Rita Abrahamsen is a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa. Gerald Bareebe is an assistant professor at York University, currently based in Kampala.
Observers of Ugandan politics will regard the results from last week’s election with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. President Yoweri Museveni, in power for nearly 35 years, won with almost 59 per cent of the vote. His main rival, the musician and member of Parliament Bobi Wine, received about 35 per cent. In a familiar pattern, the opposition contests the results, while the President claims it was the most free and fair election since independence.
Make no mistake: This was an election, but not democracy. Elections in Uganda have long been a foregone conclusion. Mr. Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving presidents, has perfected a system allowing him and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) to reap just enough votes to claim that democracy is working and thus bestow a thin veneer of legitimacy on their continued rule. The keys to the system’s success are a well-oiled patronage machine, a ruthless, politicized security apparatus and an international community willing to turn a blind eye to democratic decline and human-rights abuses in return for stability and support in the fight against terrorism. This time, COVID-19 also rose to the President’s defence, as did the widespread retreat of democracy around the world.
Curfews, lockdowns and physical-distancing regulations were introduced in late March, 2020, and remained in place throughout the electoral campaign, providing ample opportunity to curtail the opposition, harass their supporters and clamp down on civil society and the media. This made the Jan. 14 election the most violent and the least fair in a two-decade-long history of violent and unfair elections. In one incident alone, at least 54 people were killed by the security forces and more than 1,000 arrested. Mr. Wine spent most of the election campaign wearing a bulletproof vest and a helmet, constantly trailed by an intimidating convoy of police vehicles, mobile prison vans and armoured personnel carriers. His home remains surrounded by soldiers, and members of his campaign team are in jail, as are numerous other activists and politicians.
This oppressive regime is bankrolled by international donors. As a top contributor of troops to peacekeeping missions in Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, Uganda has become a key ally of the United States and a pivotal state in the fight against terrorism. In return, the country has been lavished with development and military assistance. The U.S. provides nearly US$1-billion a year, and another US$1-billion flows from other countries, including Canada, and international institutions. The U.S. has trained more troops from Uganda than from any other country in sub-Saharan Africa except Burundi.
It is this well-trained, well-equipped military that Mr. Museveni placed in charge of security in the capital city and the surrounding areas in advance of the election. Battle-hardened generals with extensive experience from operations against terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and soldiers trained to combat violent extremism patrolled the streets of Kampala.
It is not only military aid that strengthens Mr. Museveni’s grip on power. Development assistance also ensures that patronage flows to loyal supporters, and corruption is rampant. For example, a recent US$300-million World Bank loan for COVID-19 relief appears to have been transferred to a classified budget used to fund the security forces.
After the violence of this election, international support for Mr. Museveni’s regime can no longer be justified in the name of security and stability. There is an urgent need for donors to rethink their relationship with Uganda. This should not entail a return to the high-handed and arrogant democracy-promotion of the past. Democracy cannot come from outside or be dictated by finger-wagging donors threatening to withhold aid.
But past mistakes do not invalidate the value of democracy nor diminish the need for solidarity with democratic struggles. Five of Uganda’s opposition leaders have urged the UN Secretary-General to encourage donors to suspend all but the most essential humanitarian aid to their country. Mr. Wine has argued that the West has helped “cripple Uganda’s democracy” and that it must now stand by those struggling against tyranny.
These are difficult times for democracy and for democracy promotion. The recent attack on the U.S. Capitol deeply wounded America’s standing in the world. But the answer is not to retreat from democracy; it is to recommit to it. Uganda is a test case for the incoming Biden administration and for all Uganda’s donors. This includes Canada, which has joined others in calling for the investigation of election irregularities and violence by the security forces. That is a good start, but ritual condemnation followed by a return to business-as-usual needs to end.
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