President. Leader. Dictator. Autocrat. Big Man. These are a few of the terms used to describe Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The recent international attention and action related to his signing the recently passed anti-gay legislation is but one of the issues he faces in the run up to the 2016 elections. After 28 years of big promises, big loans, big profits, the general population of Uganda has yet to see the improvements Museveni promises year after year. Moreover, Museveni has been coy with reporters and members of government in defining his future in Ugandan politics, thus making the political environment in Uganda murkier.
One of Uganda’s star achievements in the region is its involvement in the East African Community (EAC). The recent creation and implementation of the EAC common visa is an attempt by Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda to increase tourism and decrease barriers to citizens and visitors. While the common visa will certainly help Rwanda and Kenya, its promise for Uganda is less certain. Both Kenya and Rwanda attract significant numbers of tourists while Uganda would like to attract the same volume of visitors. Beyond the lack of funds or plans for a large marketing campaign similar to those of Rwanda and Kenya, Uganda itself is the barrier to attracting tourists and the associated revenue.
Although the condemnation from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the expulsion of foreigners in same sex relationships with Ugandans are strikes against Uganda’s international reputation and a deterrent to tourists, the anti-gay legislation is but one of the poor images of Uganda broadcast in international news media. While other countries are proactive in confiscating ivory of indeterminable origins, Uganda just authorized the release of confiscated ivory to buyers in the UAE and China. The 800+ pieces of ivory are from dubious origins in the DRC; however, the court case against the smugglers has stalled. These actions have deepened the rift between the Judiciary, which ordered the release, and the Uganda Wildlife Authority who want the export halted. Furthermore, these actions would be in direct violation of several international agreements and treaties concerning the trade of ivory.
A foundational promise of President Museveni’s tenure in power was action in women’s empowerment and rights. There have been superficial efforts on this front, but the recent actions of a female MP who went to her knees in parliament to ask Museveni to run uncontested for his party in the 2016 elections and pushes to legislate decency in women’s dress are evidence to wider issues in Uganda concerning gender and equality. Whether these actions are due to cultural attitudes, as some writers argue, is up for debate, but the effect is the same. Women lose implicit and explicit rights and Uganda slips further from democracy. The mini-skirt ban was struck from the larger ‘morality’ bill focused on pornography and indecent behavior before the final vote, but this is not what some newspapers report to the public. Mobs have taken to attacking women wearing mini-skirts because, according to some news sources, they are violating the law.
Democracy is tenuous at best in Uganda and recent developments further weaken the credibility of the state, both domestically and internationally. As Museveni positions himself and his party to sweep yet another ‘free and fair election’, it is apparent that he will cater to the necessary constituencies at all costs. One must question whether this strategy will strengthen his candidacy and standing within Uganda, or bring about the cause of his departure from politics. Museveni’s strength lies in his ability to get widespread buy-in from multiple sections of the Ugandan public. As promises are made and broken year after year, Uganda gains an unfavorable international reputation, and internal dissent becomes more vocal, one must wonder how much longer such tactics can keep President Museveni in office.