Uganda’s current President, Yoweri Museveni, was once seen as the country’s great democratic saviour. After becoming president in 1986, he transformed Uganda from a one-party state to a multi-party democracy. In the past decade, however, this progress has begun to be reversed. Museveni is becoming increasingly tyrannical, repeatedly violating the democratic and human rights principles of the African Union, United Nations and the Commonwealth. The international community is mute. It colludes with his regime.
How odd. World leaders readily condemn President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, but they happily fund and support Museveni. Why the double standards? How can they justify such silence and inaction?
President Museveni’s Ugandan critics say his regime is, in effect, a constitutional dictatorship, with a rubber-stamp parliament, powerless judiciary, sometimes censored media and heavily militarised civil institutions.
Details of these abuses were exposed in my Talking With Tatchell internet TV series, when I interviewed Ugandan activists from the opposition Forum for Democratic Change. You can watch the interview here.
Despite Museveni’s claims, Uganda’s elections are neither free nor fair. During the 2006 poll, Human Rights Watch reported significant intimidation of voters and anti-government politicians, and unequal and often biased media coverage of candidates opposed to Museveni. Opposition parties were denied representation on the Electoral Commission, which is the body charged with oversight of the conduct of the election.
In a further alarming erosion of democratic safeguards, limits on presidential terms have been abolished in a bid to ensure that Museveni can remain president for life.
Shortly before the 2006 ballot, Dr Kizza Besigye, the leader of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change, was framed on charges of terrorism, rape and treason. This derailed his campaigning in the run-up to the election. He was released on bail only a month before the poll date.
In addition, 22 opposition activists were charged alongside Besigye with engaging in acts of terrorism. Although granted bail by the High Court of Uganda, they were held in Luzira maximum security prison, where they were tortured. As well as facing charges in a civilian court, the defendants also, for while, faced charges before a military court, despite a High Court ruling that appearing before two courts on similar charges is unconstitutional.
In response to these High Court judgments against the regime’s suppression of civil liberties, army commandos raided the High Court and intimidated the judges. Museveni and his military colleagues (he is an former military strong man) seem hell-bent on crushing the independence of the judiciary.
Uganda’s parliament is stacked, neutered or ignored. A parliamentary select committee twice summonsed the commissioner of prisons to explain why he was detaining the 22 opposition activists who the High Court had granted bail. The commissioner refused to attend; insisting that he would only release the detained men if he was ordered to do so by the military. This has led many Ugandans to conclude that the military, acting in concert with Museveni, is now the real power in Uganda. The democratic constitution is, in effect, null and void – or at least seriously weakened.
Uganda is drifting to dictatorship. Although not yet a fully-fledged police state, the ever-tightening ring of repression echoes what happened in Zimbabwe. Indeed, many Ugandans fear that Museveni is slowly turning into another Robert Mugabe.
Allegations of tyranny are backed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. They confirm the harassment of Museveni’s political opponents, detention without trial, torture, extra-judicial killings, suppression of protests and homophobic witch-hunts, including a current draft bill that introduces the death penalty for repeat homosexual offenders.
The East African Court of Justice in 2007 found Uganda guilty of violating the rule of law and the rights of its citizens.
Museveni’s army is implicated in massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In 2005, the International Court of Justice ruled that Uganda must pay the DRC up to £5.6 billion in compensation for its war of aggression, plundering of resources and killing of civilians.
Similar abuses occurred during the civil war in northern Uganda. More than 1.5 million people were herded into camps by the Ugandan army. Some were beaten, raped and killed; many more fell ill and died from unsanitary conditions. In the worst period, fatalities peaked at 1,000 a week; with infant mortality three times the national average and typical life expectancy in the camps a mere 27 years.
Not long after receiving international debt relief, Museveni went on a spending spree; building a new £50 million State House at Entebbe and purchasing a £16 million presidential jet. Meanwhile, millions of Ugandans suffer from malnutrition, slum housing, illiteracy, preventable diseases and a lack of clean drinking water.
By colluding with the Kampala regime, the United States, Britain, the European Union and the Commonwealth are rewarding Museveni’s authoritarianism, social injustice and human rights abuses. It is a sad betrayal of the long-suffering people of Uganda.