SUMMARY: The bloodshed surrounding elections, and suppression of alternative views from those in power, are the exact outcomes of Ugandan leaders’ choice of authoritarianism over sustainable peace and prosperity.
The violence witnessed in the recent NRM primaries, coupled with proposed curbs on freedoms of expression by the state-owned Uganda Communications Commission, have heightened fear that Uganda is veering off the democratic path it committed to in many local and international instruments.
Observers are warning that the uptick in violence and several other authoritarian practices not only undermine her hitherto good record, but also threaten to cause more instability and will stifle development. Several reports published since the 2011 general elections have concluded that there has been an increase in election-related violence, and diminished space for freedom of expression especially by opposition leaders.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its latest 2020 report raises alarm about the growing human rights abuses by Ugandan authorities targeting its opponents.
“Violations of freedom of association, assembly, and expression continued in 2019 as authorities introduced new regulations restricting online activities and stifling independent media.
“These restrictions on expression and assembly, arbitrary detentions and prosecutions of outspoken critics, and the government’s failure to ensure accountability for past abuses, do not bode well for the 2021 general elections,”
And yet, loss of lives, insecurity and suppression of alternative views, especially as people exercise their right to choose their leaders, are the kind of things that Ugandan leaders have vowed to prevent through swearing to uphold national and international laws on democracy and good governance.
President Yoweri Museveni has taken several oaths since the making of the 1995 Uganda Constitution, vowing to uphold the values of democracy, rule of law and good governance.
But beyond Ugandan laws, Museveni’s government has signed several international instruments that bind it to preserving and promoting International standards on democracy and good governance.
In 2005, for example the Heads of State of the member countries of the African Union adopted the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG).
The Charter was considered as the basis for bringing about harmony, respect for human rights, orderly transfer of power, which are considered the foundations of a peaceful and prosperous society.
The charter provides for regular changes in leadership of every member a country that signed it, through holding of free and fair elections. It also goes in detail to define what it means by free and fair elections.
In essence, the charger tries to introduce a universal template for democracy and good governance across the continent that is consistent with universally accepted principles.
When Uganda and 45 other African countries signed the Charter, they gave many people hope that the continent was finally turning the page from authoritarianism and military coups, to peaceful transfer of power and development.
The Charter, which has since 2012 come into force, has however suffered setbacks as more countries have withdrawn from their support and weakened its effectiveness, let alone, it’s very relevance.
Fifteen years have passed since Uganda signed the charter, and more than five motions have been tabled in Uganda’s Parliament demanding that Uganda ratifies the Charter, but the government remains silent on the matter.
Human rights experts squarely blame Uganda’s hesitation on ratification of the Charter and the increase in violence especially during elections on President Yoweri Museveni.
Human Rights Lawyer Nicholas Opio argues that the sense of Pan-Africanism that President Museveni portrays when he’s abroad, is simply cosmetic but ‘deep down, he’s selfish and authoritarian’.
“The ACDEG is just one of those international instruments that were signed because of a political expedience, a foreign policy objective not because of a deep belief in democratic principles.
“By signing these instruments, it makes them look good, it can help them get some donor money but not as a reflection of their democratic practices.”
Illustrating his skepticism about Museveni’s authoritarianism and disdain for peace, Mr Opio, a respected human rights lawyer, points to the way President Museveni failed to discipline his Labour Minister Mwesigwa Rukutana when he was recently captured on video with a gun firing at unarmed citizens.
“If he’s sincere about ending violence in elections, he should have sacked his Minister whom everybody saw grab a gun and shoot at people,” Opio said.
Cecilia Ogwal, the Dokolo district woman Member of Parliament, who is also Uganda’s former representative in the Pan African Parliament, says there’s no doubt that failure to ratify the Charter clearly demonstrates it’s lack of commitment to the fundamental principles of democracy.
“It’s not just the Charter but also look at how the government has refused to bring about meaningful amendments to electoral laws in Uganda.
Instead, Ogwal says, the Executive chose to keep quiet which she says is a reflection of the government’s desire to exploit violence and chaos.
“Why should you allow some people to carry guns and others not carry guns at night during an election period?
“Everybody now knows that when there are elections in Uganda, people die. We should not lose people just because there are elections. We can do better by making electoral laws that reflect our international commitments and the universal principles of democracy human rights and good governance,” says Ogwal.
Ms Ogwal says that the violence and related electoral malpractices are ‘a glaring symptom of a failed system.
Let no body be under any illusion, as we move towards the general elections, we are bound to see much worse violence because it will be a contest between sides that call each other enemies.
Freedom of expression
Freedom of expression and equal access to media especially state-owned media is a central tenet of the ACDEG framework.
For example Article 17 of the ACDEG charter states that: State Parties re-affirm their commitment to regularly holding transparent, free and fair elections in accordance with the Union’s Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa. To this end, State Parties shall: Ensure equitable access by contesting parties and candidates to state controlled media during elections.
Catherine Anite, a human rights lawyer with focus on media freedom argues that the NRM government has very badly fared in this area.
Anite argues that access to state controlled media by opposition candidates remains a major obstacle in Uganda, even after the Constitutional Court ruled in the Amama Mbabazi Vs Yoweri Museveni and Electoral Commission that state media should give equitable access to all candidates.
Perhaps as a sign that access to media is not likely to improve for opposition candidates, on several occasions this year, presidential contender Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, has been barred from appearing on private radio stations in Mbale and Jinja.
A biased electoral body!
Whereas the ACDEG charter demands for that in order for state parties to conduct free and fair elections, they must establish and strengthen independent and impartial national electoral bodies.
Uganda’s Electoral Commission has been the target of reform by almost all opposition political players, Membersof Parliament, religious institutions and civil society organizations.
According to MP Cecilia Ogwal, this has been a persistent demand dating as far back as Uganda’s previous Parliament.
“If you can recall, the Speaker of Parliament (Rebecca Kadaga) told the President during the opening of one of the sessions in the 9th Parliament that government needed to bring electoral reforms urgently needed in order to have free and fair elections as decided by the Constitutional.
According to Ogwal, the current membership, and constitution of the Uganda Electoral Commission can not be relied upon to deliver a free and fair electoral outcome.
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