Interview with Ugandan Civil Society Leaders
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of meeting with with two Ugandan civil society leaders, Richard Mugisha, from the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa, and Patrick Tumwine, from Human Rights Network-Uganda. Mugisha and Tumwine are in DC to meet with US officials and NGO leaders to discuss troubling recent political trends that cast doubt on whether Uganda's upcoming national elections, scheduled for February 2011, will proceed smoothly and produce a legitimate result.
Tumwine and Mugisha explained that there are a number of barriers to holding free and fair elections, including the fact that political parties in Uganda don't have equal opportunities, that the Electoral Commission which is supposed to monitor the elections is weak, and in particular that freedom of expression is being stifled through restrictions on press, media, and association. As we have discussed in previous posts, the Ugandan government has grown increasingly restrictive of political freedoms and civil liberties in the run-up to the 2011 elections, especially in the wake of the September riots last year and the terrorist bombings in Kampala this July.
Nevertheless, Ugandan civil society groups are working to change this. "Despite the intimidation from government, we have civil society organizations creating spaces where people have continued to talk about elections, to talk about the future of Uganda, to talk about the very fact that the government is behaving illegally. So... the space for freedom of expression and speech is being hotly contested," said Mugisha.
"We know the United States is a strong ally of Uganda, and so how [can] they use their influence? Because you know they have given resources to the country, to the government," explained Tumwine. Indeed, the US has contributed substantial funds to Uganda to combat terrorism-funds that, they say, are sometimes used for political repression. Mugisha added that, because of this influence, "The USA has a duty to ensure that this Ugandan government puts US taxpayers' money to good use," by using their leverage to push the Ugandan government to respect political freedoms and human rights.