Opinion: Bid to entrench autocracy increases divisions, anger

Maina Kiai by Maina Kiai
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I celebrated World Press Freedom Day in Kampala, Uganda, at the Human Rights Convention 2018 hosted by a wonderful organisation called Chapter 4 (which is the Ugandan Bill of Rights) that is led by Nicholas Opiyo, whose name we would do good to remember.  

The organisation defends and protects all the rights in that chapter including through using litigation to defend people charged for exercising their rights, as well as challenging laws that contradict the Bill of Rights.

It was an inspiring time, especially as it showcased the wonderful talent and leadership emerging from Ugandan youth. There were many informed and hugely intelligent youth, who have dedicated their lives to human rights in a difficult time, when they could have chosen easier and more lucrative options.

At a time when nationalistic, autocratic, xenophobic, racist, tribalist and repressive leaders are gaining strength, there are few things better than witnessing the emergence of a crop of well-read activists determined to not only push back against the global democratic recession, but also prepared to spearhead the expansion of space for pluralism, tolerance, equity and social justice! It was also great to meet members of the LGBTIQ community at the convention who turned up in significant numbers, at a time when homophobia is sky-high, fanned by politicians and religious extremists.

The LGBTIQ community faces life and death challenges in Uganda but they refuse to be silenced or hidden, determined to claim their rights and citizenship like everyone else. Their identity is not reason to discriminate, kill or repress them.

Of course, and like Kenya, even well-meaning people have a lot to learn about the destructive and inhuman effects of homophobia. Let’s be clear, LGBTIQ people are not “driven to being gay” by a need for money as some think. It is one of the most difficult existences that anyone can have in our homophobic countries. And if you doubt that just try to live for a year as LGBTIQ!

One of the highlights was the honouring and celebration of Sylvia Tamale, a professor of law at Makerere University, a trail blazing feminist and role model for many young Ugandan women, and a person unafraid to speak truth to power not only to the regime but also to society. We should be scrambling to invite her to Kenya!

There is no doubt that Uganda is in a democratic regression and now has an unofficial president for life. Dissent is frowned upon, especially if it is expressed in peaceful assemblies, and even normal things like “walking to work” for opposition leaders is prohibited.

In 2015, Uganda took the amazing step of putting opposition leader Kizza Besigye under house arrest to prevent him from presenting a court challenge after the presidential election which was stolen in favour of Yoweri Museveni!

The house arrest, was done publicly yet the courts did not take judicial notice of this fact, which should be proof enough that the electoral environment could not sustain a free, fair, and credible election!  And like Kenya, the international community that preaches democracy barely denounced these steps, clearly preferring the short-term -- and false -- stability that Mr Museveni offers.  

Over the last few years, it has been clear that when it comes to democracy, fairness and electoral justice, we can’t rely on these “partners” much as we did not during the struggles for independence and freedom.

Since then, Museveni has further entrenched himself legally -- not legitimately -- as Uganda’s life president.

Last year he marshaled, by force, a constitutional amendment that removed age limits for the presidency. He sent the army to Parliament to beat up and chase away opposition MPs, after allegedly bribing some. If using military force to ensure power is not a classic coup d’état I don’t know what is!

We should be worried in Kenya by these developments, for our neighbourhood learns from each other.

This past week Uganda was flooded with news reports of the imminent importation of Cuban doctors, something we know about. Uganda and Kenya need a lot more doctors, but when they are imported to break the resolve of local doctors making demands for better working conditions, we know that our regimes are unpatriotic and lack integrity.

Uganda was the first in the region to remove term limits, followed by Rwanda and now Burundi is on that same path. And we have heard regime sycophants touting the same line in Kenya.

These moves to entrench autocracy and dictatorship only increase tensions, divisions and anger. While there may be some nervousness about the fight-back the regimes will put up, after meeting the youth who desire a better, un-corrupt, rights-respecting, inclusive and progressive society, I am confident that we will get there! 

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