UK Government urged to support Ugandan pro-democracy campaign: A report on the recent meeting between UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials and UK – based Ugandan activists. (Report written by Dr. Vincent Magombe and Opiyo Oryema, on behalf of the Uganda Pro-Democracy Forum, International.)
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office met again with a group of Ugandan pro-democracy campaigners in London. The meeting, which took place on 24 March 2011, was attended by Mr Lewis Clark, the Desk Officer for Uganda and Tanzania at the FCO, and Miss Elizabeth McKinnell, while the Ugandans included Dr. Vincent Magombe, Ms. Belinda Atim, Mr. Moses Kiwanuka, Ms. Margaret Lakidi, Mr. Opio Oryema, Mr. David Serukera and Mr. William Masembe-Nkata.
The Ugandan activists urged the UK government to support the newly launched pro-democracy campaign in Uganda. The NRM regime under Mr. Yoweri Museveni, they explained, had eroded any traces of competitive politics and, since 1986, ruled Uganda without due regard to internationally accepted standards of democratic practice. Mr Museveni had presided over the stifling and strangulation of Uganda’s opposition parties, and effectively denied Ugandan citizens the right to chose political leaders of their choice. He had changed the constitution to effectively create a life-presidency for himself. Even now, Museveni’s NRM party is already plotting another constitutional change that would extend Mr Museveni’s terms of office to seven years.
The Ugandan campaigners outlined the reasons why the majority of Ugandans, including all the main opposition parties, had rejected the results of the February 2011 elections. A non-violent struggle, had now been launched by the Ugandan activists, both at home and in the Diaspora, and this would involve peaceful protests and other forms of civil disobedience. The ultimate objective of the peaceful campaign is to enable the creation of a new democratic dispensation, whereby elections are always free and fair, delivered by an electoral commission that is truly independent and unbiased. In the new dispensation, all Ugandan citizens would be guaranteed their constitutional rights and freedoms, including the freedom of assembly, and that of the media and expression.
In the short term, the aim of the campaign is to make Mr Museveni to stand down, so that a transition government that is representatives of all sections of Ugandan society can be set up, with the central task of facilitating the democratisation process that would lead to the holding of free and fair elections.
At the heart of the peoples’ rejection, of what has been dubbed the ‘sham’ February 2011 elections, is the realisation that Mr Museveni and his NRM party variously rigged the vote. The regime had refused to institute an independent and professionally competent electoral commission, and the majority of Ugandans had been disenfranchised and politically alienated from the political processes.
This fact was confirmed by the thousands of registered voters who could not find their names at the polling stations, and the millions of registered voters, who did not bother to vote, as they believed the elections were already rigged before election-day. In the run-up to the elections, thousands of troops and paramilitary forces were deployed in the towns and villages of Uganda, and this provided a visible source of intimidation to opposition supporters, who, accordingly, chose to stay away from the militarised voting centres. The Museveni regime also launched a psychological and propaganda war, whose aim was to scare Ugandans about a supposed threat of war and instability, in the event that the opposition won the elections.
The lack of a level playing ground and the diversion of public finances to fund the election campaigns of Mr. Museveni and his NRM party are some of the other glaring examples of how the elections were rigged. Opposition leaders were denied equal access to the public media networks, and also to the same pool of financial and state resources from which the NRM party was drawing its own facilitation. The diversion of funds was confirmed through the pronouncements of senior government and NRM functionaries, during and after the elections. One government minister stated that the country had gone broke as a result of excessive spending during the election period.
The Ugandan pro-democracy campaigners were of the view that the diverted money could be part of the British government aid to Uganda. The British government should, accordingly, demand for accountability in regard to the money provided to Uganda by British tax payers. It was suggested that UK developmental support to Uganda be much more closely monitored to ensure that it is the people of Uganda, and not the ruling political elite, who are the actual beneficiaries.
Increasingly, Ugandans were getting more and more worried about the run-away corruption and misuse of public funds under the Museveni regime. There was a general unease about how Uganda’s future oil industry would be managed, given the lack of transparency and the widespread corruption among the country’s ruling elite. The pro-democracy activists at the FCO meeting had earlier on taken part in the handing over of a petition to the UK prime minister’s office at No. 10 Downing Street.. The Petition, which calls for transparency in the oil management and exploitation processes in Uganda, was signed by hundreds of Ugandan civil society and local community representatives, who fear that, just like the country’s aid money, Uganda’s future earnings from oil could be misappropriated or diverted away from the provision of essential public services.
The UK based activists proposed that the UK government should consider consulting and engaging more with non-governmental Ugandan stakeholders – civil society organisations, development NGOs, and even Ugandan Diaspora representatives, so that the latter can be more involved in the monitoring of how UK development aid is channelled and disbursed within Uganda. The British government was urged to deploy various targeted sanctions, including cutting off aid that is given directly to the Museveni regime, in protest against the increasing violations of human rights by the regime and the lack of political will to tackle entrenched corruption.
In recent months, the state security organisations, including the notorious Joint Anti-terrorism Taskforce (JATT) have arrested hundreds of pro democracy activists throughout the country. An ominous tactic is being used by the Museveni regime to silence and cow the nascent pro-democracy struggle. Some activists have been charged with treason, a crime punishable by death in Uganda. Many of them are being accused of belonging to fictitious rebel groups. A good example being Ms Annet Namwanga, a political activist who was kidnapped from her home by JATT operatives, held incommunicado for a period of time, and later accused of attempting to throw explosives at a military facility.
In order to create an impression of truthfulness about the accusations labelled at innocent Ugandans, like Annet Namwanga, the Museveni regime engages in a well orchestrated campaign of disinformation and misinformation, describing how several ‘terrorist and rebel’ groups have been set up across the country by elements sympathetic to the opposition parties. This strategy enables the regime to politically neutralise and eliminate critical political opposition activists and pro-democracy campaigners. The Kampala regime is well known for stage-managing security crises, with the view to scaring and cowing the electorate. These stage-managed antics are also meant to attract international support.
The UK government should demand for the unconditional release of all these victims of political repression. The Ugandan campaigners advised that British ministers should raise these matters directly with the Museveni regime. There should be an enquiry, possibly involving the UN and an independent special commission, into the use of violence and torture by the Kampala regime. [Since the FCO meeting, reports of torture and physical abuse of the detainees have emerged from Kampala. A damning Human Rights Watch report has been released, detailing the continued brutalisation and torture of innocent Ugandans by the state security agencies. The regime has also violently clamped down on peaceful campaigners, who were participating in the ‘Walk to Work’ protest. Hundreds of peaceful protesters have been arrested, tear-gassed, and shot at with live and plastic bullets. One of the victims of the shooting is Dr. Kizza Besigye, the leader of the Forum for Democratic Change party. Other opposition leaders, like Ambassador Olara Otunnu, Norbert Mao, Ken Lukyamuzi, and Erias Lukwago, the newly elected Mayor of Kampala city were also detained on several occasions during the clampdown. The Peaceful protests are set to continue.]
According to the Ugandan activists, what happened in Uganda was not election, but a selection process that could only end in the re-election of Mr. Museveni. The result of this political charade and electoral fracas was an illegitimate regime that was born out of a violated and abused constitutional order.
The Museveni regime had used all available state security agencies and pro-NRM paramilitary outfits to brutalise and intimidate voters and opposition activists across the country. A good example of the brutalisation of the nation’s citizens was in Mbale, Eastern Uganda, where the army and security operatives were ordered to shoot at and beat up voters and opposition activists. A vocal senior opposition leader from the area has accused the army of attempting to assassinate him, when the bullet meant for him instead hit a prominent journalist. Several government ministers were directly involved in the state-sponsored rampage in the area.
The brutality of the state security machinery had also been evident in the mayoral and local elections in Kampala and other parts of Uganda. The extensive rigging and widespread electoral malpractices led to the cancellation or postponement of voting in many areas. Hundreds of opposition activists were beaten, and others were detained just because they were prepared to prevent vote rigging by protecting their ballots.
The UK government was being specifically called upon, by the Ugandan campaigners, to support the new non-violent campaign, by urging the Museveni regime to stop intimidating peaceful demonstrators and using the army and security forces to forcefully deny Ugandans their constitutional right to peacefully protests against the regime.
The UK government should pro-actively support and assist the establishment of democracy-based constitutionality, and good governance practices in general, in Uganda. The Ugandan campaigners emphasised the need for the British and other Western countries to respect the interests and aspirations of the citizens of African countries, and not to blindly support autocratic regimes, like that of Mr. Museveni, on the basis of their own strategic interests. The Museveni regime is known to be a staunch ally of the West in the war against international terrorism.
But, most of all, Western governments should abstain from frustrating the pro-democracy struggles of African people by empowering and sustaining in power the repressive regimes against whom the citizens are struggling. The FCO officials were reminded of the statement by Ambassador Olara Otunnu, one of the Ugandan opposition leaders, who, during a visit to London, used the popular adage – “If you can’t do good, do no harm,” meaning that if the international community were not in position to practically assist Ugandan people in their struggle for democracy, then the best they could do is not to sabotage or obstruct the people’s effort.
The Ugandan activists warned of possible violence, if the Museveni regime continued to block all peaceful avenues of protest against the injustices suffered by Ugandans over the last 2 decades. While most Ugandans were seeking to peacefully express their frustration about the lack of democracy, entrenched corruption, widespread poverty and the brutal actions of the NRM regime, there was a growing feeling among some Ugandans that Mr Museveni cannot be removed peacefully, and only an armed rebellion could topple his 24-year old dictatorial rule.
The pro-democracy campaigners remained optimistic that if intense national and international pressure were to be applied on the Museveni regime, it was still possible to peacefully transform Uganda into a fully fledged democratic nation. This is the reason why Ugandans were appealing to the British government to act now, in support of the evolving peaceful struggle against the regime in Kampala. It was imperative that the root causes of Uganda’s problems, including the all-encompassing lack of democracy and bad governance, be addressed as a matter of urgency, in order to rescue the Ugandan nation from the abyss.
UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office reaction to the general concerns raised by Ugandan pro-democracy activists:
The FCO officials said that they were appreciative of the regular exchanges they were having with the Ugandan pro-democracy campaigners, and were hopeful that a lot of good would come out of the mutual exchanges. They welcomed the efforts of Diaspora Ugandans to broaden their contacts and work with the opposition parties and civil society organisations within Uganda.
The British government was aware of many of the concerns raised by the visiting Ugandan activists, and that is why the UK continues to support the Ugandan people in their efforts to democratise the country. The United Kingdom is committed to enabling the observance of transparency and plural government, where power changes hands peacefully through multi-party elections. To this end, the British Government will continue to fund the ‘Deepening Democracy Programme’, as well as other programmes that are vital to the development of a democratic Uganda. In particular, the UK will urge the Ugandan Government to reflect upon the recommendations for improving the democratic process that will be noted in the forthcoming Observation reports on the elections, which will be published soon by the EU and other International Organisations.
The UK supports non confrontational campaigns for change. Earlier this week the British High Commission in Kampala, in response to the arrests of Dr Besigye and Mr Mao, urged the Uganda Police Force to respond proportionally to public order situations. Furthermore, they have made public statements in support of the right of citizens to protest peacefully, noting that ‘the peaceful exercise of the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are two fundamental pillars of any democratic society’.
The FCO officials observed that while democratic freedoms are taken for granted in the UK, this was not the case in Uganda.
FCO comments about the specific matter of the defective February 2011 elections in Uganda.
The European Union had a team of observers, deployed in many parts of Uganda, which included a number of British representatives. The EU findings made it clear that the election results raised several issues of great concern that were avoidable, and must be addressed by the Ugandan authorities.
The two FCO officials, who met with the Ugandan pro-democracy activists in London, were themselves part of the EU observer team, and they were posted to Mbarara, Ibanda, Rushere, and Padibe in Kitgum.
Even though they did not witness violent incidents in their own area of observation, they, like the rest of the EU observers, became aware of incidents of violence and electoral malpractices that went on in some parts of Uganda.
Some of the malpractices were due to incompetence and lack of training on behalf of the Electoral Commission staff. But there were other misdemeanours that were of a more systemic nature. In the opinion of the FCO officials, it is possible that electoral rigging seems to have occurred long before the elections, through the bribery of voters, and the lack of a level playing field, which effectively disadvantaged the political opposition. There will be more detailed observations on possible malpractices in the forthcoming report from the EU Observation Mission.
According to the FCO officials, one of the notable problems was the entrenched bond between the state and NRM political party. Representatives of the state and the party cadres were functionally intertwined, and state resources were being utilised to the benefit of the ruling party.
It had also been observed, by an EU study, that there was also the widespread bias in media coverage, with the state-owned media tending to support the ruling NRM party. The fact that most of the FM radio stations are owned by supporters of the NRM party made matters more difficult for the opposition.
Finally, the FCO officials were in agreement with the point raised by the Ugandan pro-democracy activists that it was possible that some Ugandan voters could have been intimidated by the widespread deployment of security forces in many parts of the country.
But the British government functionaries also advised that the opposition parties, too, had a responsibility to improve their organisation and their campaigning if Uganda is to make progress towards being a fully fledged, competitive multi-party system. This is something the Ugandan opposition needs to reflect on.
FCO remarks on the need for transparency in economic activities (especially in regard to the future of oil production industry) in Uganda.
It is the view of the UK government that transparency in the management and exploitation of oil is important for the future of Uganda. If revenues are used correctly, it will bring a big economic boom and accelerate economic development, and the Department for International Development is undertaking work that should help to create a strong and transparent system for the management of oil revenues.
In regard to UK financial aid to Uganda, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Department for International Development are committed to closely monitoring how UK aid to Uganda is being utilised.
The United Kingdom believes that the establishment of proper governance systems in Uganda, the creation of a truly democratic dispensation, and the development of solid guarantees for the peaceful transfer of political power are vital ingredients in the attainment of peace, political stability, and sustainable development in Uganda.
Concrete Outcomes from the FCO Meeting:
• UK government will present its concerns about some of the issues raised by the Ugandan pro-democracy activists to the NRM regime in Kampala, as part of its ongoing dialogue. Some of the issues will be communicated through the British High Commission in Uganda, while others would be handled via different channels
• The UK supports the constitutional right of Ugandan citizens to protest peacefully.
• The United Kingdom to ask the NRM regime in Uganda not to use violence or any other intimidatory tactics against peaceful demonstrators.
• The UK government to enquire into the concerns raised by Ugandan pro-democracy campaigners about the possible diversion of public funds, by the NRM regime, to fund NRM party election campaigns.
• Of great concern would be any diversion of development aid money given to Uganda by the UK government.
• FCO is open to future meetings of this nature. A follow up meeting to be organised in the next few months to review progress.
In the mean time, Ugandan pro-democracy campaigners will provide to the FCO details of incidences of state violence against peaceful protesters and innocent pro-democracy campaigners, as well as a list of people arrested, injured or killed.
Also, if a big Diaspora event is organised in London, a request could be made to have the UK Minister for Africa as a guest speaker.
Dr. Vincent Magombe
(on behalf of the Uganda Pro-Democracy Forum (UPDF) – International)