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What to watch in the Ugandan election

My friend and colleague Janet Haven writes that she’s heading to Uganda this week, to the Tactical Technology Africa Source conference. I’m doubly sorry that I’m not going, both because dozens of great people are going to be at the meeting and because it would be a really interesting time to have a front-row seat to observe Ugandan politics.

Uganda has been a one-party state for most of Yoweri Museveni’s 19-year rule. Even most of Museveni’s critics would acknowledge that he’s an improvement over his predecesors, the murderous Idi Amin and the corrupt Milton Obote. While he’s been ineffective in preventing attacks from the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north (perpetuating one of the worst humanitarian crises on the planet), much of the rest of the country is safe, and Uganda’s reaction to the HIV/AIDS crisis has been celebrated in international aid circles. Indeed, Museveni was hailed by President Clinton as part of a “new generation” of African leaders, dedicated to democratic rule and fighting corruption.

On the other hand, the World Court has just determined Ugandan soldiers invaded the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 – 2003 and looted mineral resources. The Congolese government plans to seek billions in restitution from Uganda. Museveni’s amendment of the constitution to allow him to run for an additional term, combined with aggresive repression of opposition parties have led several international donors to pull out of Uganda on the grounds that Museveni isn’t serious about a transition to multiparty elections.

It’s easy to see their concerns. Uganda’s most popular opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye (the president’s former personal physician), has been in exile for the past four years. He challenged Museveni for the presidency in 2001 and won 27.8% of the vote, despite widespread vote rigging. After narrowly losing a challenge to invalidate the voting in Ugandan court, he was arrested and questioned on charges of treason – he wisely decided to leave Uganda for the United States. In October 2004, he returned to Uganda to register to vote (part of the process of registering as a candidate). A few weeks after his return, he was arrested and charged with treason, as well as a 1997 rape. When Besigye made bail, he was promptly re-arrested on outstanding military charges and put before a court-martial. The High Court released him on January 2nd. (The wikipedia article on Dr. Besigye has a more detailed timetable.)

(I’ve had trouble unravelling the rape charges against Besigye as it’s very hard to get an account of the accusations and Besigye’s response to them. The treason charges are easier to understand – Besigye is accused of ties to various rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as to the Lord’s Resistance Army. Comments he’s made threatening to “fight from the bush” if he’s not able to win an election tend to reinforce fears that he has ties to armed groups. Comments from Museveni supporters on blogs that have commented on the situation in Uganda suggest that some opposition to Besigye is connected to a perception that he supports the violence of groups like the LRA.)

If, as many suspect, the zealous prosecution of Besigye is an effort by Museveni to weaken his opponent before elections, the tactics may be backfiring. Besigye’s arrest sparked outrage in Uganda’s (somewhat independent) press and some rioting. Museveni’s government responded by banning public discussion of the trial and threatening to close down radio stations that allowed such discussions to take place. Blake Lambert, writing in the Christian Science Monitor’s notebook observes that massive street demonstrations are being held by Besigye’s supporters, despite the presence of military police, and their tendency to tear-gas and beat opposition supporters. One of Besigye’s supporters told Lambert that crowds of this size followed Museveni around the country for the first decade of his rule – they’re now following the opposition leader.

Joseph Were, in an op-ed in Ugandan newspaper “The Daily Monitor” uses a recent poll to speculate that turnout for the February election will be over 95% and that Besigye may be able to pull enough support from Museveni to force a run-off election (if Museveni does not receive 50% of the vote.)

The closeness of the upcoming vote appears to be bringing out the dirtiest of politics. Two Ugandan members of parliament from Besigye’s FDC party were released from prison today – they’d been arrested on murder charges, accused of “instigating” the murder of another politician in 2002. The judge who dismissed the case dismissed the prosecution’s arguments as “a crude and amateur attempt at creative work,” suggesting the case was politically motivated.

African and afrophile bloggers are watching the situation in Uganda closely. Brian at Black Star Journal has a (very little) bit of sympathy for Museveni, recognizing him as a man who can’t change with the times:

When he took power in 1986 following a guerrilla war, the African Big Man was in vogue. From Mobutu in Zaire to Omar Bongo in Gabon to Daniel arap Moi in neighboring Kenya, the head of state-as-God phenemon seemed well-entrenched. Little did he know that this trend would start its downward decline in the 1990s. Museveni never adjusted.

Janet, I don’t know how much of this will be apparent from the blissful isolation of the Africa Source camp, but I hope you’ll write an less us know. And hey, bring me a copy of “The Monitor” if you can.

Blogafrica includes a number of Uganda-focused blogs, including the explicitly partisan Museveni Out Campaign, as well as UgandaCAN, which focuses on the under-reported conflict in the north of the country.

The image above is an ad for Besigye’s campaign, taken from the Monitor’s website. My reproduction of it here does not constitute an endorsement of Besigye’s campaign.

1 thought on “What to watch in the Ugandan election”

  1. Well, now that the election has gone down (Feb. 23rd) and Yoweri Museveni and his supporters have attempted the political ripoff of the new century (in East Africa, anyways) your post here is more important than ever. Problem is that Kizza Besigye is cut from the same cloth as Museveni and may not be much better for Ugandans if he wins, which looks doubtful.

    Interesting how they carried out the voting in the open, literally. I wonder if the rainy weather and forcing voters to mark their ballots outdoors in a plastic wash basin caused any problems i.e. smeared ink on the ballots making them literally impossible to read and rendering them invalid. Then there was the confusion with many voter registration lists being incomplete and/or fraudulent.

    I smell a rat (election fraud), don’t you? Waitin’ on the numbers from Kampala before I write about it, and word from the 40,000 election observers and the final blessing or curse from President “Jimmy Carter”.

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