Uganda is experiencing its worst wave of political oppression in decades. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of supporters of opposition parties to President General Yoweri Museveni have been abducted, detained and tortured in recent months. Like many, I bear the scars of the baton, have felt the sting of teargas and endured unlawful detention. But I know that this is not personal. It isn’t about me.
Many others, whose only offence is to exercise constitutionally entrenched rights and freedoms, have been clobbered, abducted, tortured and put on show trial. The atrocities are numerous: the unresolved carnage of the Kayunga shootings in 2009 that saw 40 left dead, the massacres in Rwenzururu where police and military killed more than 150, or the November 2020 killings in which more than 50 protesters lost their lives. Not to mention the shooting of my driver, Yasin Kawuma, by police forces on 13 August 2018 at a political rally. He was only 27, and left behind a widow and children. A personal tragedy, but also just another incident in the brutal crackdown under way on supporters of opposition parties in Uganda.
Before I was a politician, I was a musician. I have been dubbed Africa’s Ghetto President. I stood earlier this year as the main opposition challenger to Musevini. At 39 years old, I hope to represent a new face for Ugandan politics that the population, which is the second youngest in the world, can get behind. I want to see Uganda enjoy the same opportunities that countries governed by more sustainable, equal democratic processes enjoy.
Many in my generation were too young – or not yet born – to comprehend what was happening in the early years of Musevini’s National Resistance Army’s takeover. The mass dislocation of livelihoods as a result of IMF-backed austerity measures, the withdrawal of the state from basic service provision and the war between the NRA and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda brought home the glaring contradiction between the lofty speeches of Museveni and prevailing realities. Viewed through our eyes as millennials, it has been a lifetime of broken promises, unfulfilled dreams and dashed hopes.
This disenchantment shows in the age of the majority of arrested people, not least Kenny Kyalimpa (18), Lookman Mwijukye (20), Stanley Kafuko and Saphina Nansove (both 22), Shakira Namboozo (24), Joy Strong (25) and Dan Magic (27), all of whom were repeatedly harassed and are still locked up for expressing divergent political opinions in recent months. And then there’s my music partner, Nubian Li, and my childhood friend Eddie Mutwe.
Against this backdrop, it’s not difficult to see why every passing day of Museveni’s incumbency stirs even more opposition to his rule. Yet the establishment does not seem to appreciate the fact that you cannot indefinitely detain 40 million people in an airtight cage of poverty presided over by nepotistic ruling elites. Suffice to say that even if I hadn’t personally indulged in elective politics and direct activism, other Ugandans would have emerged – as they have – to challenge years of misrule and mismanagement of our public affairs.
A reader who is not familiar with Uganda’s situation might wonder how all the above has been possible. Years of personalised rule create a blanketing malaise whose effect is that neither the judicial system – nor any other arm of government, as currently constituted – can be trusted to deliver justice. The very parliament I sit in has been rendered powerless as a check to executive overreach.
Court orders are disregarded with dazzling alacrity, as the civilian courts get ousted by the general courts-martial, whose remit is soldiers. Media houses are besieged, in the literal and figurative senses, with editorial independence hampered by the ever-present threats of suspension, revocation of broadcasting licenses, and/or prosecution. In such an environment, alternative thought is frowned on while dissent is criminalised. Active opposition is a cardinal sin. Laws including the Computer Misuse Act, the Public Order Management Act and the Anti-Money Laundering Act provide legal cover for the persecution of opponents and muzzling of citizen voices.
At the start of this year, compelled by these circumstances, I submitted a filing to the international criminal court. As signatories to various instruments including the Rome Statute, we must uphold the values that inspired the creation of the ICC. In lockstep with citizens elsewhere who have sought justice in international courts and tribunals, our complaint seeks a measure of redress for Ugandans whose national institutions are incapable and, in many cases, unwilling to dispense justice fairly and impartially.
We have enumerated the myriad violations and excesses that were meted out on Ugandans in the runup to, during, and in the aftermath of the botched 2021 elections. Ugandan lives remain unaccounted for following the November 2020 shootings, as do numerous detainees who are yet to be arraigned before a competent and civilian court of law. It’s critical that the weight of personal accountability is brought to bear by naming individual commanders and officers who have participated in crimes and atrocities against Ugandans.
It must be clear to the world that these actions do not represent the character of Ugandans. Such brazen lawlessness cannot be our identity as a member of the global community of states. It’s in the enlightened self-interest of the international community to rein in the regime in Uganda because of the regional economic and security implications that the current posture portends for stability and progress. The apparent stability in Uganda is cosmetic and deceptive. Washington, London, Berlin, and Paris should stop looking at stalemate as stability – especially where autocrats like Museveni dangle their readiness to do their bidding in regional politics.
An unstable Uganda makes for a dangerous regional climate and as such a threat to an already precarious Great Lakes region. The contemporary history of eastern and central Africa attests to this fact. The west should end the duplicity and realise the threat that its inaction poses to its own national interests. As Ugandans, we have spoken repeatedly – at elections in 2001, 2006, 2011, 2016 and 2021 – about the kind of leadership we desire and the vision we hold for our country, only for our will to be subverted by the ruling junta.
If for no other reason than for breathing life into the dreams of those such as Yasin Kawuma, who died in pursuit of democratic ideals, we are determined to prosecute this mission and bring it to its logical conclusion.