EDITORIAL: Repression has an economic price; it’s high, it’s ugly

Saturday November 16 2019

Ugandan Police use a water cannon to force former FDC president Dr Kizza Besigye out of his vehicle in Kiraka, Kampala on November 4, 2019. COURTESY PHOTO | DAILY MONITOR

By The EastAfrican

On November 4, President Museveni’s former bush war comrade and personal physician, Kizza Besigye, had yet another brush with Ugandan security personnel, whose water cannons almost flushed him out of his vehicle in the Kampala suburb of Kireka.

Police smashed the windshield of his vehicle to extract him. When he addressed the media later that day, Kampala Metropolitan Police Spokesperson Patrick Onyango did not appear to know on what charges Dr Besigye was being held.

The Kireka fracas is just one of numerous other attacks the state has directed at people and groups trying to assert their right to freedom of association and to express their legitimate opposition to President Museveni’s rule.

Days earlier, the forces had been unleashed on unarmed Makerere University students, who were holding a peaceful protest against a 15 per cent increase in tuition fees.

Since he became president, Museveni’s most enduring political challenger at the turn of the century, Dr Besigye has been the target of several criminal charges. He and his supporters have many times been subjected to violence.

Further afield in Tanzania, opposition political parties have threatened to boycott local elections that are scheduled for November 23.


The opposition is protesting what it terms shrinking space for political expression and participation. Tanzania’s regression is all the more disturbing because for a long time, the country has been an island of peaceful competition.

If anything can be remembered about the last decade of the 20th century it is that it was one of the most pivotal periods of change in East African politics.

Kenya and Tanzania broke the mould of the single-party state and, despite hanging on to the illusion of no-party politics, in 1995, Uganda was still able to write a constitution that was hailed for its bill of rights.

Given the progress that has since been made towards dismantling the repressive state and Kenya’s tumultuous, yet steady democratic evolution, it is difficult to imagine that in just over a decade, democracy and freedom in East Africa would be in retreat.

The events in Uganda and Tanzania represent an attempt to stall, even claw back, the gains made towards more inclusive politics.

Since writing its celebrated constitution 24 years ago, Uganda has progressively chipped away at it, introducing laws that attempt to legitimise the illegal actions of incumbency.

Particular targets have been freedom of association and freedom of expression, which are now the subject of several improvised limitations.

Oddly, the application of these laws has been selective, such that as Dr Besigye was being blocked from going to a meeting with his supporters, the police did not bother to apply the same standard to a presidential envoy, who held an impromptu rally at a busy market and distributed cash to the public.

Political repression has an economic price. Unless citizens are free, they will not hold leaders to account. The absence of democracy also provides a vehicle for bad men to ride on popular causes to capture power and serve their own nefarious ends.