How Uganda’s president became what he once fought against

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2021 uganda presidential election posters

Part of rebuilding U.S. democratic institutions is fighting for them abroad. Uganda, where an aging ruler has evolved from reformer to tyrant, would be a good place to start.

Uganda’s president has become what he once fought against

by Washington Post Editorial Board

Uganda elections 2021 - Bobi Wine versus Yoweri Museveni
Tyrant Yoweri Museveni versus popular singer and presidential contestant Bobi Wine

UGANDAN PRESIDENT Yoweri Museveni was once regarded as one of the most promising leaders in Africa, in dramatic contrast with Idi Amin, the notorious dictator against whom he had led an insurgency. After coming to power in 1986, Mr. Museveni liberalized the economy, triggering rapid growth and a major reduction in poverty. He allowed Uganda’s first multicandidate presidential election, and cultivated a close alliance with the United States.

But as Mr. Museveni has aged, his regime has grown steadily more corrupt and autocratic. The election he staged Thursday to award himself a sixth consecutive term in office was a mockery of democracy. It showed that he has become, as Nigerian novelist and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka put it, “the very thing he fought against.”

To stay in office, Mr. Museveni first pushed through a constitutional amendment eliminating an age limit of 75 for presidential candidates; he is 76. For the first time in decades, he refused to accredit election observers from the United States and European Union; more than two dozen Ugandan monitors were arrested. Two days before the election, he blocked Facebook, which had taken down scores of accounts the government was using to manipulate information and commentary about the vote. The next day, all Internet access in Uganda was blocked.

The regime’s most blatant actions were directed at Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu — better known as Bobi Wine, a 38-year-old rapper turned political leader who was Mr. Museveni’s principal opponent. During the campaign, Mr. Wine was arrested three times, along with at least 600 supporters at his rallies. His bodyguard was murdered, his lawyer was detained, and journalists who covered him had their accreditation revoked. Worst of all, when one of Mr. Wine’s arrests led to street protests in November, security forces responded with gunfire, killing at least 54 people.

Though voting on Thursday was reported to be mostly peaceful, events afterward took a predictable course. Election authorities reported that Mr. Museveni was winning by a landslide, earning 62 percent with half the vote counted, even though pre-election polls showed him only barely above the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. Mr. Wine said he had proof of fraud; on Friday, he said troops had occupied his home.

The risk now is that Mr. Museveni’s seemingly inevitable declaration of victory this weekend will lead to protests and more violence. Sadly, pressure from the United States is unlikely to restrain him, even though U.S. aid of $750 million a year provides substantial leverage. The regime already dismissed a statement from outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which said that “political violence, repression and intimidation have no place in democracies”; the government said the election crisis in the United States had deprived it of moral authority to judge Ugandan elections.

That response illustrates the challenge facing the incoming Biden administration, which has pledged to revive U.S. support for global democracy. President-elect Joe Biden should not be deterred. Part of rebuilding U.S. democratic institutions is fighting for them abroad. Uganda, where an aging ruler has evolved from reformer to tyrant, would be a good place to start.

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