Policy Analysis World Politics & Affairs

Is the Ugandan State on the Road to Totalitarianism?

At the start of May 2019, Uganda, the so-called Pearl of Africa, has faced yet another political crackdown on journalism and freedom of speech. The current regime through the Uganda Communications Commission issued a letter to suspend 30 journalists on Friday, May 3, 2019. “Uganda’s press regulator ordered 13 local media groups to suspend news editors, producers and progamme directors, accusing them of broadcasting ‘extremist or anarchic messages.’”

The accused are in this predicament for having been reported on the country’s increasing political turmoil and current regime’s multiple arrests on the infamous pop star turned politician, Bobi Wine. This act by the government did not go unnoticed, and has received international condemnation for the continuous attacks on any forms of opposition coverage, which undermines people’s access to fair and balanced news as well as their freedom of expression. Uganda is thus quickly becoming a country where anyone who is airing out the mistakes of the government can be considered its enemy and face political consequences for such actions. Any form of journalism that seeks to expose government crimes, for quite a while, has received its share of those consequences.

Apart from journalism, there are other things in Uganda’s current state which are of concern. For instance, the rise of figureheads like Bobi Wine on one side portrays the desperation of many oppositional Ugandans who are seeking change at all costs, while on the other, the “young Ugandans, many of whom are poor, frustrated and have struggled to find jobs.” Bobi Wine’s message of People Power resonates with those who feel they have long been sidelined as corruption, tribalism, and nepotism have replaced “competence in government institutions.”

But there was a time when Museveni’s regime was so popular that very few foresaw what it would one day become. Since 1986 when the National Resistance Army (NRA) took power until the late l990’s when it was struggling to restore peace and economic recovery, Museveni was a hero in the eyes of every Ugandan. The National Resistance Movement (which transformed from the NRA into a political party) was hailed to have brought peace to Uganda through its “liberation war”, championing the formulation of the Ugandan constitution, recognizing women’s rights and entering the country as a signatory in major international bodies like UN and others.

Uganda incumbent and President elect Yoweri Museveni addresses the nation at his country home in Rwakitura, Kirihura district in western Uganda, February 21, 2016. REUTERS/James Akena

However, all those benefits seem to be eroding. The same constitution is under erroneous pressure to be changed by the same entity that brought it into existence. One of the current contested debates by the courts and parliamentarians is around amending the Ugandan constitution to scrap Presidential age limits, which will enable President Museveni to remain in power for a long time, after having already had 30 years of rule. The “ongoing protests reveal public frustration over political retrenchment and the lack of clear succession plan”, reports the African Center for Strategic Studies.  This was one of the reasons why a fight broke up between Ugandan MPs in the chambers of the parliament in 2017, with the opposition announcing to the government to keep their hands off the constitution. President Museveni is now seen to have backtracked on his word and Africa’s future, as evidenced by his book, What is Africa’s Problem?, where he condemned African “leaders who want to overstay in power.”

The use of military violence to curb peaceful protests and a stalemate in ensuring national security are also becoming litmus tests for the survival of the regime. In most cases, the use of the military to handle civilian cases has led to accused civilians ending up in torture camps or being killed. The Human Rights Watch report 2019 shows that in such instances, the government has failed to “provide accountability for torture and extrajudicial killings.” Since 2012, the number of murders committed by the “hit boys” with guns on boda-boda (motorcycles) has increased. The President has consistently blamed “the Congo-based rebel group, Allied Democratic Forces, wrangles within the Muslim Community” and vigilantes from the police, and has made promises to bring them to justice. Others like his Shadow Defense Minister acknowledge this as proof that the President has failed in the issue of security. Unfortunately, these killings do not usually mention “the forgotten victims of assassinations and mystery murders in Uganda” which includes the innocent, low-profile Ugandans caught in the midst of political assassinations. Despite this, the president went ahead to warn that that politics of defiance will not be tolerated in 2019.

In the end, political defiance is emerging in Uganda, but not because Ugandans seek it out by nature. Rather, it stems from the discontent arising from the growing militarization of Uganda’s streets and political rallies in the name of neutralizing imminent threats in response to the inadequacies of the state. This deviance also comes from the fact that the current pro-government politicians no longer care about the welfare of the majority of Ugandans, but are busy planning lavish expenditures which includes funeral plans that could cost around 68 Ugandan million shillings each (approximately $18,038.33).

As the majority of people remain in poverty, the country’s economy staggers with new taxes such as the social media tax and Mobile Money tax which in retrospect, hurt the marginalized further. But then again, Uganda’s increased deviance was also ignited by the President himself, who bluntly admitted “to only caring for his family and not his country”, the country he liberated and had sworn to protect. It is from such labels that his critics see him as “a dictator with nothing left to promise Uganda”, and call for a peaceful transition of power before Uganda descends into total chaos, before it is too late.

By Ibrahim Bahati

Ibrahim Bahati is a MasterCard Scholar at The American University of Beirut studying an Msc in Rural Community Development. Ibrahim is also a recent Global People's Summit Fellow (2018).

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