Democracy Behind Bars in East Africa

Neela Ghosal Jan 13, 2006

Just a year ago, the East African nation of Uganda was still a darling of the West, hailed as an African success story based on its economic growth and success in combating AIDS. How quickly things change, particularly in Africa, where Western governments tend to wear blinders when it comes to the dictatorial tendencies of their allies.

It came as no surprise to Ugandans when President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, reversed constitutional term limits and announced his candidacy for a third term. And when opposition leader Dr. Kizza Besigye returned to Uganda in November after four years of self-imposed exile in South Africa, he knew the risks awaiting him. Besigye, leader of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party and Museveni’s primary challenger in the 2001 presidential elections, left Uganda after a legal challenge to those election results proved unsuccessful, despite the Supreme Court’s acknowledgement that electoral fraud had occurred.

Shortly after his return to Uganda, Besigye was arrested on treason and rape charges. The treason charges allege links with two rebel groups: the People’s Redemption Army and the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. In conjunction with both groups, Besigye is accused of plotting to overthrow the government. The complainant in the rape case is Joanita Kyakuwa, a university student Besigye allegedly assaulted while serving as her legal guardian in 1997.

On November 29, additional charges of terrorism and unlawful possession of firearms were filed before a General Court Martial.

Following a year in which numerous protests against Museveni’s “presidency for life” have been shut down violently by police, Ugandans are skeptical of the charges, and Britain and Sweden withdrew aid from Uganda’s government – redirecting it to U.N. projects in northern Uganda – in response to the crackdown on the political opposition.

Apart from his promises to fight corruption and restore democracy, it is unclear quite what Besigye stands for. The FDC distinguishes itself from Museveni’s National Resistance Movement by pledging to restore the twoterm limit, resolve the conflict in the north through dialogue and negotiations, and end “state terrorism and repression.” Boldly (if not naively), FDC promises that within one year, all internally displaced Ugandans will be able to return home. Up to two million Ugandans are displaced, mostly due to the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict in the north.

An opinion poll by the state-owned Sunday Vision in November showed Besigye ahead of Museveni among likely voters, while a December Monitor poll showed a slight lead for Museveni. Elections are scheduled for February 23.

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