of democratic standards but nonetheless allow for some expression of opposition to the government of president Yoweri Museveni.

Museveni came to power in 1986 as the leader of an insurgency that overthrew the autocratic Milton Obote. Obote, who had led the country in the 1960s and again from 1980, was a dictator with a dreadful human rights record; the best that could be said of him was that he was an improvement on the psychopathic Idi Amin, who had replaced him for most of the 1970s. So Museveni had a fairly low bar to clear.

He cleared it well. Although his regime had to contend with continued unrest across much of the country, the human rights situation improved markedly and Uganda became known as a model of stability and economic growth in the region. After ruling for a decade, Museveni submitted himself to presidential elections in 1996 and again in 2001; opposition parties were not permitted to organise, but opposition candidates ran against him in a reasonably democratic fashion, and his winning scores of 74.2% and 69.3% were by no means unbelievable.

In 2005 a referendum repealed the ban on multi-party politics. If Museveni had respected term limits and retired in 2006 he would have secured an honorable place in Uganda’s history. Instead, like so many other autocratic leaders, he overstayed his welcome: the term limit was repealed and Museveni was re-elected in increasingly dubious elections in 2006, 2011 and 2016. A further restriction was removed in 2017 with the repeal of the presidential age limit of 75: the president is now 76.

This process of democratic decay was associated with deterioration in the human rights and security situation. Media freedoms were curtailed and government policy became increasingly erratic, seen most notoriously in Museveni’s crusade against Uganda’s gay community and whatever else he thought of as “deviant” sexuality.

So now, after 35 years in office, Museveni is still running. There are ten other candidates, among whom the most serious opponent is popular singer Bobi Wine (who is half Museveni’s age), representing the National Unity Platform. If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff will be held on 8 February.

But the chance of that is negligible; the fix is clearly in for Museveni. Wine has already been arrested twice during the campaign, and a variety of dirty tricks have shown the limits of the president’s tolerance for opposition. Just this week, Facebook shut down a network of fake accounts linked to the government that had been used to try to boost its message.

Museveni retaliated by blocking access to social media until after the election – a common enough move for authoritarian rulers, but one that ironically finally won the country some attention in the west. Right-wing pundits in the US and Australia, currently energised by social media’s crackdown on Donald Trump, accused Facebook and the like of hypocrisy for complaining about the Ugandan government actions. Which, of course, makes as much sense as telling a bar owner that if they claim the right to throw out an unruly drunk, they can’t complain if the government bans alcohol altogether.*

Despite the handicaps imposed on the opposition, it clearly provides some outlet for popular discontent, and a strong showing tonight may convince Museveni that he is not indispensable and that it’s time to plan a transition to his successor. Uganda can do better: even though, as its history shows, it could also do much worse.

* I’ve borrowed this analogy from a user on (of course) Facebook that I now can’t find to acknowledge – apologies if they happen to be reading!

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