A little known threat to Democracy
Why should Americans care about what is going on in Uganda? Because events there are magnified by Uganda’s location and the recent history of the area. Uganda, a country that has been relatively stable politically for 20 years, borders on nearly every country of recent atrocities in the region. Rwanda, The Congo, and Sudan all are adjacent to land-locked Uganda. Uganda has become a refugee and logistics center of sorts; if it falls into anarchy, there will be no place for many to flee to and various organizations to work from.
The political stability has been seriously disrupted in last few weeks. President Museveni, who has presided for nearly 20 years, is up for election in March of 2006. His chief rival is Colonel Kizza Besigye, who ran unsuccessfully in 2001, recently returned from self-imposed exile. After attending a number of large rallies, Col. Besigye and 23 others were placed under arrest and charged with number of crimes. The charges filed on November 14th primarily involve treason for plotting to take up arms against the government, supposedly beginning immediately after Besigye lost the 2001 election. In the intervening years, there has been no known armed conflict associated with this supposed group of rebels. There was also a rape charge included on Col. Besigye, related to some incident from 1997.
There were protests immediately following, some of which turned violent and had some arson and looting involved. The police and military put this down quickly with gunfire, killing at least one. (Side note; I do not condemn this police action outright. All moral high ground is lost when one torches and/or raids shops. What the French have been willing to tolerate in recent violence is ridiculous.)
I do not know the validity of the charges filed (though skepticism seems appropriate), nor the worthiness of Col. Besigye as a leader for Uganda. That would be for a fair, impartial judicial hearing and a fair and honest election to determine. But the signs are pretty clear that his arrest has little to do with traditional justice:
- A heavily-armed militia unit associated with the government showed up November 16th at the courthouse to assure no one was granted bail or, if they did, they were there to meet them.
- Gatherings of over four people that support the jailed politicians have been banned.
- Two individuals have been jailed for merely putting up posters seeking donations for the legal defense fund of Besigye and the others.
- Talk shows are not allowed to even discuss the situation.
Apparently, the government- starting to feel some heat- offered to grant Besigye ‘amnesty’, which would have essentially required him to admit guilt. This offer included dropping the rape charge, something amnesty cannot be given for. He refused to accept this (as he should, if he is innocent).
The silly thing is, this has likely done more to strengthen Besigye’s chances in a fair election than anything the candidate could have done for himself. Museveni probably could have had it in the bag with just a little campaigning himself.
With the current situation, the only way for democracy to progress, the whole group needs to be allowed to make reasonable bail (or have the charges dropped) and allow campaigning to continue unfettered. The election needs to be watched closely for fairness and let the Ugandan people make their decision. What would it take to bring this about? Continued pressure and publicity will help; heck, a phone call and some harsh words from Condi Rice would probably get it done quick.
For more information, the best source is the Monitor.
You can get the government position from the New Vision.