Why Uganda, Kenya fight constantly for democracy

Wednesday October 4 2017

Makerere University students protest against the official procedure to scrap a presidential age limit from the Constitution in Kampala, Uganda on September 21, 2017. PHOTO | AFP

Makerere University students protest against the official procedure to scrap a presidential age limit from the Constitution in Kampala, Uganda on September 21, 2017. PHOTO | AFP 

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If you sliced Africa vertically down the middle, on the east side Kenya and Uganda will be by far the most democratic nations in the years ahead.

That is not I speaking. It is the view of an African scholar, who is neither Ugandan nor Kenyan, and studies the continent’s politics.

Her arguments were intriguing, if not persuasive.

First, she said that in Kenya from about 1992, and Uganda since 2001 when opposition politician Kizza Besigye offered President Yoweri Museveni his most serious challenge, “the demand for more democratic space has been constant and unrelenting.”

In Kenya, she said, irrespective of who is president, and even after the fairly progressive 2010 Constitution, “you have demonstrations weekly as if no reforms happened.” Kenya, she said, is unusual that way because it seems to have a section of its population “that is not satisfied with something and is protesting, be it corruption, land grabbing, election dispute, or even students protesting after a car kills a colleague.”

In her view, that this constant activism is uncommon on the continent and even rarer in East Africa points to a huge pool of what she called “democratic demand.”

“Compare Uganda and Kenya on one hand, and Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, or whichever country you choose on the east side, this doesn’t happen.”

More intense in Uganda

However, though the democracy demand pool in Kenya is larger, she holds that it is “more intense” in Uganda.

“In Kenya, the democrats win frequently; in court, in the 2010 Constitution, and other policy changes,” she said. “In Uganda, they don’t win anything, but seem to battle harder with every loss.”

She notes that in Kenya, the activists have an incentive to protest, because apart from knowing they might prevail, the risk to body and limb is much lower than in Uganda.

“In Uganda, they know they will be shot. The Museveni government enjoys a level of immunity and impunity that is probably no longer possible in Kenya.

“The protestors there go out knowing they could be killed. Besigye gets out of his house to speak at a rally in the certain knowledge that he will be jailed, if he is lucky, and beaten up on average day,” she said.

The history of taking a higher risk goes back to how Museveni himself became president. He went to the bush to fight a five-year war, a much riskier path than happened in Kenya, she noted.

And with the protests of recent days over the move to amend the Constitution and lift the 75-year age limit, the last stage in setting Museveni to being president for life, she said, “the protestors in parliament and the streets will lose as they have always done.”

With security forces deployed to surround parliament, and the Communications Authority banning live protests against lifting the age limit, Museveni has this in the bag.

“They probably knew they would lose this fight like previous ones, but that didn’t stop them from trying,” she said. “It’s truly remarkable that they never give up in Uganda.”

Kenya, in her view, already has one foot on the Democracy Promised Land. Uganda has a nose out of the door. The rest are barely out of bed. I don’t wholly agree, but today this is not my story.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]