Ugandan soldiers patrol near the house of Bobi Wine in Kampala, Uganda on Monday. REUTERS/BAZ RATNER
Ugandan soldiers patrol near the house of Bobi Wine in Kampala, Uganda on Monday. REUTERS/BAZ RATNER

A 2020 report by the Freedom House, a US-backed democracy watchdog, found an alarming decline in democratic governance and respect for human rights in Sub-Saharan Africa.  

Only seven countries in the region ticked boxes related to free and fair elections, strong multiparty systems, unwavering commitment to human and political rights and vibrant media. That was the lowest since 1991.  

Uganda is among the countries that have made a mockery of democracy in the region. Last week, it held elections that pitted one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders Yoweri Museveni against 10 other candidates including Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, best known as Bobi Wine, a 38-year old pop star-turned politician.

In the run-up to the elections on January 14, the ruling National Resistance Movement Party unleashed a wave of repression against the opposition parties, repeatedly disrupting rallies, protests and other events, and subjecting journalists to legal and extralegal harassment.  

Perhaps the most blatant action against democratic principles is the arrests of Museveni’s strongest challenger Wine, who was locked up three times along with hundreds of his supporters who attended his rallies, with security forces using the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to crack down on dissent.  

Then one of Wine’s bodyguards was killed when police ran him over, his lawyer was detained and journalists who followed him around had their accreditation revoked. In November, when a critical mass of citizens took to the streets to express their anger at Wine’s detention, soldiers responded with a deadly force, killing at least 54 people.

As the election date drew closer, the US — whose outgoing president can hardly be said to have set a good example — cancelled its diplomatic observation after the supposedly independent Electoral Commission of Uganda inexplicably denied more than three quarters of its accreditation requests.  

With just 15 people granted approval to oversee the vote, it would have been a stretch to provide a assessment of the electoral process across polling sites in the landlocked east African country.  

Worst still, a coalition representing hundreds of Ugandan civil society groups said it had filled nearly 2,000 accreditation requests but only 10 had been granted with just 24 hours left before the elections.    

Another shameful assault on democracy came two days before voting was due to start last Tuesday when the regime banned social media and messaging apps in retaliation to Facebook’s move to take down accounts the Silicon Valley giant said the government was using to manipulate information and commentary on the vote.   

Unsurprisingly, Museveni emerged as the winner when the final count was tallied at weekend, scoring a decisive 58.6% of the vote and extending his presidency to a sixth five-year term since 1986 when he began ruling the country in a glow of international goodwill after leading a successful insurgency against Idi Amin.

It would be stating the obvious to say the credibility and transparency of the vote is in serious doubt considering a deadly crackdown on opposition candidates and supporters, media and the fact scores of requests for accreditation to monitor it were denied.  

The Africa Elections Watch coalition, which deployed 2,000 observers in 146 districts, observed irregularities, including the late opening of most polling stations, missing ballot papers and illegally opened ballot boxes, it said.  

The US state department’s top diplomat for Africa, Tibor Nagy, said in a tweet on Saturday that the “electoral process has been fundamentally flawed”. He cited fraud reports, denial of accreditation to observers, violence and harassment of opposition members, and the arrest of civil society activists.

Perhaps more depressing is the deafening silence of the AU, chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa, and the SA government. It’s hard to see how the AU can proclaim the vote as free and fair. As for the SA government, it’s time for the famously indecisive Ramaphosa to ditch the quiet diplomacy and stand up for human rights.

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