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Standing for liberty in Uganda

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, March 14, 2005

Dear President Bush,In your second inaugural address in January, you said, “Today, American speaks anew to the peoples of the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know the United States will not ignore our oppression or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”When I first heard these words I found myself highly cynical. While the language of “freedom” has certainly been a priority of your administration post-Sept. 11, I find our continued and even strengthened allegiances with nations such as Pakistan, Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Israel to be quite hypocritical. Not to mention that I consider our actions in Iraq and Iran to be less than freedom-guided.Yet while we may disagree on the means, I do believe, Mr. President, that you are committed to the end of a world of freedom. Thus, I am writing to you to ask you to live up to the words you proclaimed in January. In the country of Uganda, the United States has an opportunity to stand for democracy and freedom. We must seize the moment.In Uganda, the Parliament is currently debating an omnibus constitutional amendment bill, which will eliminate the established two-term limit for the presidential office. Advocates for the so-called kisanja (the symbol to end the term limits) argue that President Youweri Museveni, the president of Uganda since 1986, has done much good for the country and should be allowed to continue to bring prosperity to the country. It is indisputable that Museveni has done much good, but it is also indisputable that the removal of term limits will be a massive blow to constitutionalism, democracy and rule of law in the “pearl of Africa.”Since the debate began almost a year ago, Museveni and the so-called Movement (Museveni’s party that controls political and military power in Uganda) have been using tactics of suppression, propaganda and fear to gain the support of the population. They have repressed opposition voices. Just recently, the army beat up five opposition parliamentarians when they attempted to visit camps in the north for internally displaced peoples. The newspapers here have reported that Museveni gave out five million Uganda shillings to every member of Parliament that promised to support the constitutional amendment. The Movement is also openly funding and training military youth brigades to work in the campaign.Tactics of corruption and intimidation have scathed the parliamentary debate, basically ensuring that Museveni and his supporters will get what they seek. The people of Uganda, still conscious of the violent dictatorial regimes of Milton Obote and Idi Amin in the 1960s and 1970s, choose stability and security over freedom and rule of law. When Museveni’s followers frame the debate in terms of whether people are better than they were 18 years ago, he will always win out of politics of fear.On the surface, a repeal of the term limits is harmless, especially if it is allowing a popularly-supported ruler to remain in office. However, the dark narrative in Africa of elected rulers overstaying their rule and becoming violent dictators is too vivid. Repealing the accountability mechanisms in the constitution will only further weaken a deteriorating culture of constitutionalism that reeks of corruption and mismanagement. Many argue that Museveni’s hold on power has exacerbated the conflict in northern Uganda, a violent war that has left more than 1.6 million people displaced and hundreds of thousands killed, raped and abducted.Just over a year ago, Ugandans voted to open the political space for multipartyism, hoping the political system would evolve into a culture of pluralism and transparency. The governance crises highlighted by the kisanja debate show that Uganda is far from such a political culture. Many believe that Uganda, with its blatant regional inequalities, stands at a watershed moment with mass violence lurking in the future.If this constitutional amendment omnibus bill passes, it will totally transform the constitution of 1995, a constitution constructed in one of the most democratic fashions in all of Africa. The 1995 people’s constitution will become Museveni’s constitution, once again a political piece of paper easily manipulated for power politics. More and more, the barrel of the gun is substituting legality as the source of political legitimacy.It appears inevitable that the amendment will pass and Museveni will be given another term and even more. The only hope that this tragedy can be averted is if international donors, whose donations make up more than 50 percent of Uganda’s revenue, utilize their power to pressure the government. The United States as a major donor in Uganda has a rare opportunity to exercise its power in the name of freedom – not through bombs and wars, but through intense diplomacy and economic clout.In this age, we have to recognize the resounding effects that a myriad actions and inactions by the United States have throughout the world. Americans, contacting their representatives to demand action, can stand for liberty and justice in Uganda. By applying our power in positive ways, the United States can truly be a voice against oppression and injustice in the world.Here in Uganda, many are daring to stand for liberty. President Bush, will we fulfill your pledge that the United States will stand with them? I certainly hope so.

Peter Quaranto is a junior political science and peace studies major. He writes from Kampala, Uganda, where he is studying development studies this semester at Makerere University. Read his running commentary from Uganda at www.peterquaranto.blogspot.com. Contact Peter at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.