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Ugandans must enter the trenches and lead the way

By Olara Otunnu

To effect democratic change in Uganda, you need a double hand approach. Ugandans on their own, without the international community cannot produce change. The international community on their own, without Ugandans being at the fore front, cannot make it happen. Because of the very particular nature of the President Museveni regime and its mode of survival, it requires a two-front approach. The most important is what Ugandans are doing. The two efforts must come together in a very strategic way.

In July last year, I began to think of how to engage the international community. I felt that the efforts to date have been as though someone has been hammering a wall with a blunt instrument which does not work. Ugandans think that there is some institution called Washington or Brussels. There isn’t actually. You cannot simply say that the US should support us; Washington should be behind us.

I did the rounds with my contacts in Washington, also with the various institutions and the congress people I know; Senators, etc. The idea was not only to talk about the situation in Uganda but specifically to talk about the elections coming up next year; the dangers involved, what is likely to happen, the role they (International Community) could play to support Ugandans in their pursuit of free and fair elections. I did about two or three hours just explaining and bringing them up to date. I found there was a thick layer of disinformation, ignorance, and misinformation. Many of them were asking if they could bring on board observer groups. I was not interested in that. I thought the administration generally, although the Obama administration is more complicated, the Clinton and Bush administration were more sympathetic.

I decided that this has to boil down to a very specific, sharp targeted initiative and not general awareness rising. This initiative, in an American context, is best located in Congress. Within Congress, it had to be part of a law or attached to a law. Not just any law but a law that provides for mandatory action. The best way, in my understanding of the American system, was where the power of the press lay; which means in the Appropriations Committee. So we had to find out where the Appropriations Bill for this year was; what process they had reached. They had gone very far but had not been concluded. So I decided that this was where I should focus; how to get congress staffers to get something into their Appropriations Bill.

What is this US$70 million for?

This is just what they usually give to Uganda, so Museveni can do whatever he wants to do with it. It is standard aid in separate form while others are more of project oriented aid. So in effect, you approve this money and Museveni diverts it for very different things. Congress did not.

Two, they direct the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, again very unusual, to do a mandatory report. They even specify at what rhythm that report should be given; about promoting democracy generally in Uganda and very specific about free and fair elections. They are very specific; free and fair elections, the motion will begin now, not two months before the elections.

Given the Ugandan experience, one has to actually spell out these things. Some of these they could not understand at all. For example the issue of security of candidates, they were baffled. Why would this be an issue? So it was important to have it there.

The monitoring began on December 17, 2009 and the first report is due on March 17, 2010. So this means that every three months a report is to be produced and the reporting goes until one month before the elections.

Ugandans have to understand how this works and what is important about this. It is showing Museveni that he is no longer invulnerable. Previously he would have thought it impossible to get something like this or resembling this to the American Congress because of all his supporters. This means there are ways that are very sophisticated; that can be used to mobilise a network of people we know in a covert way. When we do, he is vulnerable; he is no longer invulnerable. The US Congress is the most important and democratic institution in the world.

If Ugandans say, and I think they should say, that we are not accepting that Electoral Commission because it is not independent and here are the reasons why, in the US Congress now they have an ally. When I came the first time, I was so angry I could not understand why the political parties were negotiating with Museveni; begging Museveni, writing to the Speaker of parliament. I asked what is there to negotiate about? The answer is no, we don’t accept this. All these things Museveni has them covered; the registry of voters, freedom of the press, freedom of movement, intimidation, everything is covered. Where you announce election results everything is covered. The voter register will not be on time. That is not all; he is going to play delaying tactics across the board. The question to ask is; what is the opposition going to do in the face of the delaying tactics? Do they accept? Do they say that ‘we are ready for elections? Things are not in place hence by definition this cannot be a free and fair election. We cannot go along with it! Museveni will be forced out. But if he thinks that he can bluff his way, all that will be useless.

On the EC

It is important to elect the Electoral Commission. If the opposition says that they do not support the Electoral Commission, what will Museveni do? Appoint the Commission himself? Will he go into the elections without an electoral commission? He can’t. He needs the elections more than the opposition needs the elections. He can even put up bogus parties and say that the elections were held but nobody will accept because the whole world know that if DP, UPC, FDC are not part of an election it is a non-starter. He can have 100 new parties, it will not fly. But, do the opposition parties realise that they can put a stand and stand their ground? My fear is that most of them are too used to Museveni and they go begging him or they go into a procedural contest which is on his terms.

The realisation of this commitment comes from two places; first, the State Department, the American embassy, CIA, the whole lot of them will feed whatever information to Hillary Clinton to send to the committee. But, this is not so important because in the State Department; there are various pockets, some are pro-Museveni, some are not. Congress on its own can say; madam secretary, I have the following information, how come this is not in the report? We can now feed information directly into the State Department, into the US Congress, into human rights and democratic institutions within the US. There is now a framework and a mandate within which we would be working. Previously it would be a press conference or whatever but now there is a specific formal structured way in which this can be done.

This is not a partisan document; it was not about any political party. My argument was that the Ugandan people are clamoring and yearning for free and fair elections. If Museveni wins free and fair, well and good. The question here is; are the Ugandan people aware of the importance of this? If we are able to get Brussels or London to even have a lukewarm follow up on this, it would be very important. We have never had anything like this.

The international community will feel more willing to do something if they see Ugandans falling in the trenches, fighting for change.

I think the weakest link is the lack of a sophisticated fine appreciation of how to bring the international to link up with the domestic. That is completely left to Museveni. The truth is Museveni’s international network does not begin to compare with my international network. With all his power and money he does not. My network helps African countries, Asians countries. I want to harness that for the help of Ugandans.

Olara Otunnu is former United Nations Undersecretary General. He is a prospective presidential candidate on the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) party ticket in the 2011 elections.

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