Much of the world looked on with dismay as Zimbabwe held another disputed presidential election this month, handing 89-year-old Robert Mugabe a seventh term in office.
Newspapers sent their correspondents to report allegations of ballot fraud and intimidation. Television reports around the world featured the angry face of Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s main opponent, as he denounced the election as a farce.
In Uganda, liberals and politicians rolled their eyes and sighed wearily. Uganda has its own Mugabe figure, but no one seems to care. For the last decade, Ugandan activists have been trying to draw attention to Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s brutal excesses, but the world won’t listen.
In May, Museveni shut down independent media in Uganda, after they published a controversial memo written by Gen David Sejusa. The general has since fled to the UK, fearing to be “arrested like a cockroach”.
Now, a law has been passed, in effect, giving police powers to proscribe open public debate. Under the Public Order Management Bill, more than two people are not allowed to meet in a public place to talk politics – unless they have secured police permission. But the truth is that public debate was stifled long before the act. Parliament is also considering a law that will give the government power to shut down critical media.
So where is the international outrage when it comes to Uganda? In 2009, the world successfully put pressure on Uganda to drop the Anti-homosexuality Bill that proposed the death penalty for certain homosexual acts. Why, as the voices of protest and democracy are silenced, do the leaders of the western world continue to wine and dine with Museveni?
Why do they continue to hand over generous donations to Museveni’s government that the people never see, turning a blind eye to issues of human rights and democracy?
Britain’s Department for International Development budget for Uganda is £60m (Shs 222 billion). Most of this money is supposedly intended for projects concerning democracy, health and human rights. Even with all that is happening in Uganda, the country is still masquerading as an African democracy.
Of course it is not all bad.
Millions of Ugandans still live on less than a dollar a day; Uganda has halved poverty that was at 56 per cent in the early 1990s. The country’s economy is said to be growing and literacy rates stand at 73 per cent with more people attaining secondary school education.
But look at this tale of rigged elections, opponents in exile, mysterious disappearances and killings, torture, clampdown on the media – it is the Mugabe script but with a different cast. Inexorably consolidating his power, Museveni has built himself a mansion and stocked up on military jets.
There is no sign he will step aside and he has promised he will be the one to usher the country into becoming a “middle income” state. This is a feat he has been having a go at for the last 27 years. The reality is that Ugandans have been beaten into docility by hunger, disease, poverty and sheer need.
The unprecedented rise in the cost of living and the deplorable state of hospitals have put the people in the exact position that Museveni and his cronies want them to be – a place where many are too worried about their next meal to care about abstract political ideas and rights.
Ugandans cannot help but question the integrity of countries that continue to accommodate one dictator, while condemning the other. Tyrants who have squeezed life out of the country now coo about the new African revolution. And the world nods, cheers and promises Africa that things will improve. They will not. Not until the root of all this evil is totally uprooted.
Diplomacy may be the game, but what if it comes at too high a cost – more deaths, more disease and an eventual economic collapse? The argument often goes that Zimbabwe is an extreme case and Uganda still manages to function from day to day. Critics say this is nothing more than “western hypocrisy,” a necessary evasion of responsibility because Museveni is still the West’s “yes boy,” in various international bodies.
The message is loud and clear to all dictators: you can arrest the opposition every other day, pass draconian laws and let your country wallow in poverty, as long as your troops are available for us when we need to go on a peace keeping mission in, say, Somalia.
As long as you vote on our side when we sit on the [UN] Human Rights Council and sign as many human rights treaties as is required. Democracy? No, you do not have to be democratic. It is enough for you to appear democratic.
Patience Akumu, a journalist with The Observer, won the 2013 David Astor journalism awards. A longer version of this article was published by the UK’s Sunday Observer.