Commentary by Enock Sadiki, Democracy & Me Intern
Tell me if you have heard this before: A country is experiencing a crisis in governance. This country is also experiencing an immigration crisis, economic upheaval, social tensions, a pandemic… A popular personality catches the attention of group of people who feel ignored by their government. A mass movement develops around this cult of personality. An election is held, and voter suppression and election fraud accusations are levied. Protests rise, violence ensues in the nation, and the very idea of democracy is challenged.
If you are thinking, this is what happened with the United States and the now former President Donald Trump, you’re not wrong. But in a world filled with nations aspiring to democracy, there are many countries experiencing the same things we’ve seen here. One of those countries going through similar democratic growing pains is Uganda. Uganda is a country about the size of the state of Colorado. Uganda has a population of 44 million people, has the third-youngest average age of any nation in the world, and a population of 1.4 million refugees, of which I am one, having been born and raised in the Nyakivare refugee camp in Uganda. I immigrated to the U.S. in 2014, and now attend Aiken H.S. in Cincinnati. As a refugee in Uganda, I would not have the right to vote, and my voice was of little concern. At least here, I can speak up and be heard.
My two countries of Uganda and the United States, different as they might seem, have so many of the same problems. Corruption and greed among the ruling class. The military and the police killing innocent people. People in the streets, protesting for change.
In Uganda many people were fighting for the removal of the “democratically” elected dictator Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since the 1980s. Initially, Museveni was hailed as a hero of change for the country of Uganda, which had suffered under the oppression of the brutal Idi Amin. “Law and order” would return to Uganda. A generation later, hundreds have died, been abused or abducted over the past three years fighting for Museveni’s removal because of his Idi Amin-like tactics. Here in the United States we just had a president like Museveni: both of them would do whatever it takes to win, even if it means to cheat or send police or the military to subdue protestors. Trump is both hated and loved by many people here for the decisions he made and wha type of a leader he is. At the same time in history, the people of the United States were also protesting and voting democratically for Trump to be removed. Both Trump and Museveni abused the power of the government, choosing to manipulate and alter free and fair elections. Fortunately for the U.S., the institution of democracy was strong enough to defeat authoritarianism. Trump has been defeated democratically; he’s also now been impeached twice, which might help prevent a repeat performance by this political bully.
Museveni’s opponent is Bobi Wine, one of a new generation of politicians across Africa who are challenging long time leaders, hoping to win votes from young educated people. Wine, like Trump, has had his voice amplified through his talents as a celebrity. While Trump was a TV star, Wine captured the ears of young Ugandans with music. For years now, Wine and his supporters have been oppressed and suppressed democratically. Wine was shot and arrested by the police. Museveni’s police brutality has been captured in Wine’s song “Afande,” roughly translated from the native Luganda language to mean “leader of the police,” with the lyrics “Afande, I am not fighting you, I am fighting for you.”
The history of systematic violence done unto marginalized people in the United States has inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. That movement has been made to seem radical, violent, and anti-American to some, by Trump. After Bobi Wine was released from prison he said, “Standing against Museveni is a far more dangerous crime than any other crime in Uganda.” Here in the U.S., anyone speaking against, standing against, writing against, or voting against Trump was made out to be a threat to the U.S.A., by Trump and his followers. Even journalists who asked Trump serious questions or who pointed out his lies were labeled “enemies of the people.”
Like Trump, Yoweri Museveni was responsible for intimidation against democracy, because he knew he would lose to Wine in a fair and free election. Museveni also knows that young people will most likely vote for Wine because many in the younger generation want a change. Bobi Wine could be the perfect leader for the young people in Uganda because he’s an influencer to them, with his democratic populism and his music career. Populism can be a vessel for change that can both heal and hurt democracy, as we can see in the examples of Uganda and the United States.
Museveni sending the police to shoot and arrest Wine reminds me of the riot and violent attack that happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Those people who attacked the Capitol were Trump supporters, and they were sent by Trump. Uganda, too, is experiencing its worst unrest in decades. Police are firing at citizens in buildings overlooking the protests. They are firing at protestors and anyone who supports the opposition. Hundreds have been arrested and killed. Police and soldiers use tear gas and live ammunition on citizens, killing and injuring many people; all done with the purpose of the maintaining of power by authoritarian rule. We have seen some of the same problems happen here in the United States, even around peaceful protests.
On January 15, Yoweri Museveni was declared as the winner of Uganda’s presidential election, with 58.6% of the vote. Bobi Wine officially came in second with 34.8% and was immediately placed under house arrest (where his fate remains to be seen*). As in the U.S., accusations of fraud, election-rigging, and media censorship are rampant, but in Uganda’s case, there appears to be some truth behind the rumors. Independent sources have released videos of military and police being caught with fake ballots. Museveni shut down the internet in Uganda for a week during the election to stop people in Uganda from posting on social media. I couldn’t talk to my own family in Uganda until the 18th, when Museveni turned the internet back on.
The institutions of democracy are being challenged around the world. We do not know if the election of Joe Biden will create the change that finally brings the U.S.A. together, just as we are unsure if the idealism of Bobi Wine could transform Uganda. To quote Wine’s “Afande,” “The oppression I am facing is the same oppression you are facing.”
* Here’s a recent NPR story on the current situation of Bobi Wine’s arrest: