It’s become fashionable lately to disparage democracy. From the failure of “nation building” attempts in Iraq and Afghanistan to Islamist violence in Egypt, Libya, and other Arab Spring countries, to the rise of Donald Trump, some now see government of the people as a liability in a violent and polarized world. In a recent New York magazine essay on the subject, Andrew Sullivan endorses Plato’s claim that tyranny all too often results from the anarchic nature of democracy itself, rather than from its perversion by anti-democratic forces.
Readers who find such arguments appealing might want to consider moving to impoverished, corruption-ridden Uganda, ruled by President Yoweri Museveni for thirty years through a combination of bribery, blackmail, and brute force. Last week, Museveni was sworn in for yet another five-year term, having supposedly won a national election on February 18. But even Museveni’s closest Western allies acknowledge the vote was neither free nor fair. His main challenger, Kizza Besigye, is now in prison, charged with treason, which is punishable by death in Uganda.
Museveni’s swearing-in ceremony was attended by a rogue’s gallery of fellow dictators, including Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. In his speech, Museveni ridiculed his critics as “those stupid ones,” and called the International Criminal Court, which has charged some of his guests with crimes against humanity, “a bunch of useless people.” The American ambassador, who attended the ceremony in the capital Kampala, walked out when she heard these words, as did diplomats from other Western countries that together pour about $1 billion in foreign aid into Uganda each year.
In the past Western governments have rubber-stamped Museveni’s dubious election victories, in part because he’s a crucial military ally, with troops in Somalia and other theaters of the “war on terror.” Earlier this month, Museveni suggested he might pull his troops out of Somalia, putting the Western-backed but very weak government there in a tight spot in its battle with al-Shabaab militants. But even with this implied threat, the diplomats couldn’t stomach the insult to the ICC, especially with Sudan’s Bashir, indicted for crimes in Darfur, in the audience. It’s unclear, though, whether Western donors will follow this symbolic protest with aid cuts and other sanctions.
I was in Uganda on February 20, when the country’s Electoral Commission announced Museveni’s victory. A few journalists with cameras turned up to record the proceedings, but otherwise the venue, festooned with bunting and the red, yellow, and black of the national flag had a somber atmosphere. Wearing a black academic-style gown, the seventy-one-year-old chairman of the commission, Badru Kiggundu, slowly read out a section of Uganda’s Electoral law and then, in alphabetical order, mumbled the names of the candidates and their respective share of the vote. President Museveni had won with roughly 60 percent, he said. His main challenger, Col. Dr. Kizza Besigye, leader of the main opposition FDC party, received 35 percent, and six other candidates received much smaller fractions. A few people clapped, and then the only sound on the broadcast, which I watched on Ugandan television in my hotel, was the awkward rustling of Eng. Kiggundu’s papers as he shuffled them into a neat pile.
Just hours before Kiggundu’s announcement, Eduard Kukan, the head of the EU’s Election Observation Mission to Uganda, held a press conference in which he criticized the government for the repeated arrest of Besigye and jailing and teargassing of his supporters, the long delayed arrival of ballot papers in opposition areas on election day, the open endorsement of Museveni by the Electoral Commission chairman, and the planting of tanks and armed soldiers all around the country to intimidate potential demonstrators. (Kukan did not mention that the chairwoman of the ruling party, Justine Lumumba, publicly warned Ugandan parents a month before the election that “the state will kill your children” should they come out onto the streets to protest the results—and that, according to the opposition, dozens of its supporters were in fact killed by police.)
Kukan further noted that numerous boxes of ballot papers pre-ticked for Museveni had been reported around the country. On election day, an independent election-monitoring NGO set up a call center at a Kampala hotel where reports of election malpractices could be phoned in. In just one of many egregious examples, a worker there showed me a report from the polling station in the president’s home area in which numerous voters claimed they were given ballot papers pre-ticked for him and ordered to put them in the box. Those who refused were told, “We know your family.” At that polling station, the president received 760 votes and Besigye received 2, according to Kiggundu’s Electoral Commission, even though only 437 voters were registered there.
Shortly after the polls closed on February 18, Besigye led a group of reporters to a large house in an upscale Kampala neighborhood near the national police headquarters. Informants had been observing the house for weeks and had seen boxes of ballots and computer equipment as well as large amounts of food being delivered there. Suspecting it was a base for a government-run vote-rigging operation, Besigye banged his fists on the gate and demanded to be admitted. A young man who was about to enter the building panicked and ran. Besigye’s supporters chased him down. In the scuffle, a pistol and handcuffs fell out of the young man’s pocket. Three pickup trucks with police bearing machine guns arrived minutes later, sprayed the rapidly gathering crowd with tear gas, arrested several Besigye supporters, and escorted the candidate home.
Besigye claims that government agents inside the “rigging house” were transmitting doctored election results to the main Electoral Commission tally center a couple of miles away. Uganda’s police spokesman Fred Enanga dismissed Besigye’s claims. The building in question housed one of numerous command centers, Enanga said, and was off-limits to the public. He did not explain why the police did not prove this by allowing Besigye and the reporters with him to tour the facility.
By law, opposition groups are allowed to post observers at all 30,000 or so polling stations around the country to witness the voting and counting and sign final tally records known as Declaration of Results forms. The FDC party, which draws support from many parts of the country, was able to post such witnesses at most polling stations—and in contrast to the results announced by the Electoral Commission, it claims Besigye won with 52 percent of the vote, despite delays, intimidation, ballot stuffing, and other obstructions. The FDC’s tally could not be independently verified, however, because when Besigye called a press conference the day after the election to present its findings, his office was stormed by police who confiscated papers and computers and jailed numerous staff members, including data entry clerks and Besigye himself.
The evening after the raid of the FDC office, George Kanyeihamba, a retired Uganda Supreme Court judge, was watching the early election returns on TV when he noticed something odd. “The record will show,” he wrote in Uganda’s Observer newspaper, “that initially, presidential candidate Yoweri Museveni was leading with some 56 percent of provisional results so far declared,” but as more results came in, “Museveni was going down to 50 percent and Besigye was climbing up to the same number. Suddenly, an invisible hand stopped the process and blackened the TV screen. Within a minute or two, the screen brightened up and showed Museveni with over 60 percent and Kizza Besigye with 32 percent.”
Besigye claims the FDC is still in possession of 70 percent of the Declaration of Results forms but because so many of its officers were in detention, the party was unable to prepare a petition to challenge the results before the Uganda Supreme Court within ten days of the election, as required by law. Because opposition groups had alleged rigging in previous elections, a Western donor-funded NGO offered to co-finance a tallying system that would allow independent verification of results. It pulled out of the deal in December when the regime hastily procured a system that did not allow such verification. Besigye’s party is now calling for an internationally supervised audit of the election. There may be no other way to resolve the crisis.
On May 11, the eve of Museveni’s swearing-in, Besigye managed to escape from house arrest and appeared on the streets of downtown Kampala, just as a video of himself being “sworn in” as president in a mock ceremony was released on the Internet. People gathered around his vehicle to greet and cheer for him, but the police chased them away with bullets, batons, and tear gas. The government shut down Facebook and other social media immediately and the police whisked Besigye away to Jinja, a nearby town. He was then taken by helicopter to a police station in the remote Karamoja region, where he was charged with treason and transferred to a prison. Karamoja was once considered a Museveni stronghold, but on Friday, local people poured out onto the streets singing FDC songs and bearing gifts of tomatoes, chicken, turkeys, and money for the opposition leader. The army was called in to control the crowds and counter-terrorism police threatened to shoot any journalist who tried to photograph the politician. A fight then broke out inside the prison between supporters of Besigye and those of the president, in which one of the latter’s supporters was killed. On Monday, Besigye was flown back to Kampala in handcuffs, where he is now being held in custody until his next court appearance later this month.
It’s not clear what will happen next. The Ugandan press is heavily monitored by the government, and numerous journalists have received threats of arrest, and scores have been detained, pulled off the air, or even arrested and beaten in mid-broadcast—though information about the crackdown is still getting out. Many Ugandans are angry about the election, but also terrified of the tanks and machine-gun-toting soldiers and police, who are still deployed on hills and school playing fields throughout the country. Even members of the police and army themselves are reportedly furious.
According to Besigye’s election tally, he led by wide margins in polling stations near barracks where soldiers and police typically vote, which could be why the government abruptly evicted thousands of officers and their families from their barracks two weeks after the election. There are rumors that other armed groups are mobilizing. If violence does break out, it will demonstrate the failure not of democracy, but of the sham version of it under which Ugandans—and so many others in the world—are forced to live.
Research for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.