Uganda: Ballot Or Bullet?

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Global media can be a pillar of democracy when it strives to uncover the truth. On Thursday, Uganda will have its first multi-party election in over 20 years. Given the country's turbulent post-colonial history and the fragile political situation in the Great Lakes region in East Africa this election is of the utmost importance. The election must be given the broad coverage it deserves by all major media outlets.

Uganda's last multi-party elections – marred by widespread violence and fraud – set the stage for a dark period in the country's history. Twenty six years later, the lack of media coverage being given to what could potentially be a very combustible situation could once again have catastrophic repercussions. 

In the past year alone global media played a critical role in turning the tide in elections in nations as diverse as Uzbekistan and Lebanon. By bringing the struggle of pro-democracy movements into our homes, audiences the world over have overwhelmingly denounced any attempts to undermine the will of the people. With over half a million people being killed in the 1970s and 1980s Uganda was notorious for its human rights abuses. President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power after a military coup in 1986, initiated a period of steady socio economic recovery. Sworn into office in front of hundreds of thousands of jubilant Ugandans he promised his regime would not be a mere “changing of the guard� but rather a fundamental change.

However, after 20 years in office his track record has begun to falter. In failing to reach a peaceful resolution to a 20 year conflict in Northern Uganda, 1.6 million people have been internally displaced and now live in squalid settlements around the country.  His government has also come under fire from international human rights groups for its involvement in the civil war in neighboring Congo, which having claimed the lives of up to 4 million people and which was referred to by the BBC as the world's most deadly war since 1945. In condemnation of Uganda's actions, the International Court of Justice ruled that its actions violated Congo's sovereignty leading to gross human rights abuses and the illicit plundering of billions of dollars of Congo's natural resources. The Congo government has asked for $10 billion in compensation.

Last year, with assurances from President Mbeki, Dr. Kizza Besigye, the Ugandan President's chief rival, returned from exile in South Africa to contest in the upcoming elections. Within three weeks of his arrival Dr. Besigye was arrested and thrown in the country's notorious Luzira Prison, where he was charged with treason and rape.

It is telling that in the face of perhaps the stiffest challenge to his leadership since he came to office, President Museveni, who was once lauded as one of the new breed of African leaders, clamped down on the media, used heavy handed tactics to quell demonstrations calling for Dr. Besigye's release, and deployed armed forces in Uganda's major urban centers to restore law and order.  After pressure from abroad, Dr. Besigye was released on bail, and with less than a fortnight to go is making hasty preparations for the election.

In a truly democratic state, the voting process must be free and fair, but the absence of checks on the executive means that Uganda's president can maintain the charade of presiding over a well functioning democracy, whilst doing as he pleases. Only last Wednesday three FDC supporters were fatally shot, in broad daylight, as they eagerly awaited Dr. Besigye in a suburb of Kampala, the capital city. On Sunday, seven military armored cars jammed their way through a crowd at an FDC rally in the town of Mukono critically injuring two people. And with only a few days remaining until the voting, police have fired tear gas on opposition supporters in order to disperse “illegal assemblies.�

Given the numerous instances of election violence, the revelation that there are undisclosed polling stations in existence, allegations of buying voters and a general shortage of impartial election monitors, concerns have been raised about the ability to monitor the election.  And yet the opposition is confident, declaring that whilst the state may have the army and all its weapons, the heart and minds of the electorate belong to them. 

Although no one can guarantee who will win the election, it is undeniable that the watchful gaze of the media will serve notice to all those involved that the world is monitoring events on the ground. This reassures voters to remain steadfast in their resolve not to be intimidated by brazen displays of strength, intended to suggest that their only choice is between a ballot for the incumbent or a bullet, as a result of the chaos that will ensue if he is not reelected. 

Global media must not turn a deaf ear to the cries of Ugandans yearning to freely express their will. Ensure that any electoral abuses are reported to the entire international community.

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