(KAMPALA, Uganda) In the closing week of campaigning in Uganda’s presidential elections last month, incumbent Yoweri Museveni held his final public rally at an airstrip on the outskirts of this capital city. The 62-year-old Ugandan ruler stood imperiously in his trademark broad-brimmed hat above a crowd of supporters chanting: “No change, no change!” The event seemed more like a victory celebration than an appeal for votes.
The suspicion that Museveni’s victory was a foregone conclusion has grown since he was comfortably elected to a third term despite widespread accusations of fraud, intimidation and misuse of state funds. International election observers said Uganda lacked a level playing field for its first multiparty elections in more than two decades, while a spokesman for the main opposition, the Forum for Democratic Change, went further: “This election was as free and fair as it would have been under Saddam or Hitler.”
The same story is being repeated across Africa as nations — often in response to pressures from the West — introduce democratic reforms that their leaders are then accused of manipulating to stay in power.
Christopher Albin-Lackey, an Africa specialist with Human Rights Watch, said, “These governments have become increasingly adept at using the trappings of Western democracy for repressive ends.”
One exception to the continental strongmen may be Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was in Washington on Tuesday and met with President Bush in the Oval Office. He called Sirleaf a “pioneer.”
“You’re the first woman elected president to any country on the continent of Africa, and that requires courage and vision and the desire to improve the lives of your people,” Bush said.
It’s still too soon to know whether Sirleaf, who won election late last year, will be able to effect changes in the desperately poor country — 206th in per capita income out of 208 countries on a 2004 World Bank list — that would make democracy work. If she does, it will be a rare African success.
Political reformers and human rights groups said that across the continent, leaders are exploiting democratic processes to give their governments a veneer of respectability.
In Ethiopia, for example, May’s elections were marred by accusations of vote-rigging by the ruling party of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. In the months that followed, more than 100 people died in clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators.
Zenawi, who like Museveni fought his way to power in a coup, has since used the state apparatus to quell dissent, putting on trial more than 80 alleged ringleaders — including opposition leaders, journalists and human rights activists — on charges ranging from treason to genocide.
In North Africa, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak allowed opposition candidates for the first time in September, rather than give voters only a yes-or-no ballot choice. But opposition leader Ayman Nour was arrested and sentenced to prison on charges that Egyptian democracy advocates contend were trumped up.
Albin-Lackey said rather than replacing state violence, in most cases so-called reforms were being used to complement and conceal brutality that was continuing unchecked.
Though abuses have not gone unnoticed in the West, they have largely gone unpunished in Uganda and elsewhere.
The arrest of Uganda opposition candidate Kizza Besigye after he returned from self-imposed exile at the end of last year led to two days of rioting in Kampala and a storm of criticism from foreign donors. Britain, one of Uganda’s biggest donors, withdrew $27 million of aid in protest.
Museveni’s government remained uncowed, and Besigye was charged with rape and treason, severely limiting his opportunities to campaign. After the election results were announced, a judge cleared Besigye of rape, dismissing the prosecution case as “crude and amateurish.” But Besigye still faces treason charges in the high court, and the army is pursuing terrorism and weapons charges.
In Egypt last year, an international furor followed Nour’s first arrest on charges of forging signatures on election documents, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed an official visit in protest. The government released him but did not dismiss the charges.
After Mubarak easily won the election, Nour, who got 7.6 percent of the vote, was rearrested on charges that included insulting the president. On Dec. 24, he was convicted and sentenced to five years hard labor.
Professor Aaron Mukwaya, a lecturer in international relations and security studies at Mekere University in Kampala, said Western governments are caught between a desire to promote democracy and maintain security in notoriously unstable regions.
“The main preoccupation of the West when dealing with Africa is stability,” he said. “They don’t want the whole continent descending into civil war, so they tolerate leaders who are not democratic but who offer peace.”
While this pragmatic approach may have restored relative stability to countries once torn apart by infighting, he said, the abuse of the institutions of power would inevitably lead to disaster.
“Almost all state institutions in these countries are under the direct control of the ruling party. So, for example, during the last elections in Uganda, everything from state TV to the military was mobilized to ensure a Museveni win,” Mukwaya said. “The problem comes when you have a change of regime. Then these institutions are left in tatters because they were never given the chance to develop independently. And then you are back to square one.”
He said even institutions that had managed to maintain a degree of autonomy, such as the media and the judiciary, were punished if they stepped too far out of line.
After demonstrations in October, the Ethiopian government shut down all independent media in the country for more than two months.
In Kenya this month, heavily armed and masked police smashed into the offices of the country’s second-largest media company after its criticism of the government over multimillion-dollar corruption scandals. About 3,000 Kenyans protested the raid in the capital.
“They will allow just enough freedoms to give everything the appearance of normality,” Mukwaya said. “But if you overstep the mark, then you are in trouble.”
Or as Kenya’s Internal Security Minister John Michuki put it at a news conference after the police raids: “If you want to rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it.”
This was first published in the San Francisco Chronicle on 22 March, 2006