The East African nation of Uganda will elect its next president on February 18. As is sometimes the case, the United States will have to find a way during this election to remain true to its democratic principles while constructively engaging with an ally who has achieved a level of stability and economic prosperity, but who has also grown increasingly undemocratic. The U.S. should seek ways to strengthen Ugandan civil society and build a strategy for encouraging a democratic transition after President Yoweri Museveni’s eventual departure.
Uganda: A Regional Actor
Uganda is a small nation, but it boasts significant power and influence in its region. With 37 million people occupying a land-locked territory slightly smaller than the state of Michigan, President Museveni has managed to position himself as a power broker in the region. Uganda provides the largest troop contingent to the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is locked in battle with the al-Qaeda-aligned Islamist terrorist group al-Shabaab, and its forces have pursued the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army into the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Sudan. Uganda is a key part of the East African Community’s (EAC) economic integration efforts, including the ambitious Lamu Port Southern Sudan–Ethiopia Transport infrastructure project. The EAC also selected Museveni to lead its efforts to negotiate peace in troubled Burundi, though he has yet to achieve success.
President Museveni does, however, have a history of military adventurism that has fueled regional instability. In 1997, Ugandan forces allied with Rwanda overthrew the Mobutu government in neighboring DRC; in 1998, they again invaded the country in an attempt to unseat the president whom they had placed in power. Ugandan forces have been credibly accused of serious human rights violations and looting significant wealth from the DRC. In 2012, the U.N. accused Uganda and Rwanda of aiding the M23 rebel group in the eastern part of the country. Sudan also accused Museveni of supporting the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in the 1990s. Most recently, Museveni sent troops into the midst of the civil war in South Sudan to prop up President Salva Kiir, who has plunged his nation into an awful bloodletting in a bid to eliminate his rival, former Vice President Riek Machar, who has similarly shown little willingness to end the fighting.
Troubling Lead-up to Elections
Museveni came to power in 1986 at the head of the National Resistance Army that toppled President Tito Okello. Under Museveni’s leadership, the country began to rebuild after years of war and mismanagement, achieving strong economic growth for most of his tenure, although poverty remains widespread. However, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM) dominated the political system as political parties were essentially barred until 2005, the same year parliament voted to abolish the constitutional restriction on a president serving more than two terms. On Thursday, Museveni will seek his fifth term against two main contenders, Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi.
The lead-up to the election has been troubling. Both Besigye and Mbabazi have been temporarily detained in the past (Besigye multiple times). Most recently, Besigye was briefly taken into custody on February 15, 2016, as he led a march of his supporters in the capital of Kampala. During the resulting clash with police, one of Besigye’s supporters was killed. Several high-ranking government officials, including Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura, have publicly made bellicose statements about the opposition, though they say they were misquoted. Rights groups also accuse the NRM of rigging the process to ensure Museveni’s reelection. Finally, there is a worrying precedent: In the most recent presidential election in 2011, the European Union election monitors observing the polls said Museveni had used the powers of incumbency to “compromise severely” the elections.
Museveni has overseen an era of economic growth and stability in the country, and he is a strong partner of the U.S., particularly on issues of terrorism.
Yet his undemocratic activities place him at odds with the U.S., which for decades has made fostering democracies around the world a significant part of its foreign policy. The U.S. does so because it is easier to find unity of purpose with countries with similar values and for humanitarian reasons: Democracies are far less likely to opress their citizens—and more likely to enable people to realize their aspirations—than are other political systems. Allies’ illiberalism also undercuts U.S. moral standing in the world, particularly as the rest of the world views the U.S. as the global democratic standard-bearer.
Museveni is unlikely to allow the institutions necessary for a healthy democracy to grow on his watch. In November 2015, the Ugandan parliament passed a law weakening civil society, and there is speculation that Museveni is grooming his son, Brigadier General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, to succeed him.
In order to help advance its strategic priorities in the region, the U.S. should:
- Be consistent in making the case for democracy with Museveni. Both in public and in private, frame democracy as being in his own best interests as well as in the best interests of his people.
- Be prepared to marshal diplomatic and other points of leverage in concert with allies and regional actors, if the elections turn violent. Uganda has been spared widespread violence during previous elections, but protests in the past, particularly the 2011 “walk-to-work” demonstrations, have deteriorated into rioting after being met with deadly force by security services. Elections are often delicate affairs in countries with long-serving strongmen, and February 18 will be no different.
- Seize every opportunity to strengthen civil society—the foundation for a resilient democracy. The U.S. will need to be creative in doing so, given the recent passage of Uganda’s civil-society-weakening law, which is in keeping with a trend of such laws proliferating throughout the continent.
- Build a strategy now for an eventual transition. Museveni will eventually leave office, and the U.S., in concert with its allies, should already be planning ways to persuade the NRM to ensure the Ugandan people decide on Museveni’s successor. Dynastic succession that could bring to power another long-serving strongman would badly undermine democratic prospects in the country, and risk breeding ill will toward the U.S. among Ugandans who have grown tired of Museveni and his family.
- Continue to provide monitors for elections, but also start working months ahead of time to strengthen electoral systems and the capacity of poll workers to ensure free and fair elections. If those activities begin a mere month before elections, it is already too late.
Getting It Right
It is urgent that the U.S. engage properly with Uganda during its elections. Over a dozen elections are slated for 2016 in Africa, and several will require that the U.S. find ways to affirm its commitment to democracy while maintaining constructive relations with an authoritarian ally. If some of these elections go badly, including Uganda’s, violence with regional implications is a real possibility.
—Joshua Meservey is Policy Analyst for Africa and the Middle East in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation.