By Our Reporters
The much-anticipated sitting of the UK House of Commons session to discuss the state of democracy in Uganda finally came. During the session, Dr Paul Williams (who knows Uganda well having worked there as a health worker years ago) was permitted to move his motion justifying why it was prudent for the UK legislators to devotedly discuss the state of governance in Uganda. He said it’s characterized by corruption, impunity and human rights violations listing Betty Nambooze, Dr. Kizza Besigye and Bobi Wine as some of the victims.
The following is what Dr. Williams said about Uganda in justification for his motion that didn’t face much resistance but near unanimous support of the few members present:
I beg to move that this house has considered democracy in Uganda. Serious concerns have been raised internationally about the Uganda government systematically undermining demo in their country. MPs have been arrested. Institutions that should protect the democratic rights of citizens are being weakened and the voices of ordinary Ugandans are being ignored. The UK is a friend of Uganda. We are important partners in development, trade and security. And Maddam chair I’m a friend of Uganda too. Uganda and UK have a shared past and I hope we will have a strong and prosperous shared future together too. As we start this debate today it’s important to ask what’s UK’s interest in Uganda and whether that gives us a legitimate right to make any comment about its democracy. I firmly believe Uganda should be valued as an equal partner to UK but it hasn’t always been an equal partnership. Our relationship began in 1894 and until 1962, Uganda was what was known then as a British protectorate. Now Uganda is an Independent sovereign nation and it has been throughout my life time. It has a constitution that describes a balance of power between an executive, the legislature and other Independent bodies. I respect the Ugandan constitution. It’s right for Uganda and for Ugandan people. That constitution protects the Ugandan people… It’s the rock on which Ugandan democracy is built. And the relationship between our two countries should always respect the Ugandan constitution.
[Prompted by a colleague on Ugandan media reports quoting government officials protesting the British Parliament lecturing them on what they should be doing]. It’s precisely why I’m asking what our legitimate interest is in trying to establish why our relationship is important and how Ugandan democracy impacts on that relationship. So the relationship we have is when we work together. We work together to respond to the refugee crisis in South Sudan. We trade with each other and it’s a relationship where the UK provides development assistance to the people of Uganda. In these areas, we have shared goals and shared interests as countries. But I also have a personal interest in Uganda. I moved to Uganda in 2006 and I spent more than 4 years living and working in a rural part of the country in Kanungu district next to the fantastically named Bwindi impenetrable forest. I worked as a doctor with local health workers and the community to transform a small health center into a fantastic thriving hospital and community program… I used my skills to leave a fantastic health care system.
I don’t continue to have any stake in Uganda in case someone from outside might be watching. I have no financial interests or otherwise but I’m a friend of the country. And I have many Ugandan friends and I want to speak today as an equal partner. Living for a long time in a particular country gives you deeper insight. And I learned though not very well how to speak the different languages-the Runyankole Rukiga. I learned a lot of local cultures and beliefs. And I saw many of the successes of president Museveni’s NRM government. I saw significant efforts to improve education; the ambitious program of universal education. I saw economic growth though it’s a country with significant inequalities. I saw growth in infrastructure; the remarkable spread of mobile phones, improvements to road networks and improvements to power. These shape the future economy to grow and everyone to become more prosperous.
THE M7 BAD SIDE
But I also saw things that didn’t work well. The government-run health care system didn’t work well in the areas I lived in. I failed to get it right why health workers morale was low and absenteeism was extremely high. There was a saying…a combination of underfunding, theft and medical supplies often ran out. The people had lost confidence in the government system to deliver the health care they needed. They had to take matters into their own hands. Patients went to private drug shops and health workers had to look for additional jobs and the poorest were left behind. Not getting care and suffering death and other consequences. Now this failure of the health service isn’t because of the people. There are many fantastic talented Ugandan health workers. It’s because of the system. It’s a system relying on patronage, sadly riddled with corruption and with centralized decision making. That leads to paralysis. And also living in the country I got to witness how the political system works. At the local level I was introduced to GISOs who are Government Internal Security Officers living in every community. Now ostensibly they are there to collect information on people trying to destabilize the country but in practice that extends to any act of political opposition to the president. Alongside every such local leader sits the Resident District Commissioner or RDC who is the president’s own appointed person to monitor everything happening in that district. It’s done in the name of security but again RDCs are used to gather intelligence information and to stop political dissent. I learnt that ISO is there to protect the president. Legitimate criticism of the policies of the president that have deliberately been…any criticism of the president is taken to be criticism of the state. The state has become personalized.
Ugandans see this for themselves. They don’t need me to point it out. For some people may not know the difference. President Museveni has been in power for 33 years this month. Three quarters of the people in the country have never lived under a different leader. The Ugandan people concede that the institutions of their democracy are slowly being eroded. Firstly the government has closed down critical media outlets. There are credible reports that TV stations were interrupted during the 2016 election when results were being reported to favor the opposition. There are also credible reports that social media, including facebook and twitter are shut down when the government senses tough times. Secondly the government has used the military to attack parliament when MPs were debating the extension of President Museveni’s limits. Parliament was attacked and MPs, including Betty Nambooze, were beaten by armed forces. Thirdly there is evidence of serious human rights abuses. There are serious credible reports about an attack in Kasese on the palace of King Charles Mumbere in 2016 and the massacre of 150 civilians by Ugandan forces. According to these reports, the soldier who led this attack has been promoted instead and no independent investigation is taking place. Hopefully the Minister will give the government’s position on this attack. Fourthly, elections have been described in diplomatic language as being short of being free and fair. Serious allegations have been made over the conduct of elections in Uganda over many years and the most recent report on the 2016 presidential elections… The Supreme Court after that election made 30 recommendations that should be enacted before the next elections which happens in 2021. They include taking clear steps to distinguish state from the ruling party; steps to strengthen the independence of the Electoral Commission and systematic checks on the integrity of votes. As of last year 2018, none of these recommendations had been implemented. There are credible reports of vote rigging with the police denying access to these rigging houses. Ugandan politicians openly give out money for voter bribery. But interference in elections doesn’t just happen on the day of elections. I have friends who stood for electoral offices in Uganda and they are subjected to constant harassment and levels of intimidation. Police and soldiers are permanently stationed outside their homes and they are followed. After rallies soldiers go to those places to threaten people if they don’t vote for the government. Radio stations, the largest source of media in rural areas, are often owned by government politicians and they report clearly biased information.
And perhaps most disturbing of all, the people participating in politics are subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention. The institutions that are supposed to protect democracy; the police and the military are used to undermine democracy. Finally the Public Order Management Act passed in 2013 has further diminished the political space. The police approval is required if three or more people want to gather to discuss political issues. What kind of democracy curtails politics in this way?
SALUTES BESIGYE, BOBI
Now there are many Ugandan opposition politicians who have struggled bravery to use the democratic process to win power. There isn’t time to mention all of them here but I would like to draw attention to two people: Kizza Besigye who has stood for presidency on three occasions [sic]. He has been arrested, beaten and harassed so many times that he has lost count. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Besigye when he visited our parliament last year. He sacrifices in the pursuit of democracy in Uganda and he should be lauded. And I also want to mention Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. Kyagulanyi is a young charismatic politician with a large youth following. He was elected to the Ugandan Parliament around the same time that I was elected to the UK Parliament. He has been a target of totally undemocratic behavior. In August last year he and 4 MPs were arrested by the military while campaigning in a by election. His driver was shot dead. He was severely beaten by soldiers before being brought to court on trumped up charges. Bobi Wine was later handed over to police and this is just another example of the Uganda government using the military to prevent democratically elected politicians doing their job.
So why are all these attacks on democracy important? They are important to the Ugandan people who lounge to one day see a different government in their country. They have no hope of ever seeing a different government with a system that undermines democracy to cling onto power. They are important because of international standards and accountability. Uganda is a partner to our country in the UN, in the Commonwealth and we have multilateral relations through the European Union. Partners should hold each other to international standards. They are also important because they undermine the ability of the UK and the Ugandan people to work together on shared values. The attacks on democracy by a small group of people to retain power. It’s a group of people who are illegally benefiting from that power and patronage. This corruption has meant that the UK Department for International development [DFID] has had to stop direct budget support to the Government of Uganda. In 2012, 12m Euros was channeled from Ireland, Denmark and Norway and directly to the bank accounts of officials working in the Prime Minister’s Office. We have had to provide our UK development support through the private sector and NGOs. We can’t pretend this is a good thing. It’s always better to work with governments but let’s be honest here. We know that if we really want to help the people of Uganda, we can’t give our money to the current government. Transparency International ranks Uganda as 151st out of 180 countries in the world for corruption.
WORST IN THE REGION
[Another legislator interjects giving more corroboration information on the Ugandan corruption] It’s a terrible state of affairs of course. If we want development to be sustainable; then sustainable development is much more likely to happen through a democratic government and through building the institutions within a country. But there are people who are so desperate that you still need aid and you can’t trust government to give that aid. So thank you for highlighting that point. So TI ranks Uganda as 151st out of 180 countries in the world. That’s worse than Kenya which is at 143. Much worse than Tanzania at 107 and Ethiopia at 103 and Rwanda is ranked at highest 48. In 2013 TI said corruption in Uganda is wide spread and is seen as one of the greatest obstacles to the country’s economic development as well as quality public services. Such corruption challenges are exacerbated by weak law enforcement which breeds a culture of impunity particularly with regards to high ranking officials involved in corruption schemes. But as well as undermining our shared development objectives, the attacks on democracy are also important because Britain wants to provide military support to the country of Uganda. We want to see Uganda have secured borders and we want to see Uganda contribute to peace in Somalia but we can’t do that unless we have confidence in Uganda’s democracy and rule of law. So when there are questions about Uganda army’s use of cluster bombs in South Sudan; when the army is being used to enter Parliament, when army allegedly massacres people in Kasese, when Special Forces are being used to hunt down and arrest politicians campaigning in a by election. I get to ask the Minister how can we be sure that the people we are training are only engaging in peace keeping activities?
[Another legislator prompts him to commend UPDF for the Mogadishu sacrifice] I pay real tribute to all the East African peace keeping forces working in Somalia and working for the peace keeping mission there. But we need to know that the UK isn’t enabling the atrocities that are being committed within Uganda by Ugandan forces. Of course we need to make known our intention. I’m sure it will be argued that the training of the armed forces helps them become more professional and to meet international obligations but when a soldier is given orders from the top, they have to follow all these orders. When the Ugandan government is deliberately using the military to undermine democracy, its right for the UK to be very careful with that armament.
QUOTES M7 BOOK
Before he became President, Yoweri Museveni produced a book called “What’s Africa’s Problem”? In it he said the problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power. Now I want to see a Uganda when the Ugandan people feel it’s possible to achieve the change of government through democratic means. But opposition politicians find themselves in an impossible position. When the democratic space is being so curtailed. But between now and 2021, it’s crucial that the united opposition builds a potentially winning manifesto with popular policies. It’s crucial that opposition politicians can now freely campaign and sell their views to the people of Uganda. It’s crucial that the Uganda opposition be given an equal chance to try to persuade people that they can have policies better than those of the government on a level playing field. But there isn’t a level playing field because the abnormal occurrences have become normalized in Uganda. It’s just not acceptable in a democracy that the military beats and tortures opposition politicians; for soldiers to enter parliament and use physical force against the MPs. It’s not acceptable in a democracy for elections to be rigged.
Uganda’s democracy is under threat. The institutions of a normal democracy, that will have power to hold government to account, have been systematically undermined, intimidated, bullied and cajoled by the government. Let the truth be told Uganda has a military government in civilian clothes. Now as a friend to the Ugandan people, how can the UK best help in a democracy? Well we are already supporting good governance and anti-corruption initiatives through our DFID. The Minister will talk more about that but when the system undermines democratic institutions is that enough?
The Uganda opposition leaders are asking the UK govt to place tough targeted sanctions on Uganda. To freeze the assets of Ugandan officials who are known for violations of human rights. To impose a travel ban on Ugandan leaders who are known for corruption and violation of human rights and they are asking for Britain to condemn in the strongest terms possible the attacks and abuse of the Ugandan parliamentarians and the activists inside and outside of Uganda. I would like also to give the Minister the opportunity today to respond to these requests. Now I personally don’t believe that all these things are needed. I certainly don’t want us to do anything that would risk our relationship with the people of Uganda and I think sanctions would be a very last resort. But I do understand why people are calling for them. I would like to say that unless the unlikely change happens in Uganda, the UK should put no option off the table.
I want to end by speaking directly to the people of Uganda some of whom are here today. We want the UK to work with you on security, sustainable development and on business growth. We are watching your government closely. MPs like myself and my colleagues here today will ask our government to invest in your country if we see a thriving democracy and international standards being met. And the UK needs to be on the side of the Ugandan people here. Democracy is the means by which we debate and create; it is a process that requires the diligent engagement of its citizens. Democracy fails when the people aren’t able to criticize their leaders or they don’t feel confident they can throw them out when they feel they aren’t doing a good job. A health democracy can unlock so much potential in a country but right now the hopes of the Ugandan people aren’t being met by the people who govern them. And that’s why I say to the Ugandan people whether they are in this chamber here or watching on the screen of your phone in Kampala that I’m with you and we are with you watching and hoping for a brighter future for the Ugandan people. There are democrats across the world who know that it’s possible and we offer our solidarity to you as you work for a Uganda governed by a government entrusted by the Ugandan people and guided by the unrestricted voices of its people. We are with you because that’s what a true democracy could be; prosperous, peaceful and secure. And if you work for it and your institutions are protected, then there is nothing that can stand in the way of the millions of you who are desperate for change. Thank u. [As session is adjourned, others say they can’t disagree with even a word of what Dr. Williams said because he has been there [in Uganda] and knows exactly what happens over there].