Not too long ago, I had a conversation with an old friend. We discussed a wide range of global issues and accidentally stumbled on Uganda. My friend confirmed what others have been saying that Uganda and Museveni have become indivisible – you cannot discuss Uganda meaningfully without putting Museveni at the center. He added a new dimension – Museveni is two persons in one. He elaborated by observing that what Museveni says about Uganda is often different from what he does. He emphasized that the difference between rhetoric and action is planned. He suggested an analysis of what Museveni says about democracy and what has actually occurred on the ground. Below are the findings.
Museveni has stressed that meaningful democracy must embrace “government of the people, by the people and for the people”. He adds that in the case of Uganda democracy must be three-dimensional: “parliamentary democracy, popular democracy and a decent level of living for every Ugandan… There should be an elected government, elected at regular intervals and such elections must be free of corruption and manipulation of the population… There must be people’s committees at the village, Muluka [parish], gombolola [sub-county], saza [county] and district level…
“Democracy in politics, however, is not possible without a reasonable level of living for all the people of Uganda. An illiterate, sick, superstitious Ugandan does not really take part in the political life of the country even when there is formal democracy. It is normally the local elite, pandering to the various schemes of the unprincipled factions of the national elite that manipulate the population on behalf of the latter with bribes, misinformation, taking advantage of their ignorance… it must be pointed out that the immediate problem of Uganda is not economic, but political. When the political questions were mishandled, the economic problems ensued; and unless the political question is amicably resolved, there will be no economic recovery in Uganda” (Y. Museveni 1985).
In an interview with Richard Hall, Dr. Ronald Batta, then minister of state for defense, confirmed that the revival of Uganda’s economy depended on “raising the political consciousness” of the ordinary Ugandans (New African March 1986).
Museveni underscored loud and clear that the people are the sovereign force in Uganda and anybody against the people is an enemy of the country. He added “The people should be able to hire and fire any government. The sovereign people in the land must be the population, not the government. The government should not be the master, but the servant of the population”(Africa Events March 1986).
Although not based on the classical western-style democracy of political parties, Uganda’s democratic revolution had transferred a great deal of decision-making power from the center to the villages and districts. Thus, decision-making power has been handed to the people through locally-elected resistance councils (Africa Events September 1986). This is a grassroots democracy where villages elect their own committees through which they voice local problems and make recommendations.
“Village committees would elect parish committees, which would elect semi [sub]-county committees, which would elect county committees, which would elect district committees, which ultimately would elect people to the top legislature…The smallest should have a voice. Those aspiring to the highest offices would have to listen…When Uganda was completely secure within its own borders and a census had been held, then you would talk about elections” (African Concord February 13, 1986). In theory, this is democracy. Let us examine the practical part.
All eligible citizens have the democratic right to elect candidates of their choice without interference whatsoever. Village elections (LC I) were held in my village while I was there on vacation. Before the elections word had gone around that anybody who was perceived to be a supporter of Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC) which essentially meant Protestants should not be elected because they had their chances and messed up the country. The overwhelming majority of elected officials were Catholics and the process was repeated in subsequent elections with similar results, introducing two problems. First, free and fair elections have not seen light of day in that village. Second, and perhaps worse, some of the elected officials are illiterate. At one time the village elected a secretary who was completely illiterate. He justified that although he was not lucky to go to school, he has a good memory and knows everything that is discussed, some recorded by others on his behalf. And yet there are literate Protestants willing to serve but cannot be elected because it is now the Catholics’ turn to ‘govern and eat’. Worst of all the elected officials were not paid for their services. In a situation of absolute poverty which has yet to be addressed adequately, bribery and corruption have become rampant and undermined the essence of democracy.
The leading Democratic Party figures believed that resistance councils were established not to launch democracy but to benefit the National Resistance Movement (NRM) of Museveni. They noted “the NRM’s creation of village committees was intended to cut the old political parties off from their grassroots following” (New African March 1986).
At the national level democracy has run into trouble as well from National Resistance Council (NRC) or national assembly to subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections. Hugh Roberts reported that “Museveni’s strategy since 1986 has been to build a national political structure in which all Ugandans can participate… including perhaps a return to pluralism…
“To this end, a national assembly, called the National Resistance Council (NRC), was established in general elections in March 1989, and a five-tier system of resistance councils at village, parish, sub-county, county and district level has been set up. A majority of NRC’s 278 Council Members are elected from each county (and include at least one woman from each district) but 10 army representatives, plus 38 leading veterans of the bush war (the so-called ‘Historicals’) and 20 nominees of Museveni himself give the government a solid core of non-elective support within NRC which controls its proceedings
“The NRC’s executive, the National Executive Committee [NEC], is even more clearly dominated by the non-elective element, comprising all 38 ‘Historicals’ again and 10 presidential nominees , who together outnumber the representatives of the country’s 34 districts.
“So… there is a firm grip at the top, much of this concentrated in Museveni’s own hands; he is head of state, minister of defense, commander in chief of the National Resistance Army, and chairman of both the NRC and the NEC, as well as the ruling party, the NRM” (South February 1991). Add on the fact that “the army, the real power-base of the NRM is still dominated by the westerners” (South February 1991) home of President Museveni, you begin to realize that what Museveni said about democracy in theory has not been implemented in practice. This is was not an accident.
Since the first presidential and parliamentary elections were conducted in 1996, Museveni has undermined the democratic process and outcomes. Paul Ssemogerere opposition presidential candidate in 1996 was harassed particularly in western Uganda considered the home base of Museveni. Ntungamo district birth place of President Museveni and Rukungiri district birth place of opposition presidential candidate Kiiza Besigye have witnessed the worst abuse of the democratic process. By way of an illustration, here is what happened in 2001 presidential elections in Rukungiri district.
“When a constituency in which Museveni got 99.9 percent of the vote in the 1996 election was perceived to have switched to home-boy Besigye, Museveni’s elite guard, which included his son, stepped in to wreak terror and grab voters’ cards in a house-to-house operation. One man was killed and several injured. Museveni got the vote” (Business in Africa April 2001). The elections in 2006 were marked by violence, intimidation and massive rigging. Ugandans expect the 2011 elections to be more undemocratic than before. The July 2010 riots throughout the country against the National Electoral Commission (NEC) and the security response using live ammunition in places like Rukungiri district gave a hint about what is likely to happen. Meanwhile, Museveni has continued to preach the virtues of democracy while doing the opposite on the ground thereby deceiving the international community.
Sadly, Ugandans wonder why the donor community that has imposed stiff conditionality on economic reforms and has ensured compliance has failed to do the same for democracy, free and fair elections in Uganda.