Democratic Backsliding: The Ugandan Experience


By Sophie Treacy


1986 was a promising year for Uganda. After five years of guerilla warfare, a liberation hero emerged. Soon, he became known as President Yoweri Museveni. He was heralded on the international stage as someone who would represent a new era of democracy for the nation. In stark contrast with the old-style dictatorships that preceded him, President Museveni was lauded for his pursuit of economic development, his aggressive campaign against the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and his emphasis on political liberalization. Citing leaders overstaying their welcome in power as a central problem in African politics, the inauguration of President Museveni appeared to signal the beginning of an effective two-term presidential limit under the Ugandan Constitution. However, in January of this year, President Museveni settled into his sixth term and 35th year as President of Uganda.


Following the well-trodden path of semi-authoritarian leaders around the globe, Museveni removed the presidential term limit and age limit under the Ugandan constitution in 2005 and 2017 respectively to stay in power.


Citing leaders overstaying their welcome in power as a central problem in African politics, the inauguration of President Museveni appeared to signal the beginning of an effective two-term presidential limit under the Ugandan Constitution.

Although his image as protector of political liberalization had begun to deteriorate before the turn of the century, Museveni’s maneuvers to extend his tenure were portrayed as simply a response to the wishes of the Ugandan citizenry. However, Afrobarometer, a research network on democracy in Africa, reported that the vast majority of Ugandans supported the two-term limit on presidential power. Moreover, the median age of the Ugandan population is 16, making it the second-youngest country in the world. Therefore, the majority of the Ugandan population were not even alive during the period that 76-year-old Museveni became a libertarian figure representing peace and stability in Uganda.


By the time the 2021 presidential election came around, Uganda was displaying all the hallmark symptoms of a country experiencing democratic backsliding. Basic civil and political rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of association were heavily constrained. The Ugandan military budget sky-rocketed to further militarize Museveni’s rule. Uganda operated a no-party system that forbade elections based on affiliation with a political party, effectively eliminating political opposition.


Uganda operated a no-party system that forbade elections based on affiliation with a political party, effectively eliminating political opposition.

Unsurprisingly, Museveni was re-elected in January 2021 with 58.6 percent of the vote. Unlike previous elections, the backdrop to the 2021 Presidential election was shrouded with unprecedented violence, civil unrest, and state oppression. Ugandan singer-turned-politician, Bobi Wine, ran in opposition to Museveni and in doing so, cast a revealing light on the endemic corruption in Ugandan politics. Claiming to represent the disenfranchised youth, Wine asserted that up to 3,000 of his supporters were unlawfully jailed or “disappeared” in the lead up to the election. Wine himself alleged that he was subject to detainment and torture at the hands of the Ugandan police force. Indeed, Wine’s arrest sparked protests in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.


To make matters worse, the government weaponized COVID-19 restrictions to dispel political dissent. Under the façade of safety, COVID-19 restriction measures were used to ban opposition candidates from campaigning and excessive police force was used to break up opposition rallies. COVID-19 restrictions were used merely as a pretext to ensure the profoundly undemocratic re-election of Museveni. Aside from an African Union mission, no major international group monitored the election, leading the European Union and the United States to express concerns regarding the legitimacy of the election. Bobi Wine and his supporters were also adamant that the re-election of President Museveni was completely fraudulent. Notwithstanding this, Museveni himself declared it to be the "most cheating-free" election in the history of the nation.


Notwithstanding this, Museveni himself declared it to be the "most cheating-free" election in the history of the nation.

Under the Museveni administration, Uganda is certainly not the democratic "beacon of hope" it was lauded to be in 1986. “Democracy” in Uganda appears to be nothing but a rhetorical veneer that is cited to appeal to foreign donors who have invested heavily in the new Ugandan government. It is a tragedy that a country once heralded as a model of African democracy has experienced democratic backsliding to the extent that it can, at best, be classified as a semi-authoritarian state. The Ugandan experience is a striking example of the critical necessity of presidential term limits in order to foster healthy political competition in a democracy and to encourage the participation of the electorate, showing that change is in fact possible through the ballot box.