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Uganda democracy in decline

New report shows why changing leaders doesn’t change politics in Africa

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | Leadership change results in an initial wave of optimism. But ongoing political challenges and constraints mean that it is often a case of “the more things change the more they stay the same.

That is the view of the latest Bertelsmann Transformation Index Africa Report 2020 (BTI), `A Changing of the Guards or A Change of Systems?’.

The authors reviewed developments in 44 countries from 2017 to the start of 2019, and concluded that there is need for caution about the prospects for rapid political improvements in most of them, including Uganda.

In the report, Uganda is listed among countries whose democratic indicators are worsening. Others in this category are Burundi, Eritrea, South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Madagascar.

In the East African region, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Botswana are listed as showing no change in their democracy indicators.

The report notes that while President Yoweri Museveni and the ruling NRM party who have been in power for over 34 years have been commended for taking Uganda on a path of peace and stability, both confidence among Ugandans in their government as well as its international reputation have suffered significantly in recent years.

It says that though opposition political parties have remained weak due to internal challenges and an unfair playing field, the Museveni government feels challenged.

It points at how popular criticism and protest have intensified mainly channeled through the loose movement of the followers of the musician-turned-politician Robert Ssentamu Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine  under their slogan of “People Power”.

“As the politics of regime survival have become the dominant logic, democratic institutions and processes have been increasingly undermined, turning some of them into a façade,” the report notes.

It adds that: “The violent crackdown on opposition protesters, including arrest and torture of prominent politicians, has led to international condemnation and raised doubts about Uganda’s democratic trajectory”.

Commenting on the report, the renowned Africa democracy scholar, Prof. Nic Cheeseman of the University of Birmingham in the UK, says the conclusion from the report is that “political change occurs gradually in the vast majority of African countries” and there is “more continuity than change”.

Prof. Cheeseman made the observations in an article title “State of democracy in Africa: changing leaders doesn’t change politics” published on the online journal `The Conversation”.

He says that for the last few years the African political landscape has been dominated by high profile changes of leaders and governments. In Angola (2017), Ethiopia (2018), South Africa (2018), Sudan (2019) and Zimbabwe (2018), leadership change promised to bring about not only a new man at the top, but also a new political and economic direction.

But he questions whether the changes of leaders and governments generate more democratic and responsive governments.

He notes that from 2015 to 2019, the general pattern has been for the continent’s more authoritarian states – such as Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea and Rwanda – to make little progress towards democracy. In some cases countries became incrementally more repressive.

At the same time, many of the continent’s more democratic states – including Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Senegal and South Africa – have remained “consolidating” or “defective” democracies. Very few of these dropped out of these categories to become “authoritarian” regimes.

A number of countries have seen more significant changes. But in most cases this did not fundamentally change the character of the political system. For example, Cameroon, Chad, Kenya and Tanzania moved further away from lasting political and economic transformation. Meanwhile Angola, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe initially made progress towards it, but these gains were limited – and only lasted for a short period in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

As this brief summary suggests, he says, at a continental level the trajectories of different states have by and large cancelled each other out. Positive trends in some cases were wiped out by negative trends in others.

Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has thus seen no significant changes to the overall level of democracy, economic management and governance. For example, the index shows that between 2018 and 2020, the overall level of democracy declined by just 0.09, a small shift on a 1-10 scale. This suggests continuity not change.

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