There has never been a peaceful transition of power in the Republic of Uganda.
This small, landlocked East African country became independent in 1962. Since then, every change of leadership has come through violence, when opposing factions have overthrown the government. Perhaps the most memorable instance of this was in 1971, when Idi Amin established leadership.
Amin's “reign of terror” represents corruption at its worst and took an estimated 300,000 lives, more than have died in the war in Iraq. And the most ignored skirmish in Uganda has been the guerilla war that has lasted more than twenty years. The rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, savagely abducted children and devastated lives, all with the hope of ruling according to the Ten Commandments.
On February 18, Ugandans will participate in an election for their president and other public officers. In many ways, the campaign process resembles our own. Promises abound and accusations fly. Their polls are not scientific, but predictions still appear.
There are eight candidates for president, with two leading the race. Yoweri Museveni, the incumbent, has ruled for 25 years. He has been responsible for sustained economic expansion, but growing numbers of people feel he has been in office long enough. Kizza Besigye is running for the third time against Museveni, claiming that vote-rigging has cost him the previous elections. His campaign platform sounds promising, yet there is no way to know how he would lead the country.
Still, this election is about more than choosing a leader, and the election process will be very telling. Will it be truly free and democratic, or will suspicions of vote rigging and corruption prevail? Americans don’t have to dig too deep in their memories to find the frustration felt during the presidential election between Al Gore and George Bush. The election was left hanging for weeks amid accusations of corruption at the polling places. This has been the norm in Uganda and is central this year, as well.
Problems with hanging chads are nothing compared to the concerns about the voting process in Uganda. Photo identification is not required to register or to vote, and the largely paper system leaves much room for error and malfeasance. Add concerns about vote padding and the alleged partiality of the Electoral Commission, and it is easy for trouble to brew.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been given a directive from Congress to monitor the election, to help ensure that the process is free, fair and credible. Above all, she is tasked with protecting the human rights of Ugandan citizens. To these people who have lived with violence and poverty, the election matters a great deal.
It matters to Uganda because the election allows them a chance to voice their opinions through the polls, to vote on the issues and be heard. In a country of 32 million people living on an average of less than $1 each day, where poverty reigns and choices are few – where meager meals are the same every day and one pair of old shoes is a blessing – the election is a chance to choose.
And it matters to them because the elections of the past have been violent, the changes in government life-threatening. Thus far, this election has been notably more calm and civilized. Still, it is at once a time of hope and fear. The election could bring new things, but with them it may bring unrest. In the U.S. we can choose our level of involvement in the political scene. Ugandans may not have that option. For Americans, contested elections bring an avalanche of news stories and heated political discussions. For Ugandans, it can mean war.
American citizens should care about this election, too. We should care because in this globally connected era, the lives of Ugandans and Americans touch daily. We should care because our government has made the commitment to help Uganda. We should care because no one should live in utter poverty and despair simply because of one’s birthplace. We should care because Uganda is heavily involved in helping Somalia – and has been subjected to terrorist attacks because of it. And we should care because an American died in one of those attacks, on July 11, 2010. But most of all it should matter because we need each other. We, as Americans, even in this struggling economy, live in a land of abundance. Our excess would be a treasure for Ugandans. And we can learn from their indomitable spirit. The resilience with which they face difficulties, including this election, would serve us well.
It will be much harder for corruption to continue under close scrutiny from the international community. So let all eyes turn to this historical moment in Uganda and hope for a free election and lasting peace.
Laura McBride is Director of Mission for St. Kizito Foundation, a Cleveland based non-profit organization providing education, psychosocial support, and basic life needs to vulnerable youth in Uganda. Along with the founder of the organization, Donald H. Dunson, she regularly visits Uganda. She can be reached at [email protected].