Foreign allies must speak out now to prevent future regional instability
On 15 June, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, joined the ‘10,000 Club’, a small coterie of world leaders who have held power for over 10,000 days – more than 27 years. In Africa, only Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola have remained in office longer.
Museveni is not in good company: each controls abusive security forces, manipulates national laws to carry out unlawful actions, and uses various means to silence critics and concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a corrupt inner circle.
President Museveni’s increasingly autocratic ways are often overlooked by Western powers that rely on his soldiers in the ongoing conflict in Somalia and in operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic. A recent US government report notes that throughout 2012, “Uganda remained a strong force for regional stability, coordination, and counterterrorism efforts”.
But evidence of the lack of internal stability is mounting and world powers would be wise to connect Uganda’s internal problems to the potential for regional instability in the longer term.
Silencing the critics
President Museveni’s government has steadily tightened a noose around the media, civil society, the political opposition, and anyone else who might criticise his governance style. In 2012, government officials threatened a range of non-governmental organisations working on sensitive issues such as corruption, land, and financial transparency in natural resource extraction. His ministers also threatened to de-register local groups for “negative political activism".
Intimidation of journalists has marked various episodes of his long tenure. At the start of May, police forcibly shut down two independent newspapers - the Daily Monitor and Red Pepper – after articles about alleged plans to usher the president’s son to power angered him. They reopened at the start of this month but are operating in a severely restricted manner.
Over a dozen members of parliament have faced police interrogations and in some cases criminal charges for speaking out or participating in demonstrations against government policy. Opposition leader Kizza Besigye ended up being placed under “preventive” house arrest when he tried to attend demonstrations or address public gatherings.
Protests have been met with intimidation, arbitrary arrests and unnecessary lethal force. In 2009 and 2011, security forces shot and killed protesters and bystanders at political demonstrations – no-one was ever punished. The government dispatched police to shut down four radio stations by force in 2009 but none to investigate the killings of its own citizens at the hands of security forces in the same month. And last year the attorney general declared A4C, a group organising demonstrations over rising food and fuel prices, an unlawful society that was “dangerous to the peace and order in Uganda” and banned all their activities.
As Museveni’s rule continues, so does the repression of criticism about development. With increasing frequency, the government labels critics of the impact of foreign investment projects in the country “economic saboteurs”. A proposed amendment to the Press and Journalist Act would require newspapers to obtain annual licenses. It says that publication of any material “that amounts to economic sabotage” would lead to licence revocation and up to two years in prison for the editors.
In 2011, one organisation’s work was said to “border on sabotage of government programs” when it encouraged community members to push for fair compensation during a government agency’s purchase of their land.
In the wake of the 2011 elections and protests over commodities prices, President Museveni announced that he wanted to eliminate bail for several offences, including the vaguely defined “economic sabotage”. Many activists felt the president sought to ensure detention of suspects for long periods without trial.
But without free expression, assembly and association, Uganda will not be a stable place for long-term foreign investment. The changes across the Arab world have not only depleted the members of the 10,000 Club, but have also shown that eventually people will risk a great deal to demand their rights.
Rather than further entrench President Museveni’s government and security forces, donor partners should speak out about the raft of rights violations loudly and consistently, and well before the 2016 elections. The president appears to be gearing up to run again, in what will be his 30th year in power. Recent events – a cabinet shake-up and changes in the army leadership – indicate that he likely is cementing plans to quash resistance to his preferred successor – possibly his son. Uganda has not had a peaceful political transition since independence in 1962.
President Museveni often points out the strides that Uganda has made since the brutal days of Idi Amin. Not only is that a painfully low standard for comparison but any gains will be quickly lost if Uganda cannot stay stable and survive a political transition without violence. After 10,000 days of President Museveni’s rule, many Ugandans are asking themselves if their rights will continue to unravel for thousands more.
Maria Burnett is a senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. Follow @MariaHRWAfrica