The world watched this week as first Amama Mbabazi was arrested in Jinja Town, followed by the arrest of Kizza Besigye in Kampala—two presidential hopefuls. They were arrested for organizing political meetings without police permission, according to media reporting.
Both were freed after 12 hours. Both were at one time close allies of President Yoweri Museveni. The president is believed to be running for reelection. Mr. Mbabazi recently said he would challenge Mr. Museveni for the presidency by seeking the nomination of the National Resistance Movement (NRM), the ruling party.
Last year Mr. Museveni fired Mr. Mbabazi from the office of prime minister, effectively ending a 20-year relationship. Clearly Mr. Museveni won’t tolerate any competition.
Mr. Mbabazi’s daughter has also been arrested, without charge. Retired General David Sejusa (army) went to the jail in a show of support. The international attention that these arrests have garnered is probably not the kind of attention Mr. Museveni wants to attract.
One might ask, what is the point of elections and democracy if a country’s leaders are still going to exhibit such open displays of dictatorial behavior? Arresting presidential candidates merely because they are competitors harkens back to the old days of the USSR to name but one example.
Last Wednesday police said Mr. Mbabazi had not been given permission to hold meetings.
Mr. Mbabazi is 66-years-old. “The government uses the police forces to achieve political objectives,” said Mbabazi after being freed. “They wanted to stop me from meeting with the party leaders, to express that I wanted their support. My interpretation is that [Museveni] is scared of competition, as he has never had competition before. My supporters are arrested every day.”
Regarding his 2016 campaign, he said, “If anything, my resolve is stronger now.” He is planning on announcing the next stages of his campaign in the coming week.
Mr. Museveni relies on his success stories while in office to bolster public opinion and maintain his favorability rating. For example, the poverty rate fell from 56% in 1992 to 25% in 2012. This is a significant drop that would make any African leader proud. The country also made strong strides against HIV/AIDS in the last decade before the turn of the century but once again the numbers of those who have the infection are on the rise, another issue for Mr. Mbabazi to run on.
In the most recent of the Freedom House’s freedom indexes, Uganda was declared “not free.” Uganda continues to face foreign condemnation for its repressive laws on homosexuality. True, there are few, if any, nations on the face of the African continent that do well with homosexuality, but for Uganda, its laws make things even worse. Other laws have come into being that make free speech increasingly difficult and mounting an opposition campaign near impossible. Term limits is a big issue across Africa. According to Afrobarometer, 75% of people across 34 countries want term limits for African leaders. In 2005 Uganda’s parliament voted to remove term limits, but, according to Afrobarometer, 85% of Ugandans want term limits.
The 2016 election will be a great test of the strength and state of Uganda’s democracy. Mr. Mbabazi said, “Uganda has been a success story, but those successes are in danger. Museveni shouldn’t allow his legacy to be tarnished by clinging to power. Uganda has never had a peaceful transition of power. It would be a great gift to Uganda’s people.”
The other recent arrest, Mr. Museveni’s former physician, Dr. Besigye, has been trying to get the nomination of the Forum of Democratic Change (FDC), the opposition party. A healthy democratic election in 2016 would see Dr. Besigye pitted against Mr. Mbabazi. Whether or not Mr. Museveni will wisely relinquish his reigns on power and allow this to happen, we have yet to see.