We must reject the business of “criminalising” and vilifying political support for a party other than ours
At the centre of Uganda’s deepening political crisis is a large freedom deficit and an absence of democracy. The claim that the presence of several registered political parties and the ritual of regular elections every five years is evidence of democracy is an illusion. Ugandan parliamentary and presidential campaigns are a predictable exercise in state-sponsored violence against the Opposition, limited reactive violence against ruling party activists, obscene and widespread purchase of voter support with cash and creative vote counting.
Elections in most countries involve money for advertising and funding of the campaign teams. Candidates make promises of development projects and other services to communities. However, paying cash to individual voters is an anti-democratic activity that is a crime in many jurisdictions. Ugandan “elections” are a business transaction akin to buying onions at a roadside market. The commercialisation of voter support is so entrenched and so widespread that ideas and party manifestos are meaningless ornaments. They don’t count in most voter’s decision-making.
The chief practitioner of this business of cash-for-votes is President Yoweri Museveni. The President, a highly sought after chief mourner, chief wedding guest, chief fundraiser, chief worshipper and chief-everything-else, obliges his people with cash-stuffed khaki envelopes. The people know that as his popularity continues to sink, his willingness to buy their support is on the upswing.
For his part, the President knows that the majority of Ugandans have an extraordinary appetite for “free” cash. Most peasants are perfectly happy to sell their votes for Shs1,000 (about $0.26). The political elite charge higher fees. It is a symbiotic parasitic relationship that makes a mockery of “democracy.”
As insurance, the President makes overt demands for support as a condition for “giving” communities development projects and other services to which they are entitled. And true to his word, Museveni withholds much needed development projects and services from constituencies that do not vote for him. This blackmail, which he has effectively used to keep Opposition strongholds underdeveloped, shreds to pieces the concept of free choice and dissent.
Where cash fails to sway the voters, the regime employs violence against its opponents. The most recent manifestation of this was in Arua three weeks ago. It was a bad investment. Museveni’s candidate was defeated and the extreme violence only exposed the nakedness of the fake “democracy.”
Whereas State-sponsored electoral violence has been the rulers’ tradition for nearly 20 years, Arua shredded what remained of Uganda’s international image and finally placed the current military regime in the same category as its ruthless predecessors. When cash and bloody violence fail to yield the desired result in presidential “elections”, the State uses massive rigging of the vote count. Ballot box stuffing, supplemented with completely manufactured presidential “election results” that are fed to the official Electoral Commission, ensure predictable “victory” by Mr Museveni.
Incredibly, the news media, including this newspaper, publish the fake results and report that so-and-so “was defeated by Mr Museveni.” An alternative truth becomes the official record. When an aggrieved presidential candidate petitions the Supreme Court to annul the fake results, the justices issue a judgement that details multiple fraudulent acts. Then their Lordships declare that the fraudulent results reflected the will of the people.
With the fake democracy legitimized by the Supreme Court, the Pyrrhic Victory is celebrated by the ruler and his extensive network of enforcers of the autocracy. Things return to a superficial calm, except for opposition supporters who continue to be harassed in subtle ways, with many denied business or employment opportunities, for example.
It is an illusion. There is no democracy in Uganda. The sooner we accept this fact, the better the prospects for finding a peaceful solution to the political crisis in the land. To continue with the pretence is to hide our heads in the sand and to postpone inevitable violence and state collapse. History tells us so.
But before a brutally honest dialogue about democracy can take place, we need to consider our concept of freedom. The former cannot exist without the latter. And it must start with each individual’s self-examination on the question of freedom. Do you really believe in and exercise freedom? Do you promote other people’s freedom? Are you a democrat?
One of the challenges we see in Uganda’s political parties and other Opposition ranks is deep intolerance for choice and dissent. Whereas ritual leadership elections are held up as examples of intraparty democracy, political cults substitute for vigorous debate and free choice. Intolerance for dissent within the ruling party and the opposition parties is on display. One who disagrees with the party leader is labelled an NRM mole. Vulgar abuse is piled upon those who choose a different approach or party leader. Lies are disseminated as truth.
What kind of freedom must we fight for, then? It is the freedom for every citizen to own an opinion, and to be comfortable with holding and expressing that opinion without negative consequences. This simple statement is at the heart of democracy and sustainable peace and stability.
We must fight for freedom that enables Robert “Bobi Wine” Kyagulanyi to oppose and challenge Museveni without being harassed and beaten up. That same freedom must enable Moses “Bebe Cool” Ssali to support Museveni without being pelted with bottles and plastic chairs.
We must reject the business of “criminalising” and vilifying political support for a party other than ours. If I fail to defend Bebe Cool’s right to openly support Museveni and his party, then my own freedom to disagree with the President becomes null and void. I have no business trying to persuade people to leave the NRM to join me if I abuse those who choose to leave the opposition to join Museveni and his party.
A genuine democrat defends everyone else’s right to hold an opinion, to disagree with him, to enjoy complete freedom of political mobility and even to commit political suicide.
When we embrace and defend the rights of others to hold and express opinions out of their free will, and to freely choose whom to support without being harassed, democracy and justice fall into place. Fear and violence retreat to a past where they belong. Our compass finally points towards a future full of hope, sustainable development and discovery of Uganda’s elusive peace.