Since the early 1990s, Uganda has been aspiring to develop a country premised on a backbone of democracy and rule of law. The making and adoption of the 1995 constitution was a reassertion of the principles of democracy, authority of the people and faith in the growing political space of Uganda. However, over time, the face of democracy has changed in Uganda and this has greatly manifested in the practice of Multi-Party politics. It is against such contention that issues on dissent beg attention for acknowledgment and redress thereof.
This article’s emphasis is put on the highlights of digress in democratic practices in Uganda particularly expressed in the curtailment of dissent. The trends over time beg the question; can government against such a backdrop have room for criticism?
In a country that professes adherence to democratic processes, there has been but a shadow of democratic legitimacy for the last 33 years of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) regime. The political environment has been characterized with extreme abuse of freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. A continued witch hunt of the opposition politicians and silencing voices of dissent of civic activists and civil society organizations is the character of discourse in Uganda.
Consequently, there is a shrink of dissent in Uganda and until we address the dynamics of power and participation, the political arena of Uganda will continue to favor those in power which is a limit in the democracy and legitimacy in Uganda.
In 1986, the NRM pushed for the Movement system as the alternative political system of governance with a dismissal of political party activities, in view that they were largely responsible for Uganda’s post-independence woes. Arguably, many multi-party politicians refused to join the Movement system which was seen as an NRM act to entrench itself in power. Under the Movement system, participatory democracy was curtailed, this made it hard for other multiparty systems to exist, and the argument was that everyone had to be under the movement system or cease participation in the political sphere of Uganda.
Blanket bans on political rallies and delegate conferences were commanded; the security forces played a partisan role in intervening and adjourning seminars, rallies, and meetings organized by the multiparty organizations. Today, in the multi-party dispensation, political parties still struggle to exist in the same political space with the National Resistance Movement.
Cases of arbitrary and preventative arrests have become a new normal for opposition politicians and government critics in Uganda. Security forces continue to use excessive force with impunity in their engagements with the opposition even in cases where violence is not necessary. The 48 hours detention is oftentimes violated and habitually, police has arrested opposition members without clear charges and arrest warrants; some have been whisked away by plain-clothed officers to unknown destinations, only to resurface after a lot of pressure has been exerted from civil society groups and the people.
Security forces are openly participating in partisan politics, police continue to disband opposition party activities and justification has been a claim on failing to inform appropriate authorities or failing to seek permission for the events. In the event that permission was sought, police have disbanded these activities on grounds of “Order from above.” The Constitutional Court ruled that Police had no powers to stop assemblies. However, in contempt of court, the police intimated that they will continue dispersing the rallies if they see it fit. The under sight for such directives is that these very requirements do not apply to the NRM party members who enjoy freedom of association
Use of legislation to stifle participation of the opposition; The Public Order Management Act (POMA) of 2013 has been greatly contested in its conception, interpretation, and implementation. The POMA was introduced following the “walk to work” protests that were spearheaded by the Activists for Change (A4C). The POMA grants police wide discretionary powers over public and private gatherings. The interpretation of this law curtails participation of the opposition parties in the political liberties of Uganda and ultimately impedes on their freedom of association and assembly.
The Removal of the Presidential Age limit, allowing Mr. Museveni to run for office in 2021, checked the government and its institutions on dissent. The highly contested bill was passed with impunity; opposition leaders were on suspension and others on house arrests, there was heavy military deployment and intelligence agencies evaded parliament. It was evident that the language for discourse in making decisions on democracy and governance had changed.
Use of government regulatory institutions to curtail access to information, and freedom of speech; The Uganda Communications Commission has on many occasions intercepted media houses from hosting particular opposition members. These media houses have also been threatened with closure failure to comply. There have been selective and arbitrary shutdowns of radio stations that are critical of the president and his government and oftentimes, opposition members have been arrested and pulled out of talk shows by the police.
Civic activism is under attack in Uganda, anyone who speaks against the injustices of the government is charged with incitement of violence, sedition, treason and promoting sectarianism. Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow at Makerere University Institute of Social Research (MISR) faces charges of “cyber-harassment” and “Offensive communication” for a Facebook post that was challenging the misrule of the president. Dr. Nyanzi is still in prison as she prepares her defense in a case on cyber harassment of the president.
Characteristic of these cases is that they never end; many opposition politicians and activists have backlogged cases in court that show no hope of being heard or dismissed that are kept on record to deter ease of participation in the political life of Uganda.
Government has set violence as the language of discourse in dealing with diverging views. During the highly contested Age limit bill, police raided many offices of civil society organizations spoke against the bill, their financial accounts were frozen and to this day, no clear explanation has been given other than alleged “illicit transaction” and “subversive activities”.
Redress needs to be put in addressing the continued suppression of dissenting views that suffers legitimacy. It begs the question; can the government make room for dissent and dialogue on issues that burden the political space of Uganda?
It is imperative for the government to restructure and pave way for dialogue and democratic processes. Dialogue is a prerequisite to building consensus between the government and the different stakeholders. Therefore, embracing dissent becomes crucial because the game of governance is run on dialogue and compromise.
The Inter-Religious Council of Uganda IRCU and The Elders Forum of Uganda invited the Government to participate in the ongoing Uganda National Dialogue Process. It is in this faith, that government choosing to participate in dialogue will set precedence to its objectivity in working towards consensus on issues that have for so long created tensions, mistrust, and suspicion between the people and the government.
It is also in this hope that the Government will work towards legitimacy and rule of law to impede impunity and create room for a healthy opposition which is necessary for democracy to thrive by providing checks on the excesses of the ruling party.
The Writer is a Research Fellow: GREAT LAKES INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES