Deadly Democracy: Uganda and the case for an end to Africa’s pretentious Elections

We must abolish this charade that is Africa’s pretentious elections. To my recollection, there are very few (if any) elections in Africa in which people have not died. Which is weird because democracy, we are told, from its very definition, is supposed to bring people together. A government of the people, by the people and for the people, so said Abraham Lincoln in his November 19, 1863 Gettysburg address.

In Africa, we have very few, if any, governments that are truly ‘of the people,’ even less by the people, and even lesser that are FOR the people. If by ‘people’ Lincoln meant ordinary citizens like me.

From Uganda to Guinea, to Ivory Coast to DRC and Zimbabwe, the human toll African electioneering is leaving in its wake is becoming unbearable for millions of hapless citizens who every four, five or so years have to contend with mass killings, injuries, displacements, media blackouts, intimidation and other forms of electoral violence.

And yet western donors continue to believe in this charade that somehow they will one day ‘democratize’ Africa.

The Uganda case study is disturbing. Since 1962 when the country gained independence from Britain, the country has gone through 9 presidents but has never had a peaceful transition from one to another. In 1966, just 4 years after The British left, the first post-independence Prime Minister deposed the king who was supposed to be the head of state (just like it was in England, you understand; a constitutional monarchy), declaring Uganda a Republic and himself President. This president, Milton Obote, would himself be overthrown in a coup d’état five years later by, thus far Uganda’s most murderous dictator in history, Idi Amin. Amin would be overthrown in 1979 by a combined effort of Ugandan exiles led by the man he had deposed, who became president again in 1980 after organizing sham elections, the results of which were the cover used by the current president, Yoweri Museveni, to wage a 5-year guerrilla war that brought him to power in 1986.

Mr. Museveni ruled unchallenged for 10 years after which he organized elections. Since those first elections of his rule in 1996, he has contested 5 other times and, having now been in power for 34 years, is seeking another mandate in a country where 80% of the current population WERE not born when he first seized power in 1986.

Museveni became a darling of western donors so much so that Bill Clinton in 1998, in words that I believe he must regret now, if he cares that is, branded him, along other African presidents of that time including Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, ‘A new Brand of African leaders.’

Museveni has never organized a truly free and fair election and he ‘wins’ all of them with astronomical margins. Uganda operates ridiculously expensive electioneering processes, with the president, according to one estimate, spending over $250m through voter bribery and patronage to secure a fifth term in 2016. Mr. Museveni’s gerrymandering genius has made Uganda the biggest legislature in the world by population per capita, with the tiny country now having 520 parliamentary seats, three quarters of whom will be occupied by his ruling party.

But the cost of this pretentious democracy is not only financial. Ugandans are used to the ruinous cost of corruption, public administration and political clientelism. Its also about the cost in blood.

Every election cycle since 1996 has been bloody with dozens and sometimes hundreds killed, thousands injured and maimed every five years.

Western powers, who bankroll Mr. Museveni’s regime with generous aid in development and military assistance, are happy as long as there are ‘elections’ being held however bloody they might be, and as long as he continues doing their bidding on the ‘war on terror’ in the region (Ugandan troops are currently stationed in South Sudan watching the fragile détente between warring factions, in Somalia battling Al-Shabaab, in Central Africa Republic, and Ugandan ex-servicemen and security trainees guarding the American Embassy in Baghdad).

But isn’t it time we really asked this difficult question on whether democracy, as defined and imported by The West for us, is worth the human and financial toll on the African people?

Uganda is holding presidential elections again on 14 January 2021, whose outcome is not in question: A 7th term for President Yoweri Museveni. Campaigns, once again, as is the ritual every five years, are hot and bloody. In an orgy of violence by security services against civilians, over 60 people were killed on 18 and 19 November after protests broke out in the capital and other cities following the regime’s arrest of the main opposition candidate, the musician turned member of parliament, Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine.

The cost of elections and electioneering in Africa, therefore, is astronomical not just in sheer sums of money spent but in lives too.

In his book America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy, the Truth About US Foreign Policy, and Everything Else William Blum writes that America’s (and by extension Europe’s) foreign adventurism to ‘spread’ democracy and democratic norms may as well be the deadliest project the western world has perpetrated on foreign lands thus far.

Many African governments, were it not for Western pressure and aid conditionalities, would not be organizing elections. They would be ruling by DECREES. And perhaps we would be better for it. Our policies are written under the watch of World Bank Experts, so are most of our legislations. They are never really implemented. Most presidents don’t care about policies AND laws but ‘rule by intuition’ based on CALCULUS that is most likely to ensure they stay IN POWER as long as they can. They don’t care ABOUT elections but will conduct them just to make western donors happy and keep the aid taps flowing, money that allows them to direct the little domestic resources into paying for arms to repress their opponents, relegating public GOOD to the donors to provide.

A year ago, my colleague Dr. Lonzen Rugira, in an article aptly titled “How Africans Perform Democracy to The Western Gallery”, dissected the absurdity of African states holding ‘elections’ (Which Voice of America’s Shaka Ssali derisively calls ‘selections’) to fulfill dictates of their western donors and not to really empower their citizens’ participation in governing.

Writing about the futility of positioning this type of democracy as the alpha and omega of a well-run country, Rugira notes:

“African leaders still conceive legitimacy externally – something that must originate from outside. The “outside” is the Western world…they play along the game of democracy not because they are aspiring democrats but due to the external legitimacy it confers them. The application of this logic has made democracy a ritual that happens every five years or so. It is a performance for the western gallery. The effects of this performance on the lives of the African people, it seems, is of no concern to either the African leaders or the western gallery.

There has been a counter-argument that elections, even when they are neither free nor fair, have a net positive effect on the trajectory of Africa’s development. One of those is by Nic Cheeseman, the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham who argues that even when they are flawed, elections in Africa are crucial. He says that even when the opposition almost never wins, it puts ruling autocrats under pressure which in turn forces them to provide some public services to their citizens. But is this true in reality? And even if it was, is it a good thing?

There is a sprinkling of examples where autocrats under electoral pressure indeed dole out a little more patronage to supplant hostile feelings from certain sections of the populace but this is the nature of most sub-Saharan Africa’s hybrid regimes anyway, and it’s how they keep control of the population. The intention is never real service delivery.

I have seen this in Uganda where Mr. Museveni’s perennial challenger Kizza Besigye has forced his government to make pronouncements that have come back to haunt them. I remember in the 2001 and 2006 elections he forced him to put in place un-thought-through reforms, such as the abolition of patient fees at government hospitals, and scrapping of graduated tax, decisions that have come back to be utterly useless in effectiveness.

Public policy not rooted in genuine intentions to reform but only as a kneejerk reaction to the opposition is not sustainable and may not do any good IN the long term. To the contrary, such decisions that are not based in sound data and evidence, policy, economic geography and feasibility studies end up hurting the very people they are intended to help.

What is happening in my motherland Uganda calls for a re-examination of democracy as a magic bullet for socioeconomic advancement in the third world. Lee Kuan Yew famously said that he couldn’t have accomplished what he did in Singapore if he were to implement ‘a western style democracy.’

Western media and neoliberal institutions have, in the wake of Trumpism and Brexit, been sounding an alarm over what they call ‘retreating democracy’ all over the world. Now that they are back in power in Washington, will they be humble enough to at least allow for nuance in their push to export their neoliberal worldview to the rest of the world? Will they listen to the idea that democracy as construed in the west, which is being forced on the third world, might actually be destroying lives? Rather than ostracizing those countries that have been brave enough to be honest in declaring that they aren’t going to be drama-acting in a norm their societies are not ready for, shouldn’t the world concede that these countries also have a point?

Bernard Sabiti is a Ugandan researcher and a political analyst 

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