When Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army/Movement (NRA/M) took the reigns of power in Uganda after a five-year-long guerrilla war, Uganda was a country infamous for massive civilian killings and other human rights abuses on an enormous scale. During the military dictatorship of Idi Amin (1971-1979) and after the return to power of Milton Obote in 1980, hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed and many more were subjected to arbitrary arrest, beatings, torture, and other abuse.
The NRA/NRM took power in 1986 on a platform promising a "fundamental revolution" and not "a mere change of the guard."1 Since then, the NRM has enjoyed a virtual monopoly on political power in Uganda. Through a carefully managed political system, the NRM has been able to effectively neutralize political opposition which it characterizes as sectarian, divisive, and at odds with national unity.
In some areas, the human rights record of Uganda has improved significantly since the NRM took power. Although police and army abuse persist, the NRM has forged an army which is more disciplined and more conscious of the rights of civilians than its predecessors. Relative stability has returned to some areas of the country, but violent conflicts continue in the west and north of Uganda. The empowerment of women has been a key goal of the NRM administration, and the NRM administration has significantly increased the voice of women in government. The Uganda Human Rights Commission, established in 1996, has taken its mandate seriously and has investigated many human rights abuses. The change which has taken place in these and other areas is indisputable, and much appreciated by the majority of the Ugandan population. The steps taken by the Ugandan government to improve its human rights record deserve praise, and show more than a cosmetic commitment to human rights.
But the progressive policies pursued by the NRM in some areas of human rights protection contrast sharply with its policies in the political arena. Organized political activity has been outlawed in Uganda for the past twelve years, and the NRM government has not hesitated to resort to repressive measures when these legal restrictions on political activity are challenged. Numerous political rallies have been halted, some through force. Political activists who have challenged the NRM's hold on political power are frequently harassed and sometimes arbitrarily arrested. The NRM has demonized political parties, blaming them for all theabuses of the past in Uganda, although the NRM is itself to any outsider just that-a political party.
Human Rights Watch researchers traveled to Uganda in April and May 1998 to assess the human rights dimensions of the NRM's "no-party" or "movement" system of government and to document human rights abuses associated with the NRM's long monopoly of government. Abuses by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group operating in northern Uganda, were documented in Human Rights Watch's 1997 report, Scars of Death. This report focuses on the "movement" political system, analyzing its legal structures and actual operation against international human rights standards.
Legal Restrictions on Civil and Political Rights
A complex web of legal restrictions limits political opposition in Uganda. The new Ugandan constitution, adopted in 1995, allows political parties to exist in name but outlaws all the activities normally associated with political parties. Political organizations are prohibited from opening and operating branch offices, holding delegates' conferences, and holding public rallies. Political organizations are further prohibited from "sponsoring or offering a platform to or in any way campaigning for or against a candidate for any public elections." Finally, a vague clause prohibits political organizations from "carrying on any activities that may interfere with the movement political system for the time being in force."
The severe restrictions on independent political activity contained in the constitution will ultimately be supplemented by the Political Organizations Bill currently being considered by parliament. The draft currently under consideration maintains many of the severe restrictions on political rights. The bill would also create many obstacles for parties seeking the required registration, including high registration fees and requirements such as having founding members in one-third of Uganda's districts.
The Political Organizations Bill, if enacted, will not regulate political parties, but rather restrict them to the point of ineffectiveness. Many of the restrictions on political party activities currently in article 269 of the constitution are maintained. Political parties will continue to be prohibited from sponsoring or offering a platform to any candidate seeking electoral office, although the ruling NRM will continue to be able to do so. Severe sanctions are provided for any violation of the provisions of the bill.
The Movement System: Towards a One-Party State in Uganda?
Only one political organization in Uganda is exempted from the strict regulations placed on political activity in Uganda: the ruling National ResistanceMovement (NRM). The NRM has effectively excluded itself from regulation by characterizing itself not as a political party but as a "movement," fusing its structures with those of the Ugandan state, and creating a pyramid of "movement" structures from the village level to the national level. All Ugandans belong to the "movement," even those who oppose it: compulsory membership that is itself inconsistent with the right not to be forced to belong to an association. The "movement" structures are state-funded and are administered at the national level by a National Political Commissar, who is responsible for the political mobilization and education of the population. By denying that the NRM is a political party, the NRM avoids being forced to comply with the regulations imposed on opposition political parties, and by fusing its structures with the Ugandan state the NRM gains direct access to state funds and the powers of state mobilization. Since the NRM is not officially a political party, despite having the characteristics of a ruling political party in a single-party state, it has sought to create the illusion that Uganda is a "no-party" state. Such semantics obscure the basic reality of the NRM's partisan dominance of the political process in Uganda.
The "movement" posts filled by the July 1998 elections are not the only structures used by the NRM to influence public opinion and mobilize public support. Since coming to power, the NRM has used a state-funded program of political and military education called chaka-mchaka to spread its message that political parties are destructive sectarian organizations responsible for Uganda's past woes, an argument that resonates given Uganda's recent political history. Chaka-mchaka thus serves to rationalize the NRM's denial of political rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly. Government leaders, including President Museveni, often refer to advocates of democratic reform as their "enemies." Other structures of local government such as the local councils (LC) and the Resident District Commissioners (RDC) serve to ensure support for the NRM, and often create a hostile climate for advocates of pluralism.
In the year 2000, the NRM-dominated government plans to have a public referendum on whether to continue with the "movement" system or return to a more pluralist political system. Because the referendum would effectively put internationally recognized human rights of freedom of association and assembly up for a vote, it is incompatible with human rights standards. Human rights are universal, and not subject to a majority mandate. It is also difficult to envision a fair and free referendum on the question of political parties in Uganda because the NRM remains in almost complete control of the government and has extensively used state funding to spread its message against independent political parties. Because the stringent limitations on their activities remain in force, independent political parties are deprived from mounting an effective public campaign on thereferendum. It is doubtful whether the NRM is willing to create the environment in which a free and fair referendum could take place. Most advocates for pluralism in Uganda view the referendum as the final step in a carefully constructed consolidation of power by the NRM, and have refused to participate in the referendum.
Violations of the Rights to Freedom of Association and Assembly
The Ugandan government has vigorously enforced the ban on political activities independent of the NRM. Opposition activists and civil society representatives in Uganda documented many cases in which meetings deemed political were dispersed by the Ugandan authorities. Around the time of U.S. President Bill Clinton's visit to Uganda in March 1998, at least two political events were broken up or prevented by police. In May 1998, the Ugandan authorities halted a seminar discussing the controversial Land Bill, and arrested two members of parliament following a rally opposing the bill. In June and July, 1998, at least four seminars sponsored by the Foundation for African Development (FAD) and the Uganda Young Democrats (UYD) on the topic of "Human Rights and Democracy" were dispersed by the police, some violently. At a June 19, 1998, FAD/UYD seminar in Tororo, six persons were injured after the police charged into the building and beat participants with batons.
The Ugandan authorities also blocked a UYD rally in Mbarara on July 21, 1998; a seminar on the land act sponsored by the Young Congress of Uganda, a group aligned with the Uganda People's Congress (UPC) political party, in Mbale on July 25, 1988; and an August 9, 1998, seminar in Iganga at which the president of the Justice Forum, Kibirige Mayanja, was supposed to speak on poverty alleviation in Uganda. A paralegal workshop sponsored in Masindi on July 27, 1998, by the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), the largest human rights organization in Uganda, was almost dispersed because the resident district commissioner had confused the organization with the FAD.
In December 1998, Karuhanga Chapaa, chair of the National Democrats Forum (NDF), was arrested and charged with sedition in connection with anti-Museveni comments he allegedly made at a political rally. Chapaa claims he was misquoted in the newspaper article about the rally. He was convicted of sedition in June 1999, and plans to appeal. After allegedly attending another political event at Bitereko on December 26, 1998, Chapaa received a threatening letter from the resident district commissioner, ordering him to stop engaging in "illegal political activities" and suggesting that Chapaa had uttered "treasonable utterances." The letter also ordered Chapaa to stop distributing party membership cards, "which is an illegal act."
On January 6, 1999, the house of Wasswa Lule, a member of Parliament, was surrounded in the evening by heavily-armed policemen and he was arrested and taken to the Kampala police station. At the police station, Lule was interrogated about having suggested at a seminar that President Museveni should be personally probed for involvement in corruption. Lule was released at about 2 a.m., and was not charged with an offense.
On January 16, 1999, three FAD officials were arrested in the West Nile town of Moyo while participating in a training seminar on civic education. The training seminar was dispersed by the police. The district police commander demanded that the FAD officials write a letter of apology before releasing them twenty-eight hours after the arrest. On April 26, 1999, police and intelligence officials harassed and intimated a local council chairperson in Mpingi district who had allowed FAD to organize a workshop on "Human Rights in the Community." The officials warned the local council chairperson not to give FAD access to such forums in the district.
Political parties are prohibited from holding party conferences, a ban which severely hampers their own internal reform. Since this ban has been in place since 1986, reform in the structure and leadership of political parties has been virtually impossible. Attempts to hold party conferences have been met with strong and unambiguous warnings from the Ugandan government that they would prevent such meetings. The restrictions have also made it virtually impossible for viable independent political parties to emerge, and have hampered attempts at internal reform among the existing parties.
Restrictions on Civil Society and the Media
Uganda has an active and diverse civil society and a vibrant media. The Uganda Human Rights Network (HURINET) has twenty-five member organizations. Uganda is home to a number of independent newspapers and radio and television stations, including some which are highly critical of government policies. Despite this partial openness, however, the government continues to interfere with the work of human rights groups and the media in Uganda.
The government exercises considerable control over nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by delaying or threatening to withdraw their registration, which must be sanctioned by a government-controlled board and can be quickly revoked. Although the NGO Registration Statute sets no such requirements, NGOs must function as nonpolitical and nonsectarian organizations, and practice a significant amount of self-censorship of their programs in order to obtain and maintain registration. Some NGOs have faced significant interference from the Ugandan government. The government has refused to register the Uganda National NGO Forum since 1997, and declared its 1999 second general assembly an "illegalmeeting." The National Organization for Civic Education and Elections Monitoring (NOCEM), a coalition of twelve NGOs which sought to engage in civic education and election monitoring, had to wait almost three years for its registration, apparently because the government was concerned that the organization included advocates of democratic pluralism. The Uganda Human Rights Education and Documentation Center (UHEDOC) had its registration arbitrarily terminated after hosting a widely attended seminar on corruption in Uganda. The Ugandan government has also attempted to create its own NRM-aligned civil society structures and is hostile to attempts by NGOs to organize themselves into more effective networks. President Museveni has often reacted with hostility to accusations of government abuse of human rights by NGOs, urging them to focus on rebel abuses instead.
Although it allows a vocal and independent press, the Ugandan government continues to regularly detain, interrogate, and criminally charge journalists for their reporting. Common charges include the publication of false news and seditious libel, under legislation dating from the colonial era. More commonly, journalists are called in to police stations and interrogated about particular press reports, to be released hours later without charges. Since 1995, the editors of the Monitor, Citizen, Crusader, the People, Rupiny, Uganda Express, Uganda Confidential, Assalaam, and Shariat have all been detained and questioned about stories in their respective papers, and some have been charged with criminal offenses. Hussein Musa Njuki, editor of the Islamic opposition paper Assalaam, died in police custody in August 1995 under unclear circumstances. The frequent arrest and harassment of journalists has a chilling effect on freedom of the press in Uganda, causing many journalists to practice self-censorship. The media is also strictly controlled through the 1995 Press and Journalists Law which grants the government Media Council the power to suspend journalists and publications.
Abuse of Treason Charges
The charge of treason, one of the most serious in any criminal system, carries a mandatory death sentence in Uganda. Despite its gravity, it is abused as a convenient holding charge, providing for the incarceration of a suspect on remand for up to 360 days without bail. More than 1,000 persons, most of them from rebel areas of Uganda, are currently incarcerated in Uganda awaiting trial on treason charges. While the charge is brought in cases of suspected involvement in one of Uganda's several armed rebel groups, treason charges have also provided the basis for the detention of non-violent political dissidents.
In areas of rebel conflict, torture of treason suspects by soldiers of the Ugandan army (the Uganda People's Defense Force, UPDF) appears widespread. Treason suspects arrested in Western Uganda, an area destabilized by the ADF rebellion, gave consistent testimony of torture by UPDF soldiers, and some showed researchers injuries which were consistent with their testimonies. The torture included putting sticks between the fingers, tying the hands together and then beating down on them with stones; extensive beatings with heavy canes; and in one case burning the skin of the suspect. Torture was used to extract confessions, which then formed the basis for their incarceration. Interviews with police officials suggested that little active investigation of suspects held on treason charges was taking place. In the words of one police official: "You can get arrested for nothing and there is nothing you can do about it. We feel sorry for them, but it is like catching a stray bullet in a war zone."
A number of leading opposition politicians have been charged with treason by the government. Although treason charges against prominent politicians have decreased, the continued widespread and unchecked bringing of treason charges against ordinary people creates a high level of insecurity, especially in rural areas where people are caught between the terrifying violence of armed opposition groups like the LRA and the suspicions of government troops. People are thus reluctant to express political opinions contrary to the NRM in these areas.
The Role of the International Community
While vigorously advocating democratic reform and respect for civil and political rights elsewhere in Africa, the international community has remained remarkably quiet on abuses of political rights in Uganda. The United States has on occasion called for a more pluralistic democratic system in Uganda and spoken out about the need to respect fundamental rights such as the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. However, these calls have rarely been followed up by action, and have had little impact on the human rights situation in Uganda.
Most other influential nations, such as the United Kingdom, have been even more muted in their comments on the NRM's hold on power, ignoring abuses and restrictions on political rights altogether in favor of an amicable relationship with President Museveni and the Ugandan government. The virtual silence of the international community, while pouring millions of dollars of aid into Uganda, has served as an endorsement of the restrictive movement political system. The United Kingdom and other countries have expressed support for the referendum on political rights scheduled for the year 2000 despite the fact that the referendum will be a vote on the continued suspension of fundamental rights, and is unlikely to take place in a free and fair environment.
Why has the international community remained largely quiet about the abuse of civil and political rights in Uganda? In the view of some Western leaders, President Museveni is a crucial leader in the Great Lakes region and a power broker in regional conflicts, including helping to end the 1994 Rwandan genocide and supporting Zairian rebels in their struggle to topple the Mobutu government in 1997. His role in containing the Islamist government of Sudan through support for the Sudanese rebel Sudanese Peoples' Liberation Army (SPLA) is also in line with the policy objectives of some Western leaders. The NRM administration has ushered in significant economic growth and relative stability, rebuilding Uganda from the wreckage left by the brutal governments of Idi Amin and Milton Obote. The international community evaluates the human rights record of Museveni's government favorably in relation to the dismal and discouraging records of its predecessors and of most of its neighbors. Thus the human rights abuses which continue to take place under the movement system go largely unremarked and unchallenged by donor countries. Finally, President's Museveni's slogan of "African solutions to African problems" has been embraced by the international community as a means to relinquish its responsibility to address conflict in Africa.
But the acquiescence of the international community to human rights abuses in Uganda serves to undermine respect for human rights both there and elsewhere on the African continent, and indeed worldwide. When human rights abuses are ignored in one country, it becomes more difficult to criticize human rights abuses in others. Without constructive international pressure, it is likely that the NRM government in Uganda will continue to consolidate its grasp on power and repress the political opposition. It is unlikely that the initiative for democratic reform will come from inside the NRM-dominated government without significant international pressure.
1 President Yoweri Katunga Museveni, Sowing the Mustard Seed (London: MacMillian, 1997), p. 172.