17 February 2011
Thomas Cargill
(Former Chatham House Expert)


Uganda goes to the polls on Friday, with every indication that President Museveni - who has been in power since 1986 - will be re-elected for another five year term, perhaps with an increased majority. The weakened opposition, independent media, and advocacy groups are already claiming foul play.

Given recent events in the Middle East it is not surprising that during my visit to Uganda last week there was vague talk of the possibility of similar unrest.

It is possible there will be some limited, violent protests but the Ugandan security forces are strong enough to contain and suppress this. Western diplomats will convey their government's concern, whilst advocacy NGOs will urge them to go further. The Government will respond by refuting most allegations as being driven by the 'subversive agendas' of some opposition groups and their foreign backers. It may warn foreign governments not to interfere in Uganda's internal affairs.

Regardless, Uganda's important regional role as a relatively stable, open and influential player, particularly given recent political upheavals in Kenya, mean that international leverage over Uganda's internal affairs is limited.

Uganda's Growing Significance

Uganda provides the bulk of the frontline soldiers in Somalia protecting the government there and has an important role to play in building stability in Sudan. The discovery of oil in Uganda and growing international business interest, at a time when national capitals around the world are instructing their diplomats to promote business in Africa, means that space and time for discussions over human rights, transparency, and good governance are becoming ever more squeezed.

It is understandable that Uganda's ruling political elite should welcome their country's growing prominence, power, and ability to manoeuvre, and they are sentiments that find some play amongst ordinary Ugandans also.

The legacy of colonialism means that the present trend of greater international autonomy is a satisfying one, and not just amongst the elite, though they may be the primary beneficiaries. This partly explains the Ugandan Government's exasperation at criticism of its human rights record by Western based advocacy NGOS and journalists. Such criticism is often caricatured as naïve, interfering and hypocritical by those in power. The new found ability to frustrate and ignore the efforts of such organisations can be satisfying to the Government and its supporters regardless of the merits or veracity of their arguments.

Not all Good News

Uganda, like most sub-Saharan African countries, is unlikely to see a revolution of the sort seen in the Middle East recently. Despite the claims of the opposition groups, many ordinary people still support President Museveni and believe that he and the National Resistance Movement (NRM) offer the best prospects of improving their lives.

Yet some of the criticisms of Uganda's governance and human rights, no matter how insensitively or clumsily made, do have merit.

For all the considerable progress that has been made in Uganda in recent years, it has still not had a peaceful democratic transfer of power since 1962. Concerns over human rights and corruption are growing once more. Existing and prospective investors see these problems as increasing constraints on growth.

Yet such issues are not simply important for foreign investors. They are important to the self respect, dignity and prospects of an emerging Ugandan middle class which, whilst proud of their country, are increasingly international in character and outlook.

They are also important to Uganda's prospects if it is to break through to the next stage of growth and benefit from value added and skilled investment.

The Real Choice

Ultimately, Egyptian-style change is unlikely in Uganda at present because if their aspirations are not met, these middle class Ugandans may vote with their feet, perhaps through the streets of Kampala, but more traditionally, into the global job market. Yet most ordinary people do not have that choice.

The next few years will reveal what kind of country Uganda's government, with all its new found autonomy, wishes to build. Ultimately if it fails to deliver, it may find that finger pointing abroad no longer protects it at home.