Eliot L. Engel
A key to American foreign policy is strong partnerships on the global stage. Countries that share our interests and values are critical for advancing democracy, justice, and prosperity. That's why we've shared such close ties with Uganda for many years. Uganda has shored up the African Union Mission in Somalia. It has supported regional operations to counter the Lord's Resistance Army in Central Africa. We have seen such great results working with Uganda towards regional stability that it is a top recipient of American security assistance in sub-Saharan Africa.
That's why I'm so concerned about last week's election in Uganda. It seems to me that the Ugandan authorities actively undermined a free, fair, credible, and transparent process. Some polling places didn't receive ballots in time for the election. Some received ballots that were pre-marked. Some reported tallies inflated far beyond what was possible.
And while voters dealt with this confusion at the polls, they also faced intimidation and threats of violence from the Ugandan security forces. Social media platforms were cut off. Opposition rallies were broken up. The headquarters of the Forum for Democratic Change, the party of opposition leader and presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, was tear-gassed, then sealed off. Besigye has been detained multiple times and denied his right under the Ugandan Constitution to challenge the election results.
This was not democracy. This was not a free and fair election. These actions undermine freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, and they hinder the people of Uganda from choosing who should lead their country. Indeed, Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's former president and Chair of the Commonwealth Observer Group to the Ugandan general elections agrees that this process fell short of key democratic norms.
As President Obama said in an address to the parliament of Ghana in 2009, democracy thrives because of strong institutions, not strong men. I agree. And I am convinced that Uganda could develop elements of a true, vibrant democracy--if the country's leaders change course.
In my view, four clear, concrete steps could put Uganda on the right path.
First, all parties must renounce violence and use legal channels to address concerns about the conduct of the elections.
Second, the Election Commission must publish polling station results online and allow observers, journalists, and other stakeholders access to the Declaration of Results forms to verify vote tallies. This would help build public confidence in the results announced by the Commission.
Third, the Ugandan government should release Besigye and other opposition party officials immediately, stop blocking the Forum for Democratic Change headquarters, and allow the party its constitutional right to prepare a legal challenge to the election results before the ten-day window expires.
Fourth, leaders must give up on the idea that they should remain in power indefinitely. President Obama was right in his statement last July at the African Union headquarters that leaders who are willing to leave office and transfer power peacefully allow their countries the benefit of new insights and new energy. With 78 percent of Ugandans under the age of 30, a majority of the population has only known one leader since President Museveni seized power in 1986.
Uganda's leaders are at a critical crossroads. They can continue on their recent course, stifling dissent and undermining democratic processes, or they can get back on the track that made Uganda one of our closest allies in the region. In my view, choosing the path toward democracy will not only make Uganda stronger, but will help encourage progress across the continent--in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, and the Republic of the Congo, where we also see troubling trends. The world needs Uganda as a leader, and the people of Uganda need leaders who answer the call for a free, open, and democratic country.