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Uganda: Museveni tests patience of international allies

Ineke Mules
January 20, 2021

After world leaders watched the incumbent, Yoweri Museveni, secure a victory in the presidential election last week, questions are being raised over the international community's relations with Uganda.

Uganda's incumbent President Yoweri Museveni
Uganda's incumbent President Yoweri Museveni is set to begin his sixth term in officeImage: Henry Nicholls/REUTERS

The international community is tightening its scrutiny of Yoweri Museveni less than a week after he won his sixth presidential term in Uganda.

Museveni, who has ruled since 1986, was declared the winner of the January 14 poll with 59% of the vote against opposition leader Bobi Wine's 35%.

Although Museveni dubbed the election the "most cheating-free" in Uganda's history, there were violent protests and a social media and internet blackout in the lead-up to the polls.

Mixed reactions

The US embassy in Uganda released a statement earlier this week saying the election was tainted by the harassment of opposition candidates and the suppression of media and rights advocates.

It noted "a worrying trend on the course of Uganda's democracy."

On Monday, Ugandan authorities accused US ambassador Natalie E. Brown of trying to undermine the elections after she tried to visit opposition candidate Bobi Wine while he was being held under house arrest.

Bobi Wine speaks during a press conference
Musician-turned-opposition politician Bobi Wine is currently being held under house arrest following his defeat in Uganda's presidential electionImage: Sumy Sadruni/AFP/Getty Images

A statement from the US Department of State stopped short of congratulating Museveni on his victory and instead drew a tougher line on the conduct of Ugandan authorities during the election process.

"We are deeply troubled by the many credible reports of security force violence during the pre-election period and election irregularities during the polls," said spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus in the statement. "We reiterate our intention to pursue action against those responsible for the undermining of democracy and human rights in Uganda."

The reaction from the United Kingdom, in contrast, was less critical. It welcomed the "relatively calm passing" of the election and acknowledged Museveni's win.

"We ask that all parties, including the security services, but also all of Uganda's political movements, act with restraint to ensure the peaceful resolution of disputes," said the UK's Minister for Africa, James Duddridge in a statement.

"As a longstanding partner we urge Uganda to continue to strive to meet its own international human rights commitments."

The Africa Program director at Chatham House, Alex Vines, said the diverse reactions are indicative of how different governments plan to approach relations with Uganda.

"The US has brought out a strong statement. ... I think that's an early signal that we'll see much more clearer cut values around [President-elect Joe] Biden's activities in Africa," he told DW.

"Compare that to the UK, who has basically made a signal that the elections had had problems, but that Ugandans should be non-violent and resolve their differences amongst themselves — that's a very different approach coming from the former colonial power."

For its part, the European Union failed to congratulate Museveni on his victory, saying in a statement released on Wednesday that it "takes note of the results".

It also said it "regrets that the disproportionate role given to security forces during the elections brought forth violence in the pre-electoral period, harassment of opposition leaders, suppression of civil society actors and media, and the raiding of a domestic observers office." 

More traditional congratulatory messages came in from neighboring states like Tanzania.

Tanzanian President John Magufuli speaks into a microphone
Tanzanian President John Magufuli was quick to offer Museveni his congratulationsImage: Tanzania Presidential Press Service

"Congratulations Hon. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni for being declared the winner of the presidency," President John Magufuli tweeted. "Tanzania will develop our friendship and brotherhood in the wider interests of the people."

Kenya's State House posted a similar message on Facebook and Twitter congratulating Museveni. The message was quickly pulled down on Monday, however, after it was flagged by Facebook as containing misinformation.

Some say the congratulatory message was deleted to save face. Others interpret the deletion as President Uhuru Kenyatta retracting his well wishes for Museveni after facing questions about the integrity of Uganda's election.

The mixed reactions aren't a surprise said Arthur Bainomugisha, the director of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, an independent public policy think tank.

"It is always like that because different countries have their own perceptions [of the election]," Bainomugisha told DW from Kampala.

"The reactions of the international community should be used to help improve our systems, to improve our political institutions. ... We may not have the best quality democracy but we are building it."

No observer missions in sight

International observer missions were conspicuously absent from last week's polls after Ugandan authorities failed to accredit the missions, or implement recommendations from past missions.

Ahead of the election, a coalition representing hundreds of Ugandan civil society organizations said out of 1,900 accreditation requests, the government only granted 10.

Uganda's election commission also rejected the European Union's offer of monitors even though the EU had previously observed three elections between 2006 and 2016.

Security forces block the street leading to the Electoral Commission during a visit by Ugandan opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine in Kampala
Security forces blocking streets was a common sight in the lead-up to Uganda's 2021 presidential electionsImage: Ronald Kabuubi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Africa expert Vines doesn't believe that the presence of international observers would have necessarily affected the election outcome. But it may have helped soothe the anxieties of the opposition, including Bobi Wine and his supporters.

"[Having] international observers [present] might have meant that after the election results had been announced, there would have been internationals providing more scrutiny," Vines told DW.

The lack of international monitors has left only local journalists and the few international journalists covering the elections holding the government to account, he said. 

Uganda's complicated relationship with the West

Since Museveni took power in 1986, Western nations have maintained a relatively stable relationship with Uganda, hinged largely on international donations.

A new chapter in Uganda-Western relations may be about to begin, however. 

In recent months, Museveni's government has turned its scrutiny towards Western-financed democracy projects. Museveni has also taken to branding opposition figures as "foreign agents."

With an increasingly young and discontented opposition pushing back against the long-term leader, Western states may soon be less likely to tolerate Uganda's hostile approach towards governance and foreign policy.

"[Museveni staying on for six terms] is increasingly going to be an issue for a number of countries who will also be arguing that Museveni no longer a guarantee of Ugandan stability but increasingly represents a pathway to instability," Vines said.

Ugandan supporters of opposition presidential candidate Bobi Wine protest his arrest
Opposition leader Bobi Wine has a strong support base in Uganda's youthImage: AP Photo/picture alliance

While the donor community continues to engage with Uganda, some observers argue that it's time to take a closer look at foreign aid in Uganda.

"We need to have a critical assessment of the conditions that are linked to foreign aid," said Anna Reismann, Country Director for Uganda at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German political foundation.

"The international community should have certain indicators as to how they evaluate the current state of democracy and rule of law in the country and be able to make the right decision as to whether to continue with foreign air or maybe to withhold it," she told DW.

Business as usual?

Still, it's unlikely that Western nations will be in a rush to cut ties to Uganda.

From a geopolitical standpoint, Uganda is considered a stabilizing force in a region beset by war and conflict.

Museveni has also approached foreign policy in a way that makes Uganda valuable to the international community — particularly in terms of troops in the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), which is currently being supported by the US.

Ugandan AMISOM soldiers
Uganda has contributed a significant number of troops to AMISOMImage: DW/E. Lubega

"Museveni has tried to intertwine Uganda's utility into Western policy so that it slightly muffles the criticisms that might come related to governance, human rights, democracy, or related to internal affairs," said Alex Vines from Chatham House.

However, Vines also believes the US and EU will still consider targeted action against Uganda in the aftermath of the troubled election.

"Some of this will depend on how the government of Uganda treats Bobi Wine," he said. "We'll have to see how Museveni handles this moving forward. That will be a key determinate on how robust the US or the EU will be."

This article was updated on January 21, 2020 to reflect new developments.