Violence against the opposition during presidential elections is not new in East Africa. And so it was not surprising that National Unity Party presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine became the latest victim of what many saw as state-sponsored violence.
At the time of going to press, Mr Kyagulanyi was still not allowed to leave his house; a decision enforced by a cordon of police and military officers thrown around his home in Kampala.
Similar tactics against the opposition were witnessed in October 2020 Tanzania’s general election and are being replicated in all the six East African Community partner states with abandon.
“If you look at what is happening in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya, the region is in political turmoil. But it is part of a political recession that started 10 years ago,” said John Githongo, chief executive of Inuka, a non-governmental organisation involved in governance issues.
Widespread irregularities, human-rights abuses and violations before, during, and after the election, routine disqualification, harassment, and arbitrary arrests of opposition are a common fare across the region.
“However, I would not give up on the opposition completely, if only because the ability of these creeping totalitarian regimes to deliver to their people is found to be wanting in many aspects,” said Mr Githongo, a former PS and anti-corruption czar in president Mwai Kibaki’s administration.
With the next presidential polls expected in 2024, Rwanda’s main opposition party, the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda (DGPR), is not oblivious of what is happening across the region.
Green Party head Frank Habineza, now a Member of Parliament, had lost to the incumbent President Paul Kagame in the 2017 presidential polls, but his party has not given up in the quest for power.
“For us, we are not in the coalition and we have started the process to build a strong democracy. DGPR plans to contest once again in the 2024 Presidential elections,” Mr Habineza told The EastAfrican, describing the treatment of opposition candidates in the region as worrying and a disgrace to democracy.
He said his party was of the view that those who lose elections should settle all disagreements in courts of laws and use non-violent means. However, he added, this was not happening, instead, the government, through security organs, resorts to excessive use of force. The opposition in Rwanda faces a huge task of gaining significant influence to challenge the ruling party. Its influence has remained minimal with no representation in Cabinet, executive positions and local government. With parliament dominated by members from RPF and those from political parties in its alliance, it has even proven difficult to influence policy. “The constitution in Rwanda does not allow ‘winner takes it all’ principle. It allows power-sharing and this is because of our tragic history that led to the 1994 genocide against Tutsi. Issues concerning coalitions are also provided for by the electoral law,” he said.
Significant and widespread voting irregularities, Internet disruptions, intimidation of journalists, denial of licences for media to operate, and violence by security forces make elections in Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda neither free nor fair.
Prof Amukowa Anangwe, former Kenya’s minister and a political science don observes that even though there is no future for a strong opposition in a conventional sense where the polls are free and fair, crackdown against the opposition has made it difficult to practise mature democracy.
“The opposition in the region has no future. Opposition leaders may jump around with their ideologies and meaningful political slogans, but it will come to zero,” said Prof Anangwe.
“The proposition is that it is the popular vote that counts. It isn’t. It is those who count the vote that matter. And if you have no control over them you will not win.”
This state of affairs has been blamed on the invitation of the military to participate in governance.
Out of the six EAC partner states — Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda current leadership is made up of former military leaders.
In Kenya and South Sudan, it is political parties based on tribal outfits that pose a big threat to democracy.
“In the case of Uganda, it is a military regime camouflaged as a democracy partly due to international pressure.
“But for all intent and purposes, Museveni is a military ruler. The situation is the same in Rwanda and Burundi,” Prof Anangwe explained.
In Tanzania, the opposition's virtual annihilation in last October's general election remains a particularly sensitive matter in the light of the allegations of irregularities including ballot box stuffing that accompanied the poll. “In the case of Tanzania, the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). has overwhelming influence and network in the government itself. It makes it difficult for the opposition to function,” said Prof Anangwe.
Indeed, the United States announced visa restrictions on Tanzanian officials responsible for and complicity in undermining Tanzania’s October 28, 2020, general elections.
“The actions of these officials subverted the electoral process, continuing the downward trajectory of the country’s democracy,” said Michael Pompeo, outgoing US Secretary of State.
In Zanzibar, ACT-Wazalendo appeared ready to let bygones be bygones as veteran chairman Seif Sharif Hamad accepted an appointment by newly-elected, CCM-backed president Hussein Mwinyi to the position of vice-president under a government of national unity (GNU) arrangement.
But Mr Sharif was quick to clarify that the agreement to join the GNU led by the ruling CCM did not mean that Zanzibar's political opposition had "lost its integrity".
“Our opposition role does not end just because we are in the GNU. We are just prioritising national interests above political rivalry," he said.
In Kenya, the key pillars of opposition politics have disintegrated. The “Handshake” and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) politics have left the country with no opposition leadership after ODM leader Raila Odinga made truce with President Uhuru Kenyatta.
“There are no political parties, ruling or opposition in Kenya. These are outfits anchored in personalities and tribes, which lack grassroots structures and hold no elections,” Prof Anangwe said.
Human Rights Watch East African director Otsieno Namwaya said democracy is not working because the governments are not respecting their institutions.
“They have absolutely no interest in ensuring that the elections that are being held are of the same quality that can guarantee that the losers will accept the outcome,” Namwaya explained.
- Additional reporting by JOHNSON KANAMUGIRE, BOB KARASHANI and MOHAMED ISSA.