After surviving two decades of economic chaos and civil unrest, Uganda has rebounded to become a relatively peaceful, stable and prosperous nation. In the north, however, the Lord’s Resistance Army lead by Joseph Kony continues to perpetrate massacres and mutilation, with Kony promoting the desire to run the country along the lines of the Biblical Ten Commandments. The violence has displaced more than 1.6 million people and tens of thousands of civilians have been killed or kidnapped. The government has failed to secure a permanent cease-ﬁre, a fact that is continuing to cripple further democratization of the country.
The ﬁrst few years of President Yoweri Museveni’s presidency saw a number of democratic reforms that have been credited with substantially improving human rights, including promotion and establishment of a vibrant civil society and opening up the media space in the country — private radio and TV have mushroomed since the government loosened controls in 1993. Uganda has also won praise from the international community for its vigorous campaign against HIV/AIDS, which has helped reduce the prevalence of the virus to single-digit ﬁgures. However, with declining popularity ratings and slim margins of victory in both the 2001 and 2006 elections, President Museveni has put in motion tactics and mechanisms that have the effect of limiting freedoms ahead of the 2011 elections.
One such move, which raised alarms for international donors and human rights organizations, is the removal of a constitutional limit on presidential terms in 2005, paving the way for Mr. Musevini to seek a third elected term. Furthermore, the NGO Act of 2006 severely limits and hampers the work of human rights defenders, with the government adopting a very blunt and narrow deﬁnition of NGOs by effectively limiting them to service delivery organizations. Another major step backwards in democratization is the renewed and active role the military currently enjoys in the political arena; army officials campaign in support of President Musevini, and select seats are reserved for the military in the National Assembly. Yet another damning blow is the recent steps the Ugandan government has taken to limit press freedom; it is currently pushing forward legislation that would allow state security agents to intercept mobile, print, and electronic communications, which will severely limit journalists’ ability to maintain conﬁdentiality when gathering information.
Failures/stress points from past elections:
- Failure of opposition parties to effectively set the agenda on issues like the economy and electoral reforms
- Lack of civic education
- Lack of level playing ﬁeld for opposition candidates; unequal access to media; harassment of opposition candidate Besigye; trends of bribery and intimidation in the immediate pre-election period
- Limited training of polling officials
- Inefficient complaints process
- Failure of opposition to shed urban/elitists image to embrace rural population that constitutes more than 80% of voters
- Disunity, failed alliances, inter-party and intra-party ﬁghting of opposition parties
- Single focus on removing Musevini from office left other elected members of opposition parties exposed and on their own. Opposition seats in the National Assembly went from 100 to 64 seats in 2006
- Failure to create critical mass around issues
- Failure to push an alternative vehicle for change outside parliament to achieve minimum constitutional changes such as return of presidential term limits
- Failure to act on the dissatisfaction of most Ugandans with the way the country is being run, not just on issues of bread and butter but also on matters of democracy, governance and national institutions.
A multiple prong approach is needed to affect changes prior to the 2011 elections. The short terms needs are: 1) strong civic education on political rights of citizens, 2) a shift from opposing parties to identifying a couple of capable candidates willing to both attack Musevini and articulate reforms they will bring to the country, and 3) a strong, independent judiciary system.
Different institutions like civil society organizations, government bodies and the media should all constructively engage each other and learn from one another on what they can do to ensure that the country holds free and fair elections.
1. Electoral Commission Past elections have been widely noted as unfair, with major rigging of ballots and blatant abuses of citizens and opposition leaders by security personnel employed by the ruling party, Museveni’s NRM party. The negative perception that the Electoral Commission is not an independent and neutral actor further limits its effectiveness on advocating for key reforms and implementing new strategies ahead of the 2011 elections. On the side of the Electoral Commission, they blame delayed funding and slow adoption of key amendments to electoral laws as reasons for lack of progress and visible action.
NGOs should coordinate amongst themselves to strengthen advocacy, message tailoring, and introduce new civic education initiatives to educate the public on their rights and the status of implementing key electoral reforms ahead of the election. NGOs should also coordinative activities and invite key counterparts from Sudan who have recently undergone changes with their electoral process and lessons learned from dealing with election violence.
2. Human rights documentation
Members of the Joint Anti-terrorism Task Force (JATT) and military intelligence are primarily responsible for the violence that occurred on past election days (and other times). Tactics have included illegal detention, harassment of opposition leaders and citizens, and limiting access of families and relatives to detainees. The overwhelming evidence of illegal detention and torture by JATT in Kololo have been met with official denials, excuses and contradictions. Most importantly, there have been no investigations or prosecutions. Torture committed by state security organizations is not a partisan issue. The ruling party and the opposition parties should work together to criminalize it in law and eliminate it in practice.
NGOs should encourage collaboration between human rights groups in Uganda and South Africa to discuss various methods of human rights documentation, and educate activists on the ground on sensitive and politically savvy approaches to dealing with detainees and sharing their stories. Trainings can be conducted via two-week study tours to SA, workshops and trainings on human rights documentation, and the use of skilled international nonproﬁt experts to empower human rights defenders and human rights organizations on core advocacy and communication skills.
3. Freedom of speech – media, journalists
It is no surprise that robust and critical journalism has rubbed those in power the wrong way. Journalists have increasingly found themselves subjected to arrest, violence, and harassment for critical reporting, and media houses routinely receive censuring calls from the President’s Office. While many of the charges brought against journalists are legally untenable, the state continues to press ahead to intimidate and discourage journalists, resulting in increased self-censorship.
Uganda’s recent performance in the annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index has worsened; the country ranked 107th out of 173 countries in 2008. In 2007, it ranked 96th out of 169. In addition, new licensing laws discourage citizen engagement – jail terms await those who practice journalism without official registration.
Action is needed now – the Ugandan government must recognize that state control of media is unacceptable and review laws that restrict press freedom. Advocating for removal of all these new restrictions on media laws by journalists alone will not solve the problem – support by civil society and other critical readers in Uganda can help advance changes. NGOs, by sharing tactics used by journalists in other repressive regimes, can also help push forward much needed changes in Uganda’s media laws. Initiating an international campaign led by key journalists from the U.S. and foreign governments can help put pressure on the government, educate the citizenry and empower local journalists.
4. Rule of law/judiciary
Considering that Uganda now has a high visibility on the United Nations Security Council and the fact that more international attention will be given to the upcoming elections, President Musevni has a constitutional duty to safeguard the laws of Uganda and to promote the welfare and rights of all its citizens – even those who might pose a threat to him in the 2011 elections. Parliament also has a critical role to play in curtailing abuses by JATT. Certain committees such as Defense and Internal Affairs and Presidential Affairs have a legal mandate to examine and comment on policy matters of the military, police and intelligence organizations. Committee members should urgently engage in this work and see that there is adequate civilian oversight for all security organizations. The courts are the only lawful place to determine an individual’s guilt or innocence, based on due process and respect for individual rights.
NGOs should conduct trainings and workshops for lawyers and other human rights defenders with lawyers and activists from countries/regions of election violence that will include topics such as prison monitoring, judicial reform, minority rights and other conﬂict issues, and proper human rights violations documentation. At the end of these trainings and workshops, participants will be able to consolidate information learned and produce concrete strategic plans that will include new tools on strengthening the judicial system, methods for working with key committee members in Parliament, and tactics and tools for limiting obstruction in investigating cases.
5. Civil society – advocacy
A thriving but politically ineffective civil society advances no state. NGOs eager to continue contracts for service delivery and a refusal to directly oppose the government has meant that citizens have developed a general apathy for democratic institutions. The gap leaves key leaders in media, human rights defense, government watchdog groups, and other core organizations that play a vital role in the future direction of the country without the expertise to effect sustained long-term change. Direct advocacy campaigns targeted to the removal of the NGO Act of 2006 should also be implemented – some work on this issue has already begun but civil society organizations lack the skills needed to effect positive change.
Working with emerging Ugandan civic leaders and key NGOs, NGOs should bring these individuals to the U.S. on a professional fellowship program that will bolster their capacity in advocacy, policy reform, and other advanced skills to support continued democracy and human rights efforts. Participants will gain advanced experience needed to develop the civil society infrastructure for the country. This solution will have an impact beyond the 2011 elections, as a drastic change in current operating procedures of NGOs may not be achieved in the year and half left before the next election.