Recent events in Uganda serve as a cautionary tale about democracy's fragile condition in the east African nation. When the president's strongest electoral challenger is subjected to arbitrary arrest, little doubt remains that the ruling cabal feels the political plates shifting beneath its feet, but is disinclined to lose its footing or its elevated position.
On Thursday morning, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi was arrested outside Kampala while travelling to meet with supporters of his nascent presidential campaign. These grassroots gatherings are an important first step in Mbabazi's struggle to revive Ugandan democracy.
After all, "Democracy!" was the rallying cry of the coup that first brought President Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. But, by the time of Mbabazi's release without charge yesterday evening, it was abundantly clear that Museveni will employ the myriad illiberal, undemocratic mechanisms at his disposal to stymie his former deputy's campaign.
This summer, Museveni and Mbabazi are both seeking the ruling National Resistance Movement's presidential nomination. Museveni is seeking a seventh consecutive term in office, and under Uganda's system of limited political pluralism, the NRM's nominee almost certainly will be elected president next spring.
It has been a rocky democratic road over the past three decades. Severe sectarianism and corrupt voting procedures eventually led to a number of political reforms. Critically, in 1995 the new national constitution included a provision limiting the individual holding the presidency to only two terms in office.
At the time, Mbabazi was a veritable lone wolf in voicing opposition to the introduction of term limits. Ironically, President Museveni supported their introduction, although over the next decade his enthusiasm waned. Consequently, Museveni vigorously supported the subsequent campaign to end presidential term limits, and in 2005 term limits were removed from the Ugandan constitution.
A decade later, Museveni remains convinced of his unique value to his nation. Depressingly, he has steadily employed the machinery of the state, such as the bribery of public officials and an increasingly politicised judiciary, to maintain his position at the pinnacle of Ugandan political life.
Another favourite presidential tactic is good ol' fashioned intimidation. In recent weeks, over 100 Mbabazi supporters have been arrested as a signal to others not to rock the presidential boat.
In truth, the freedom to choose in Ugandan politics has morphed into a democratic mirage. With no existing mechanism to constrain the president's undemocratic tendencies, a growing plurality of Ugandans believe their hard-won right to vote really means nothing. Formal complaints about political corruption, for example, are a redundant exercise as the national electoral commission is stuffed full with presidential cronies.
Is it possible to improve the nation's dimming prospects for democratic governance? Interestingly, events in Uganda and the record of term limits elsewhere have convinced Mbabazi, himself, that this seemingly blunt instrument of political reform is now an essential prescription for good government to take root in his country.
Mbabazi now accepts that term limits are an important instrument of democratisation because they not only constrain the power of individual leaders, but also promote political party alternation in power, as in Kenya in 2002. This, in turn, fosters democratic development.
Term limits also have the advantage of clarity, making them easy constitutional rules to enforce, and they should be considered an effective part of the arsenal of democratic institutions. Consequently, the international community should encourage the entrenchment of term limits in the constitutions of Uganda and other developing nations.
Arresting President Museveni's principal political opponent and so many of his supporters will have, as intended, a chilling effect on democracy. Yet, Ugandans deserve a free and fair fight for their presidency, and they ought to be outraged at these political shenanigans, which do not befit their great nation.
Western observers should be equally outraged. I suspect that President Museveni is employing Mbabazi's arrest as an instrument to gauge international sensitivity to illiberal practices in east Africa.
Does the West take note of such a tangible transgression against both the letter and the spirit of democratic politics? Do Westerners care enough about the Ugandan people to criticise a veteran African statesman? Our answers to these questions will speak volumes about the importance we place upon liberal democracy taking root in African soil.
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Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute (www.democracyinstitute.org), a politically independent Washington- and London-based think tank. He has researched and published widely on democratisation, term limits, and east African politics, respectively.
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