For someone who just spent 12 hours in jail, Uganda’s former prime minister Amama Mbabazi sounds energetic, chipper even.
The 66 year-old presidential hopeful, who announced his plans last month to challenge Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni for the leadership of the National Resistance Movement party (NRM), was arrested on Thursday by police forces as he was on his way to meet with party leadership in Mbale. His daughter was also detained, without charge. He was released after 12 hours. “The government uses the police forces to achieve political objectives,” Mbabazi said in a phone interview after his release. “They wanted to stop me from meeting with the party leaders, to express that I wanted their support. My interpretation is that (Museveni) is scared of competition, as he has never had competition before. My supporters are arrested every day.” Mbabazi said that despite his arrest, he is undeterred in his ambition for the presidency as Uganda prepares for presidential elections in 2016. “If anything, my resolve is stronger now,” he said. He said he plans to announce the next stages of his campaign next week.
Mbabazi represents an important challenge to Museveni, who has ruled the East African nation since 1986. A former secretary-general of the NRM, Mbabazi was sacked by Museveni from the party last September after his intentions to run in the party’s primary elections in September were made public. But Mbabazi does not shy from the fact that he was a former ally of the country’s 70-year-old longtime ruler. “Uganda has achieved a great deal under Museveni, and I’ve been a part of it,” he said. “The problem of Africa is leaders clinging to power for too long. When you’ve been president for 30 years, you begin replicating the same thing. What happened [to me] yesterday is proof that it is time for a change in Uganda.”
Indeed, under Museveni, Uganda has had its share of development successes. The poverty rate fell from 56 percent in 1992 to 25 percent in 2012. In the 1990s, the country made impressive strides against HIV/AIDS, but in recent years, infection rates have been on the rise. The country has discovered oil, and there are hopes that the profits from refining and production could help boost job creation and national development.
However, human rights groups and critics have been vocal about the increasing repression in Uganda under Museveni in recent years. Rated as “Not Free” in Freedom House’s latest freedom index, Uganda faced intense international condemnation for its harsh laws on homosexuality. But various other laws have been enacted that have stifled freedom of expression and led to crackdowns on opposition voices and activists in the country. For example, civil society groups have decried a recent non-governmental organizations bill, which if passed into law, requires NGOs to register with the government in order to get government permits. Not only would a proposed governmental board be able to revoke permits to NGOs that engage in “any act prejudicial to the security and laws of Uganda,” but also groups could face fines and jail time for going against the government. Another law, the Public Order Management Act has also decimated the organization of civil society groups, by placing restrictions on meetings held in public.
Mbabazi’s arrest comes as the African continent is set to face a large number of critical elections between now and 2017. But, unfortunately, a number of longtime strongmen or their supporters have either announced intentions to flout national constitutions and stay past their term limits (as is in the case of Burundi’s current political crisis) or rewrite the constitutional term limits altogether (as is with the case of Rwanda). At the same time, there is evidence to suggest that among African citizens, support for term limits is strong, with about 75 percent of citizens in 34 countries desiring presidential term limits, according to Afrobarometer. While Uganda’s parliament voted to remove term limits in 2005, 85 percent of Ugandans polled support term limits, according to Afrobarometer.
Uganda faces a critical stage in its democracy with next year’s elections. The hope is that Museveni will relent on his repression and allow for an open and competitive electoral environment. “Uganda has been a success story, but those successes are in danger,” Mbabazi said. “Museveni shouldn’t allow his legacy to be tarnished by clinging to power. Uganda has never had a peaceful transition of power. It would be a great gift to Uganda’s people.”