In the United States, which often promotes itself as the global gold standard of democracy, Eliot Engel, the Democrat House Representative for Bronx and lower Westchester County (New York City) vacated office early January, having lost the seat to a progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman, an African-American former elementary school principal.
During his last leg in office in December, Mr Engel, as the hawkish chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to the former Secretaries of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Steven Mnuchin, recommending that they invoke the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to sanction top military and police commanders involved in egregious human rights violations in the lead to Uganda’s 2021 elections.
Mr Pompeo briefly indicated that they were closing the situation.
Two weeks later, the New Jersey Democrat Senator Bob Menendez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tabled a resolution to push Washington to compel the Ugandan government “to improve the election environment and create conditions for credible elections.”
The resolution specifically stated that elections in Uganda since 1996 “have not met internationally accepted standards for free and fair polls as the ruling party has leveraged access to state resources and institutions to tilt the electoral balance in its favour.”
It further called for targeted sanctions and visa restrictions on actors involved in perpetrating or abetting human rights abuses during and after the elections.
It remains unclear whether the State Department is considering any action.
In the volatile Great Lakes region, the Kampala regime has been an anchorman of stability, including running security errands, more significantly fighting the al-Shabaab in Somalia, to the delight of the State Department, the White House, and the Department of Defence in Washington D.C, and across the Atlantic in Brussels.
In the aftermath of the 2016 general election and bitter exchanges, including the then US ambassador to the UN, Ms Samantha Powers telling the Security Council that President Museveni “was a risk to Uganda’s future” stability, they turned to him for counsel to defuse the crisis in Juba following a fallout between South Sudan president Salva Kiir and his embattled deputy, Riek Machar. Fast-forward to 2021, a crisis is already brewing in Somalia.
People familiar with the goings-on in Washington told this newspaper that Menendez’s resolution “failed to catch fire” without action, including among others widespread protests, by the Ugandan diaspora.
Throughout December, there were calls circulating to some Ugandans in the US to engage widely their respective Senators to support Menendez’s resolution. The calls came to no avail.
Mainstream media, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and Foreign Policy magazine have in recent weeks accorded space to Robert Kyagulanyi, alias Bobi Wine, to highlight the deteriorating democratic space back home, including human rights violations such as extra-judicial killings and arbitrary arrests and kidnaps of his supporters.
President Museveni, on the other hand, appears unfazed, even after an election marred by unprecedented violence that started in November 2017 with the bulldozing of MPs to remove the age limit from the Constitution.
The violence in the parliamentary chamber then spiralled outwards to the political process, starting with the by-election in Arua Municipality.
The opposition’s options
In his address last weekend on the security situation in the country, President Museveni laughed off the resolution by the European Parliament to invoke their Magnitsky to sanction individuals and organisations responsible for human rights violations during and after the polls.
During a meeting on Thursday at State House Entebbe, Mr Museveni told the European envoys to stop involving themselves in—Ugandan— matters that they are not conversant with.
Throughout the political campaigns, the President lashed out at the US and EU, and routinely accused Kyagulanyi of being an “agent” of the neo-colonialists.
Mr Kyagulanyi is convinced the international community can push President Museveni in an uncomfortable corner. Not so everyone.
At a press conference early this month, four-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye and Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party leader Patrick Oboi Amuriat called upon the Opposition forces and Ugandans to unite and cause a regime change in the country.
“If people unite and decide what to do, it will not take two weeks to remove the junta and if what is going on is not sufficient reason enough to remove this regime, then maybe nothing will happen,” Dr Besigye said.
Dr Besigye who has challenged President Museveni’s victories twice, in 2001 and 2006, in the Supreme Court in the last days has urged Ugandans to stop expecting a solution from the outside.
In the book Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution, author Daniel Kalinaki recounted how Besigye’s brash and aggressive style had never really endeared him to the West and where Mr Museveni was charming and affable, Besigye was stiff.
“Where Museveni humoured diplomats with tales of African history or the provenance of his beloved herds of cattle. Besigye never veered from the monotonous diatribes on policy failure and the democratic deficit in Uganda,” Mr Kalinaki wrote.
During the Thursday meeting with European envoys, President Museveni reminded the envoys of the political history of Africa in general and Uganda in particular, besides the other political, social and economic discussions.
This, Kyagulanyi and his National Unity Platform (NUP), as the new face of the political Opposition, have to contend with. And when the election petition before the Supreme Court is disposed of in a month’s time, they will be presented with the enormous task of offering an alternative or finding new ways of keeping relevant.
FDC, which under Dr Besigye, has [re]defined the Opposition since the 2006 election, has also been at the crossroads for a while, since the November 2012 party elections which exposed deep internal faultiness.
It withered the storm through the 2016 general election, until the ascent of Kyagulanyi and NUP.
Political analyst Nicholas Ssengoba says Dr Besigye cannot be judged as “a spent force.”
“The just concluded election specifically vindicates him in what he has been saying all along that as long as the rules remain the same, it is going to be impossible to have meaningful change,” Mr Ssengoba says.
“With time, he could as well bounce back as unifying factor; at times you have to die to be born again.”
At the moment, Mr Ssengoba says, “we are likely to see an insistence of a movement” riding on the back of the escalating youth unemployment, grand scale corruption and patronage, uneven distribution of the national cake, and an underwhelming economy battered by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This particular election was untidy with people killed, locked up, maimed; it is when people think they are vulnerable, pushed into that corner, that they will be forced to think,” he says. “Bobi is a young man and will continue to be seen as leader of that movement. It all depends on the cards he will play.”
The Electoral Commission declared President Museveni winner of the January 14 polls with 58 per cent of the 10.3 million valid votes cast while Kyagulanyi came in second place with 35 per cent, and FDC’s Patrick Amuriat came in third place with 3.26 per cent.
NUP clinched 61 seats in the next Parliament, eclipsing FDC which garnered 33, to become the biggest political party by representation. But what the future holds for the new party, which rode on the tide of resentment against the ruling NRM party, especially in the central region, no one knows.
Dr Besigye says FDC did not lose as such in the next Parliament. “They had 30-something MPs and they still are, but even if you had 200 MPs there is nothing you would change. This, history has showed us,” he asserts.
“Our focus should be getting power from the gunmen. You saw how during the age limit debate Parliament was attacked and the Speaker was helpless, so the question of the numbers in Parliament is diversionary; our institutions are captive,” he says.
“Mr Museveni has progressively become unpopular so he has to deploy more. Otherwise, what happened from the word go is standard; nothing surprised me in this election. Sometimes one considers that the level of violence will not exceed what one has seen; the level of violence went beyond that which was necessary; the abductions and people dying in detention is something I didn’t see at the beginning; buts it’s the scheme of things.”
The road not taken
Dr Besigye argues that: “I have pointed out over and again that it is absolutely ridiculous to use a patently fraudulent election to analyse what its results mean; it’s contemptible and I have expressed as much dismay, especially of journalists saying Museveni got this, Besigye got that; all these are totally fake things.”
What has come to life in the recent weeks is that both Dr Besigye, a former physician of President Museveni during the 1981-1986 Bush War, and Mr Kyagulanyi differ on approaches.
Whereas the former has revived his calls for ‘Plan B’, the latter is rallying the international community; he has written to the International Criminal Court interesting them in the ongoing human rights violations, and on Wednesday submitted a human rights petition detailing his supporters he says have been abducted and detained by State agencies to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The government has construed ‘Plan B’ to mean violence. In the back-to-back responses to the US and EU threats on sanctions, Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa alluded to this in justifying the deployment of the army, including elite commando units previously fighting al-Shabaab militias in Somalia, in Kampala and surrounding areas.
Previously in 2016, Dr Besigye pushed for boycott of the elections unless government introduced electoral reforms as demanded by Opposition political parties and civil society organisations but in vain. FDC also boycotted the disorderly, The Democratic Alliance, Opposition alliance.
After the 2006 elections, he hinted on not ever offering himself again in an election without political and electoral reforms, only to make U-turn. After 2011 and 2016 elections, Dr Besigye led or was involved in public protests, but they were snuffed out by a combined force of the military and police.
In the run-up to the 2021 polls, Dr Besigye, who fell out with the regime after authoring a critical paper in 1999 detailing how President Museveni was betraying the ideals of their Bush War, kept everyone guessing about whether he would contest.
In August 2020, he put to rest the speculation by announcing he would not contest but also announced that he had not abdicated the struggle to unseat Mr Museveni.
Political economy researcher Frederick Golooba-Mutebi told Sunday Monitor that the Opposition has “largely not done itself any favour by failing to sit down” and come up with some kind of joint plan of how far they want to move forward.
“Every time they attempt they failed, and I’m not sure they’ll be successful this time,” Dr Golooba says. “But again, let us not underplay the context within which they operate. Opposition parties in this country don’t have money, don’t have committed members but rather part-time members doing other things and yet the job of organising politically and successfully requires full-time commitment. That is why Museveni and his group were able to fight an insurgency and win it because it was a full-time commitment.”
Matters are made worse as President Museveni is not interested in “dialogue.” Every time the President finds himself in a spot of bother, he hints on dialoguing with his opponents but soon as he wiggles out he becomes ambivalent.
In his victory speech on January 18, Mr Museveni, who appeared in combative mood and lashed at out at the central region for rejecting him, Western powers and Kyagulanyi “for not being a youth” anymore, hinted on being open to dialogue as long as it is peaceful.
Weeks later, he contradicted himself while launching the made in Uganda Covid-19 therapeutic drug.
The process to dialogue, Dr Golooba says, is one that dates back to 2009 with formation of the Inter-party Organisation for Dialogue (Ipod) and “has made little progress because President Museveni has never had a genuine interest in this” and even with the regime in its inevitable stage of a transition, “it is something that is not about to happen.”
So, what alternatives does the Opposition have? Quite frankly, it is complicated.
What has come to life in the recent weeks is that both Dr Besigye, a former physician to President Museveni during the 1981-1986 Bush War, and Mr Kyagulanyi differ on approaches.
Whereas the former has revived his calls for ‘Plan B’, the latter is rallying the international community; he has written to the International Criminal Court interesting them in the ongoing human rights violations, and on Wednesday submitted a human rights petition detailing his supporters he says have been disappeared by state agencies to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.