[Postcard] | Museveni's Democracy, by Clair MacDougall | Harper's Magazine

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Notes from Uganda's disputed presidential election

Dressed in a charcoal suit and a yellow tie that hung several inches too long, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, Uganda’s president of thirty years, sat two chairs away from his longtime political rival Kizza Besigye in the auditorium of the Kampala Serena Hotel. “Democracy means the people support you. If they don’t support you, you don’t win. That’s all, thank you very much,” said Museveni, as if the seventy-one-year-old showman were attempting to call the curtains down on the country’s second-ever presidential debate—which would in fact last for several more hours. I watched from a balcony, behind a group of middle-aged women who cheered each time Museveni spoke.

Besigye, a tall, slim, awkwardly earnest sixty-year-old, was Museveni’s former physician and an ex-ally in the Ugandan Bush War, the conflict that helped Museveni rise to the presidency in 1986. February’s election marked the fourth time Besigye had run against Museveni in the past fifteen years, a challenge that had won the opposition leader countless tear-gassings and detentions. Because Museveni had skipped a presidential debate a month earlier, this was the first time during the campaign that the rivals had shared the same stage in front of the Ugandan people.

In the 1980s, dissidents like Besigye had been tortured in the labyrinth of television studios below the stage of this auditorium by the security forces of Milton Obote, a former two-term president of Uganda. Obote had led Uganda to independence from British rule, becoming the country’s president in 1966. He was overthrown by Idi Amin in 1971, but he regained power nine years later. Beginning in 1980, Besigye and Museveni united in a five-year struggle to overthrow two dictatorships—Obote’s and then Tito Okello’s. But in the three decades since Museveni became president, he has transformed himself from a socialist revolutionary into a cunning authoritarian who has bribed an ever-expanding parliament to eliminate term limits and pass legislation designed to stifle the press and social media. He is an advocate of capitalism and the rule of law (so long as he created the law) who has deployed his heavily armed military and police force whenever citizens voice dissent against his regime.

Museveni has been a key ally of both the United States and Europe in the African theater of the war on terror, and he feels secure in his power. The United States military has trained thousands of Ugandan troops in a partnership that has been expanding since September 11, and Museveni has assumed the role of a regional mediator in Africa by sending forces to trouble spots like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia. Although the United States openly criticized February elections in Uganda, which a State Department spokesperson referred to as “deeply inconsistent with international standards and expectations for any democratic process,” many Ugandans doubt that American officials will put any meaningful pressure on Museveni to end his crackdown on the press and his political opposition.

At the debate in February, Shaka Ssali, a Ugandan American who is the host of the Voice of America radio program Straight Talk Africa and a noted government critic, was one of three moderators, but he was barred from asking Museveni any questions—one of the many preconditions of the president’s attendance. Museveni charmed with his well-rehearsed blend of strongman and benevolent grandfather, but an undercurrent of violence echoed throughout his responses. He spoke approvingly of extrajudicial killings that had been committed during his time as a rebel leader, and criticized the “bias” of the International Criminal Court. When asked about his greatest regrets, Museveni recounted a story about soldiers he should have killed to protect his fellow rebels. His time on the stage was punctuated by the appearance of a tall, broad-shouldered member of the presidential guard, whom the president summoned to bring him a pen, and a matronly woman who brought out cups of tea. When Museveni claimed that his government was accountable to the people, members of the audience erupted into laughter. “They can shout, but I can also shout them down,” he replied.

Two days after the debate, on February 15, Museveni confined Besigye to his house in the outskirts of Kampala and rounded up and arrested numerous opposition members, though he was careful not to cross lines that could draw international condemnation. Besigye was never physically injured, the known death toll was kept at one, and the arrests remained largely out of public view.

The next day, at the Kololo Airstrip in Kampala, Museveni held his final rally, one of the few that international and Ugandan reporters were allowed to document. Prior to this finale, I had been turned away from rallies on multiple occasions, despite confirmation from high-ranking security officials and aides that I was on “the list.” At Kololo, Museveni’s yellow helicopter drifted down onto the grassy field. On the airstrip, a sea of people waited, wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with Museveni’s face. The president’s plainclothes agents stood in front of the crowd, carefully policing the international press and Museveni’s “supporters,” their eyes darting as the president waved from the open sunroof of a black bulletproof SUV. Ugandans waved their flags in unison. An evangelical preacher praised Museveni and cursed his attackers, calling for angels to be deployed at polling stations and rejecting “the spirit” of the Arab Spring that brought down governments in Egypt and Libya. Overhead, a drone filmed the proceedings, failing to capture the finer details of what was happening on the ground. Museveni, attempting to prolong his thirty years in power, needed his stage-managed rally documented and made real by the international and domestic press—this would give the fixed results the appearance of fact, and make his victory look somewhat credible.

He spoke for a half hour in Luganda from a stage mounted on a pickup truck and had only a few things to say to the white journalists: “[Our] message…has eight words: number one, unity, which creates strength, with strength creates peace, and peace brings development, and development brings wealth, and wealth creates jobs, and jobs will not be taken advantage of if we don’t have skills.” The statement didn’t make sense, and we never even reached eight words. As the rally came to a close, a band of downtrodden opposition “defectors” stood uncomfortably behind a banner depicting the faces of Museveni and his wife, Janet, as the president climbed back into his SUV and drove off into the distance.

On February 18, Election Day, Museveni deployed the military amid rumors of doctored ballots. I spoke with voters in Kabalagala, a suburb of Kampala, who had been waiting in a snaking line under the hot sun for hours, some under umbrellas, some uncovered and sweating. At the end of the queue, I met thirty-five-year-old Helen Kirabo. She decided to wait despite the fact that she had felt cheated at other elections; with three major candidates, including a former prime minister, this race seemed more “competitive.” Medi Mubiru, a thirty-year-old electrician, said that he wanted regime change but was more skeptical as to whether the elections would be legitimate. The delays in voting were a “trick from the government,” he said. Medi, like many other young so-called “Museveni babies,” was frustrated by corruption, but he held out hope that the election might allow him to experience life under a different president. “I came here to vote; I have to change,” he told me. “Life is not good at all.”

At Makerere University, where a Besigye rally had been bombarded with tear gas just days earlier, I spoke with a wiry, bespectacled law student named Joel Mucunguzi. “The process has already been tainted by unfairness,” Mucunguzi told me. “Democracy to [Museveni] is winning an election. Uganda is a democracy when the president sees it fit to be one.” I asked him why he bothered voting. “We want to overwhelm them with numbers so it would be an embarrassment to rig this election. That is the only hope we are holding on to,” he told me. It would be his first vote in a presidential election.

That day, before the results were announced, the headquarters of Besigye’s party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was tear-gassed and troops were stationed in the streets. The government, concerned that the FDC planned to announce their tally before the official results were proclaimed the next day, unleashed what seemed to be almost all divisions of its monstrously large security apparatus. Armored police vehicles roared up and down Entebbe Road, a four-lane highway that ran past the FDC party headquarters. The notorious red berets–wearing military police marched through the city, weaving their way down backstreets, hunting for the few dissidents who might be throwing rocks at police or building barricades out of rubble and burning tires. Lethal-looking men wearing bandannas stood with cocked guns in the beds of pickups. Except for the odd journalist running with a camera, no one else walked the streets for hours. “Tell the U.S. what they did in Libya they can do here,” begged one man holed up in a betting center.

Outside the Electoral Commission, armored vehicles sat with water cannons ready to fire. The walls of the commission were painted with illustrations of Ugandans voting that read, “POWER BELONGS TO THE PEOPLE: Your vote is your power. Use it wisely!” Back on the road, near the headquarters of the FDC, one young woman dressed in a red satin slip picked up a large rock, giggling as she dropped it in the middle of the road before retreating—the only possible fuck you that could be mustered under the circumstances. As night fell, armored military vehicles fitted with machine guns remained stationed a short distance from the FDC headquarters.

No one was surprised the next morning when Museveni was declared the victor. Hours earlier, the European Union had presented its own findings regarding the legitimacy of the elections. Their official report acknowledged “shortcomings” but encouraged “all parties to abide by the law and resolve any election dispute through dialogue and the available legal remedies.” At a press conference, Eduard Kukan, an elderly Slovakian diplomat who led the E.U. observer mission, accused a reporter who asked if the elections had been free and fair of using “journalistic jargon” and continued to evade similar questions. “We consider ourselves as friends of Zambia,” Kukan said in a heavy accent. After awkward laughter broke out, he realized his mistake. “I was a diplomat there for five years. We are really friends of Uganda. We want to see your country in the future as a successful, strong player in the international scene. We wish your people all the best…and that is why we are engaging ourselves here.”

I gathered with other journalists, who seemed similarly unimpressed by the diplomatic euphemisms and toothless criticisms of the electoral process. We downed instant coffee and ate dry cake before shuffling off to our next sleek Sheraton conference room where another observer mission was holding another press conference. I remembered an op-ed that I had read in Uganda’s Daily Monitor a day before the country went to the polls: “In their final reports, [the election observers] gloss over irregularities, bottlenecks, abuse of power by various government officials and security forces which they clearly note during their travels across the country and which if they took place in their own countries would cause a national uproar and the collapse of their governments,” the commentator wrote. “However, even here their standards depend on the interests of their home governments.” The tepid statements made by observation and diplomatic missions belied the reality that Uganda is indeed becoming more authoritarian, a fact marked by the outcome of an election that some in Uganda have dubbed the most undemocratic in Museveni’s tenure. Since the February polls, things appear to be degrading further—Besigye was charged with treason in May, and in June, several dozen military officers were arrested under suspicion of plotting a coup. Museveni had already indicated his plans for political opponents in a long-winded essay written on the occasion of his election victory. “We have delivered a knockout in spite of the evil-minded falsehoods of the Opposition,” he wrote. “We have the capacity to resolve the residual problems, one by one. That is why the Opposition in Uganda is an endangered species.”

Clair MacDougall’s reporting from Uganda was supported by the Africa Great Lakes Reporting Initiative, run by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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