Uganda’s Elections Show that Democratic Gains are Slowing in Much of Africa

Ugandans voted last week in national elections for president, parliament and local government positions. Unsurprisingly, on Saturday the Electoral Commission declared incumbent President Yoweri Museveni the winner of the presidential election with 60 percent of the vote. It marks the start of Museveni’s fifth elected term in office after seizing power following a civil war in 1986.

But adding to concerns of voting irregularities and a climate of intimidation leading up to the election, the re-election of Uganda’s longtime president also highlights fears of a region backslide in democracy.

There was once a time when Museveni was seen as part of a new generation of African leaders that would help sweep aside the old political vanguard and establish democratic rule as the Cold War ended. But the abolishment of term limits in 2005 and growing authoritarianism, including targeting of media outlets critical of the president and heavy handed tactics during the 2011 Walk to Work protests, left many wondering whether Museveni’s rule was just another failed attempt at democracy for Uganda.

Last week’s election appears to confirm this, as Uganda’s main opposition politician Kizza Besigye found himself arrested four times before, during and after the disputed election. Activists and journalists were also targeted with one radio host being arrested on air while hosting opposition politicians as guests on his show. Sadly, none of these tactics are new to Uganda. But in a novel development from previous elections, the government also ordered the nation’s telecom companies to help it shut down major social media platforms often used to track election proceedings such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. Even though many internet users were able to circumvent the shutdown by using VPNs, the move to stifle online conversations around the election point to yet another decrease in rights and freedoms in Uganda.

Despite the numerous problems with the election, many African leaders were quick to congratulate Museveni on his victory, including Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza. African election observers from the Inter-Governmental Authority of Development declared the elections fair. The African Union congratulated Uganda on holding largely peaceful election while still acknowledging that there were problems in how the election was carried out. In contrast, the European Union and the USA both issued statements criticizing the many shortcomings of the election.

This divide between acceptance and criticism of nominally democratic polls has become common in recent years, with little progress made in ensuring future elections are better prepared to meet international standards. But the situation in Uganda highlights the blight of “third termism” that has overtaken several countries in East Africa over the last few years. President Nkurunziza of Burundi’s successful attempt to gain a third term has brought that country back to the brink of civil war, while Rwanda’s Paul Kagame successfully altered the constitution last year to extend his 17 year rule and allow him to stand for a third term in 2017. As UN Dispatch reported last week, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is also facing attempts by its president Joseph Kabila to extend his time in power.

After a decade where it appeared conflict had largely left the region and progress towards good governance was made, the events of the past year illustrates that no progress is permanent. In the case of Uganda, signs of a failing democracy have been evident for years but largely ignored by Western states who needed the Ugandan government as a key partner in the fight against Islamic extremism in Africa. But the tactics deployed last week – repeated arrests, press censorship, social media shutdowns – may be too much for the international community to ignore. As Museveni enters year 30 of his rule, it should be noted that there are real consequences to looking the other way for so long. And those consequences are being felt far beyond Uganda’s borders.