By Onghwens Kisangala
Steve Wymer, an American communications and media relations expert, was in Uganda recently under a programme by the US Embassys Public Affairs Department, to engage the public, the media and electoral officials on civic affairs and democracy The Independents Onghwens Kisangala spoke to him about his impression of Uganda democracy. Excerpts:-
What do you make of African democracies?
Some (countries) are doing well; some are struggling and a few like Zimbabwe are not doing well at all. But it is not that the US has specific recipes that they want to see all these handled, the US is supportive of progress toward free and fair elections to elect leaders and I dont think there is any interest in meddling or exerting any undue pressure. The US makes its values clear; it is supportive of nations that respect the rights of the people.
Why does the US continue to support governments like that of Uganda where the Supreme Court ruled that 2006 elections did not comply with the law?
Well, would you have the US have no relations with Uganda? I know from the amount of interests and requests I get from Ugandans that they want diplomatic relations with America. They show us their support. But it is a complicated area, you know itâs smoky; it is where you have to find a fine balance between working with and choosing a system that you have to create improvements about. But only in the gravest circumstances do countries want to cease bi-lateral relations. That could be very counter productive in helping to develop a democracy.
What are some of the short-comings about Uganda’s democracy that you have noticed in your short time here?
Today, I met with many senior people to talk about civic engagements; to encourage them to vote when they become old, to participate. I am finding that I am meeting with lots and lots of young people of 20, 21 to 24 age range and they are all concerned about the direction Uganda is taking. They have very strong opinions about Uganda but when I asked them about how many (of them) vote, I found that disturbingly few actually vote. But it is an important process we can use to encourage democracy, because it is easy to identify problems and say why a government is not good, but it seems a lot harder to start to get people to realise that democracy only works if they actually participate.
Many have tried to participate amidst electoral malpractice; election theft, intimidation, disenfranchisement, etc all leading to disillusionment. Where does one get the courage to fight on?
It is not a matter of them continuing to participate or not. At least 78 percent of the people in this country are under the age of 35. Most of these going to vote now have never known another president or never even voted before.
So how can they say their votes dont count? Was Zimbabwe or Kenya’s last elections perfect? Was it fair or free? No! But has it worked? Do you think Robert Mugabe or Mwai Kibaki want to be sharing power? No! But they are (sharing) because the people voted. May be they rigged or stole it I dont know. But I guarantee you Kenyans and Zimbabweans as a whole probably were not very happy with Kibaki and Mugabe; the polls showed that, and they are now forced to share power. Is it perfect? No, but that is progress.
So to say voting doesnt matter is totally inaccurate. And it is especially dangerous when older people who have seen previous problems spread the myth and lies that voting doesnt matter. I am here to say it does matter. It is nothing else but your civic duty to vote and the will of the people will be heard if enough people go to the poll and exercise their right to vote. If there are problems about elections, those will be dealt with after doing your duty to vote. You cant use past transgressions as justifications for passive ignorance when it comes to voting.
But the incumbents have a firm stronghold on everything and use the security systems, money, and local government networks to ensure the election is rigged. How can one deal with that?
Right now they are not even voting. Voter turnout is just bad. They are not providing public input into the Electoral Commission, they are not providing poll watching opportunities, if not ever going to visit a poll. There is a problem! One of the beauties of democracy is that it ensures the type of government that the people deserve. What they ought to know is that regardless of how long it takes, the will of the people will prevail. People are distracting themselves from the process. Ugandaâ€™s problems will not be solved by a top-down solution; President Museveni will not be expected to even in his very best days to just wave us on and fix problems. Solving problems in Uganda has to start bottom-up. Let us start with the average citizen everyday; engaging and caring. One thing that President Museveni always says that I agree with him 100 percent is that â€˜Ugandans need to care more about Uganda. Ugandans need to be more patriotic about their country. And when they are, they will get more involved, they will vote. Anything else will be a recipe for failure not success.