Since the tightly fought by-election for the Arua Municipality MP seat two years ago, Uganda has descended into an unrestrained spiral of electoral violence. Robert Ssentamu Kyagulanyi, the legislator now turned President Yoweri Museveni’s most formidable challenger, became a marked man after he helped the opposition wrest the seat from the ruling party.
It was the second time the young legislator was directly facing off with Museveni and beating him. A year earlier, Kyagulanyi had stunned everybody when he won the Kyadondo North seat on the peripherals of the capital.
Arua was a bittersweet victory. On the final day of the campaigns, Kyagulanyi escaped narrowly when an assassin’s bullet instead took the life of Yasin Kawuma, his erstwhile chauffeur.
In the aftermath, Kyagulanyi and five dozen other people were arrested and tortured on allegations of making an attempt on President Museveni’s life. The case appears to have been abandoned.
Last month, more than 40 people died from gunshot wounds and other injuries over two days of violence as sections of the public protested the arrest of Kyagulanyi on the campaign trail in eastern Uganda. Shocking as the events were to observers, the spate of violence should not have been unexpected. It is a manifest example of the failure of global politics.
Violence has been a feature of Ugandan elections since 2001. What started as a sporadic clampdown on then opposition leader Kizza Besigye’s basic freedoms has morphed into an indiscriminate monster that is devouring everything in its path. Yet as the country progressively drifted off the constitutional path, there has been little incentive to mend its ways because of tacit approval from international powers. From Addis Ababa to Washington, the world has turned a blind eye to Uganda’s deviations from democratic values.
A reluctant democrat, Museveni has rewritten the constitution several times to suit his goals. The fundamental freedoms of expression and association entrenched in the constitution have been a particular target.
An unholy alliance between international business and global geopolitics has put Museveni in a sweet spot where the lives of his countrymen are a secondary consideration to western powers.
It is a disappointing reversal of fortunes for a country that had made major hard-earned strides on the road to democracy. The international community needs to support the efforts of Ugandans to reclaim the democratic space.
The East African Community, the African Union and development partners such as the European Union and the United States should not expect to escape culpability. They more than anybody else have the power to influence the conduct of the Ugandan government.
There is no justification for the current spate of violence other than the self-preservation of a regime that is shaken by the prospect of change. Allowing Museveni to get away with so much has contributed to the contagion of violent politics now sweeping across the region. As has been demonstrated amply elsewhere, political violence can be self-reinforcing. Until someone picks the courage to bell the cat, Uganda and Africa risk a dangerous legacy.