Uganda govt must ensure elections are free and fair

Monday August 16 2010

By Russ Feingold

Last month, Uganda was targeted by horrific bombings that killed 76 people and wounded scores more. We all continue to mourn for the victims of this cowardly attack and sympathise with the people and government of Uganda.

The United States has long had a strong friendship and partnership with Uganda. We have worked closely with Uganda to address the crisis in Somalia. We have also supported the Ugandan army’s operations across Central Africa to dismantle the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Meanwhile, as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council since 2009, Uganda has worked with us on many important initiatives. And finally, we have long provided support for the Ugandan government’s efforts to combat HIV/Aids, improve access to education, and more.

This has been a fruitful relationship for both countries and it is in both of our interests to continue to collaborate. That is why I believe we must encourage and work with Uganda’s leaders to ensure that their elections next February are peaceful, fair and free.

Uganda’s past elections have been marred by reports of fraud, intimidation, and politically motivated prosecutions of opposition candidates. If these upcoming elections follow that same pattern or worse, it will put the United States and our relationship with Kampala in a very difficult position. We might have to consider restrictions to our assistance and limiting our engagement with Uganda’s security forces.

Unfortunately, initial signs are worrying. In his annual testimony to Congress in February, the then Director of National Intelligence said that the Ugandan government “is not undertaking democratic reforms in advance of the elections scheduled for 2011.” Also, the State Department reported to Congress in April that the Ugandan government had taken no actions to further the independence of the Electoral Commission or to establish an accurate and verifiable voter registry.


In that same report, State noted that the government continues to restrict opposition parties’ freedom of movement and assembly and to impose restrictions on local media. Credible experts and human rights organisations have documented the government’s efforts to stifle free and independent political journalism.

These developments are disturbing not only in terms of Uganda’s political space and democratic institutions, but also when we consider the country’s stability. Riots in Buganda last September showed that regional and ethnic divisions remain strong in many parts of the country and that violence can erupt suddenly.

Since Uganda gained independence in 1962, political leaders have pitted groups against one another and used force to access and control power. This legacy endures, even though Uganda transitioned to a multiparty democracy five years ago.

Until there is a genuine effort to address these divisions, achieve national reconciliation and consolidate democracy, Uganda continues to be at risk of instability – a risk that will be heightened during the electoral period.

In the aftermath of the July 11th bombings, the Ugandan government will understandably need to address security issues, and we should offer our assistance in this regard.

But at the same time, it is equally important that the government reinvigorate its efforts to promote national unity and reconciliation. Divisions and upheaval surrounding February’s elections could undermine the country’s unity and potentially its stability.

It could also weaken the government’s international reputation and partnerships. Therefore, it is critical that the government take steps now to build public trust in the election process and the country’s democratic institutions.

As a true friend to Uganda, [USA] should press them to take these steps and provide support as appropriate. The stakes are too high to ignore these issues.

Mr Feingold, a Democrat, represents Wisconsin in the US Senate. He is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and chairs its Subcommittee on African Affairs. He’s also a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee