On the 15th of September, Uganda joined the rest of the world to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the International Day of Democracy. This day is celebrated annually around the world to strengthen democracies and highlight its values and principles. This day ironically coincided with the celebration of President Yoweri Kaguta Tibuhaburwa Museveni’s 78th birthday.
In contrast, there was much focus on the President’s 78th birthday than a critical reflection on the state of democracy in Uganda. This year’s celebration comes at the backdrop of the contested 2021 election, which was marred with electoral violence, militarization, and securitization.
Observers and democratic assessments like the Electoral Integrity Global Report,2021 have classified Uganda as a closed democracy with a hybrid of both autocracy and democracy. The presidential and parliamentary elections in 2021 exemplified a continued worrying trend of democratic backsliding in Uganda. It was evident that the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) under President Museveni deliberately ruled out opening up political spaces to allow democratic competition. The unfair treatment of opposition candidates and violence meted out against their supporters to the extent of killing over 54 protestors in the September riots demonstrates a country democratic on paper but autocratic in practice.
Elections in Uganda, have been used as a means of legitimizing President Museveni’s grip on power making Museveni extend his stay in power to over 36 years. More than half of his lifetime has been spent as a president. Popular rule by the majority as expressed through the power of the ballot remains a concept rather than a practice given the irregularities that have underpinned Uganda’s elections.
In the last 36 years, the institutions of state, security, and the ruling party have been fused to serve the interests of president Museveni and the ruling NRM party. A bloated administration and a costly system of patronage and corruption have further weakened the functionality of state institutions that are meant to deepen democracy. The civic and political space in the last 10 years has continued to shrink.
As we commemorate this year’s international democracy day under the focus on the importance of media freedom to democracy, peace, and delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals, media freedoms in Uganda come under scrutiny. Freedom of media has been under attack for the last decade, a situation that has deteriorated to the extent of gross violations of the rights of free speech. The repeated use of violence on journalists, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings carried out by police and the military describe the state of democracy in Uganda.
No wonder the NRM-led government saw no value in celebrating this day, and we applaud them for being true and honest to themselves because this wasn’t their day, but indeed it was the day for the birthday celebrations of their leader Gen Yoweri Kaguta Tibuhaburwa Museveni.
God help Uganda!