What the results of Uganda’s presidential election means for democracy in Africa

Presidential hopeful at a campaign rally in Iganga (Source: @HEBobiwine/Twitter)

On Thursday January 14, Ugandans went to the polls to vote for president in an election widely condemned as unfree and unfair. President Museveni’s declared re-election for a sixth-term dealt a huge blow to democracy, crushing the hope that many Ugandans had for choosing a new leader.

The highly anticipated election betweenUganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for 35 years, and Bobi Wine, a musician turned politician who has garnered waves of support from the Ugandan youth and opposition, demonstrated the near impossibility of defeating such an autocrat through elections in that country .

Ahead of the election, the campaign period was marred by violence with numerous killings and human rights abuses being reported. Days before the election, President Museveni, defended the state’s repressive moves to ban social media platforms like Facebook, and the violent crackdown against protesters leading up to the election.

Museveni, who came to power in 1986, has managed to remain in office through constitutional changes that scrapped the presidential age limit. In 2016, Museveni won a fifth term in office, and shortly thereafter Uganda’s parliament approved a constitutional change that would allow him to seek re-election for a sixth term. President Museveni’s government has a long record of human rights violations ranging from periodic crackdowns on freedom of speech and expression to regular arrests of political opponents. Staunch government critics are often arrested, such as Ugandan women’s rights activist Stella Nyanzi, who in 2019 was given an 18-month jail sentence after being found guilty of “cyber harassment” against the president for a poem she wrote. In April 2019, the licenses of 13 radio and television stations that had covered the arrest of Bobi Wine were suspended.

Wine, who sought to end President Museveni’s 35-year rule, managed to garner the support of millions of Ugandans, who are desperate for change. During his campaign, Wine and his team have been the target of multiple arrests. In November alone, Wine was arrested twice, his second arrest prompting deadly protests that left at least 54 people dead. On January 13, one day before the presidential election, Wine filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court (ICC) against President Museveni and his government, accusing them of “incitement to murder, the abuse of protesters, and arrests and beatings of political figures and human rights lawyers.”

Wine has been vocal about the human rights abuses committed by the Ugandan government, and has called out the lack of action from the international community to hold President Museveni’s government accountable. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs titled The West Helped Cripple Uganda’s Democracy, Wine provided an account of how the international community, including the United States, are complicit in helping President Museveni stay in power. Wine writes:

“It pains me to say this, but the international community is part of our enduring problem in Uganda. Over the years, Museveni has managed to position himself as a military ally and development darling of many Western governments that look the other way when it comes to his horrendous human rights record. During the 1990s, the Museveni regime funneled weapons to rebels in Sudan on behalf of the administration of President Bill Clinton; today, Ugandan forces fight in the U.S.- and European-supported African Union Mission in Somalia and serve as guards under U.S. command in Iraq. Museveni also embraced neoliberal economic reforms that have been hard on the poor but endeared him to institutions such as the World Bank.”

While it is important that the U.S. supports Uganda in its peacekeeping efforts and its support for refugees, this does not mean that the U.S. should ignore the grave human rights violations that have been committed by the Ugandan government. The fact that the U.S. has turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in Uganda is reflected in the fact that no sanctions, financial or otherwise, have been placed on Ugandan officials, including President Museveni, for their role in fueling the violence that has rocked the nation for the past year. Over the past four years, the U.S. government has placed one sanction on a Ugandan official accused of gross human rights violations. In 2019, the U.S. Department of State publicly designated Kale Kayihura, the former Inspector General of the Uganda Police Force and its commanding officer from 2005–2018, after receiving information of his involvement in “torture and/or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, through command responsibility of the Flying Squad, a specialized unit of the Uganda Police Force” that directly reported to him.

Despite decades of financial support from Washington, the U.S. was forced to cancel its observation of the January 14th election, because most of its accreditation requests were denied. While there is little the U.S. could have done to ensure that a free and fair election in Uganda, the incoming administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris must find ways to hold Ugandan officials and security forces accountable for their role in the violent repression that has unfolded prior to the elections. One step the U.S. can take to promote democracy in Uganda and the protection of human rights is to place Magnitsky Sanctions on human rights abusers in Uganda, as recommended by former Representative Eliot. L. Engel in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in December 2020. As Rep. Engel pointed out, the U.S. must do more than just using “diplomatic rhetoric” to ensure that President Museveni’s government respects and protects human rights.

The incidents that have unfolded and continue to unfold in Uganda are indicative of a larger political problem in Africa, where incumbent leaders like Guinea’s Alpha Condé and Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara — both of whom have won a third term in office — hold on to power through constitution-changes and use of force. As we enter 2021, 12 African countries will hold elections that will determine the future of these nations.

However a positive future can only be accomplished if the proper institutions are put in place to promote and safeguard democracy, and make room for forward-thinking leaders who can design policies that adequately address the social, economic and political grievances of citizens.

Nani Detti
Communications Intern,
Africa Program

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The Center for International Policy Africa Program analyzes U.S. foreign policy toward the nations of Africa to promote greater positive U.S. engagement