Uganda | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


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Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) continued in power after comfortably winning presidential and legislative elections in 2001. These elections, however, were held under conditions that called into serious question their legitimacy, due to the manipulation of the process by the incumbent NRM and the existence of current restrictions prohibiting political party activity.

Regional tensions stayed high, as Ugandan military forces remained in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They had been sent to suppress rebels who had been perpetrating attacks across the border into Uganda. Some of the military have returned to Uganda, but the scope and sustained presence of the Ugandan military have raised the possibility that Uganda is seeking to expand its sphere of influence and establish a de facto buffer area in eastern Congo. Ugandan soldiers have also been accused of profiteering, including dealing in diamonds, timber, and gold. In addition, deteriorating relations with Rwanda raised the possibility of further conflict.

A draft nongovernmental organization (NGO) registration bill under consideration by parliament would tighten conditions under which NGOs could register and function. President Museveni has refused to sign legislation passed by parliament in 2001 that would ease restrictions on the freedom of political parties to function.

Uganda has experienced considerable political instability since independence from Britain in 1962. An increasingly authoritarian president, Milton Obote, was overthrown by Idi Amin in 1971. Amin's brutality and buffoonery made world headlines as hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Amin's 1978 invasion of Tanzania finally led to his demise. Tanzanian forces and Ugandan exiles routed Amin's army and prepared for Obote's return to power in the fraudulent 1980 elections. Obote and his backers from northern Uganda savagely repressed his critics, who were primarily from southern Ugandan ethnic groups. Approximately 250,000 people were killed as political opponents were tortured and murdered and soldiers terrorized the countryside. Obote was ousted for a second time in a 1985 army coup. Conditions continued to worsen until Museveni led his National Resistance Army into Kampala in January 1986.

President Museveni's NRM dominates the nation's political life. The press and civil society remain relatively free and active, however, despite some crackdowns. In addition, the parliament has become increasingly assertive, occasionally rejecting appointments or policy initiatives proposed by the executive branch.

Uganda held a referendum in June 2000 on whether to remove a ban on political party activities. The results were mixed. Almost 90 percent of those voting supported continuation of the current de facto single-party system. Opposition parties had called for a boycott, however, and overall voter turnout was just over 50 percent.

Manipulation and exploitation of ethnic divisions pose a serious threat to peace in Uganda. Baganda people in the country's south continue to demand more recognition of their traditional kingdom. Northern ethnic groups complain of government neglect; that region, with the west, is subject to continuing guerilla activities.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Ugandans do not have the right to select their government through democratic political competition. The country's only open multiparty elections were held in 1961 in preparation for the country's independence from Britain. Since 1986, political parties have been prohibited from functioning, and candidates stand as individuals in elections. Arguing that majoritarian democracy exacerbates religious and ethnic tensions in Africa, President Yoweri Museveni substituted an allegedly nonpartisan "Movement" system. The 1995 constitution transformed the administrative restriction on political party activity into a legal ban. Article 269 of the constitution prohibits opening and operating branch offices, holding delegates' conferences, holding rallies, or campaigning for a candidate in an election. Security forces have halted numerous political rallies, some through force, and leading opposition activists have been harassed and sometimes subjected to arbitrary arrest.

Since 1996 when he was first confirmed by an election as president, any distinction between Museveni's system and a single-party state appeared to be academic. A 1999 report by Human Rights Watch concluded that "the NRM has consolidated its monopoly on political power through exclusive access to state funding and machinery, widespread and sometimes compulsory political education programs."

In February 2001, parliament passed the Political Organizations Law with a view to relaxing some of the restrictions placed on political parties, in particular allowing them to operate district offices. However, President Museveni has refused to sign this law, reiterating that party activities are only allowed at the national level. At the end of the year Museveni appointed a special committee to review the issue and report back to him in three months.

Presidential elections in 2001 resulted in Museveni remaining in power. As in 1996, Ugandans voted for their president and members of parliament in elections without open party competition. Reports by human rights groups and donor countries noted that state media and other official resources were mobilized in support of Museveni's successful candidacy, and the ban on formal party activities further hindered the opposition. Most observers believe, however, that Museveni would have won in a multiparty contest and described the actual balloting and vote tabulation processes as largely transparent.

The opposition claimed that the elections were rigged and boycotted subsequent parliamentary polls. A dozen cabinet ministers did lose their parliamentary seats, but most did so to fellow supporters of Museveni, as opposed to being defeated by opposition candidates. Supporters of the opposition parties were allowed to contest on an individual basis, and several were elected. Overall, however, the elections maintained the NRM's hold on the legislature, its comfortable majority buttressed by dozens of presidentially nominated special interest representatives.

Central political power rests firmly in the hands of the NRM. Important policy issues, such as whether to intervene directly in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are decided without significant public or parliamentary debate or input. Nonetheless, some space is allowed for parliament and civil society to function. Parliament, for example, has occasionally censured government ministers accused of corruption and has forced budgetary amendments. There is no state religion, and freedom of worship is constitutionally protected and respected. Various Christian sects and the country's Muslim minority practice their creeds freely.

With parliamentary approval, the president names a judicial commission that oversees judicial appointments. The judiciary is still influenced by the executive despite increasing autonomy. It is also constrained by inadequate resources and the army's occasional refusal to respect civilian courts. At times, the government liberally applies the charge of treason against nonviolent political dissidents. Local courts are subject to bribery and corruption. Prison conditions are difficult, especially in local jails. More than 500 prisoners die annually as the result of poor diet, sanitation, and medical care. Serious human rights violations by rebel groups and the Uganda People's Defense Forces have been reported.

The Constitutional Review Commission was established by President Museveni in 2001 to examine possible adaptations to the constitution. Issues being discussed include the future of political parties, federalism, the size of parliament, and voter and candidate eligibility. Critics suggest that the commission has a pro-NRM bias, has no powers, and does not reflect the broad spectrum of Ugandan public opinion.

In a display of judicial independence, in August 2000, Uganda's constitutional court voided one of two laws validating the June referendum on political party activities. The court ruled that the act had been passed without a quorum in parliament. A second, related law was also being challenged in the courts by the opposition Democratic Party. Uganda's parliament, which has a huge pro-government majority, however, subsequently amended the constitution to effectively annul these legal challenges.

NGOs currently make a significant contribution to Uganda's social, cultural, and political life. They encourage the expression of different views and, significantly, have been willing to address politically sensitive issues at a time when the Ugandan government continues to restrict ordinary political party activity. Uganda's parliament is considering a draft law proposed by the government that would increase state control over NGOs, whose existence and activities are already subject to stringent legal restrictions. Under existing law, all NGOs in Uganda must be approved and registered by a government- appointed board composed mostly of government officials, including security officials, before they are allowed to operate.

The new draft law proposes additional controls. It would further complicate the registration process, requiring that NGOs also obtain a special permit from the registration board before they can operate. It would also increase the registration board's powers to reject or revoke an NGO's registration; and it would stiffen the penalties for operating without official sanction, thus raising the possibility that legitimate NGO activities may be criminalized.

There is some freedom of expression. The independent print media, which include more than two dozen daily and weekly newspapers, are often highly critical of the government and offer a range of opposition views. Buttressed by legislation limiting press freedoms, however, the government at times selectively arrests or harasses journalists. A sedition law remains in force and is applied selectively on journalists and other persons who hold views that are at variance with those of the NRM.

Several private radio stations and private television stations report on local political developments. The largest newspapers and broadcasting facilities that reach rural areas remain state owned. Governmental corruption is reported. Opposition positions are also presented, but the coverage is often not balanced. Journalists have asked parliament to enact a freedom-of-information act so that the public is not denied information.

Women experience discrimination based on traditional law, particularly in rural areas, and are treated unequally under inheritance, divorce, and citizenship statutes. A woman cannot obtain a passport without her husband's permission. Domestic violence against women is widespread. Uganda has, by contrast, legislated quotas for women officials in all elected bodies from village councils to the national parliament. Presently, there are 17 women ministers, including the vice president, out of a 62-member cabinet. Almost 20 percent of Uganda's parliament is female. One-third of local council seats must, by law, go to women.

The National Organization of Trade Unions, the country's largest labor federation, is independent of the government and political parties. An array of essential workers is barred from forming unions. Strikes are permitted only after a lengthy reconciliation process.