Uganda | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Ratings Change: 

Uganda's civil liberties rating improved from 5 to 4 due to changes in the survey methodology.


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 as a result of the manipulation of the process by the NRM and the existence of current limitations on political party activity.

In 2002, two pieces of legislation affecting political rights and civil liberties were enacted. The Political Organizations Bill restricts the rights of political parties. The Suppression of Terrorism Bill imposes harsh penalties on suspected terrorists and has raised fears that it could be used against political opponents.

Regional tensions stayed high, although Ugandan military forces began to withdraw from the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. These units had been sent to suppress rebels who had been perpetrating attacks across the border into Uganda. Fighting continued with rebels in northern Uganda.

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 the Museveni-led National Resistance Army entered the capital of Kampala in January 1986.

The 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 governmental neglect; that region, and the west, are 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 has substituted an allegedly nonpartisan "Movement" system. In reality, there is little distinction between Museveni's system and a de facto single-party state. 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. A 1999 report by Human Rights Watch concluded that "Organized political activity has been outlawed in Uganda for the past twelve years, and the NRM government has not hesitated to resort to repressive measures when these legal restrictions on political activity are challenged. Numerous political rallies have been halted, some through force. Political activists who have challenged the NRM's hold on political power are frequently harassed and sometimes arbitrarily arrested."

Reports by human rights groups and donor countries concerning the 2001 presidential election 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. The elections confirmed the NRM's hold on the legislature, its comfortable majority buttressed by dozens of presidentially nominated special interest representatives.

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, presidential term limitations, federalism, the size of parliament, and voter and candidate eligibility. Critics suggest that the commission has a pro-NRM bias and does not reflect the broad spectrum of Ugandan public opinion.

In May 2002, parliament passed the Political Organizations Law which permits political party activities only in Kampala and allows just one party conference in a year. It also bars the formation and registration of new parties until 2005, while old political parties are required to register afresh within six months or face dissolution. The law has been severely criticized by the opposition and independent observers as continuing serious limitations on political pluralism and making it difficult for existing political parties to exist and new ones to be formed. The 2002 Suppression of Terrorism Bill defines any act of violence or threat of violence for political, religious, economic or cultural ends as a terrorist act. The unlawful possession of arms is also defined as terrorism. Publishing news that is "likely to promote terrorism" can lead to up to 10 years imprisonment.

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 a 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.

Nongovernmental organizations (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. The existence and activities of NGOs are, however, subject to stringent legal restrictions. 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. In 2001, the government introduced the Non-Governmental Organizations Registration (Amendment) Bill, which would increase state control over NGOs, but that legislation has not progressed because of widespread complaints by NGOs and other observers.

There is some freedom of expression. Independent and print media outlets, including 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 to journalists and other persons who hold views that are at variance with those of the NRM. In May of 2002, the Suppression of Terrorism Bill came into force, providing a possible death sentence for anyone publishing news "likely to promote terrorism."

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. A leading independent newspaper, The Monitor, was briefly closed in October in a controversy with the government over the veracity of a report regarding the government's fight against guerillas in the northern part of the country.

Women experience discrimination based on traditional law, particularly in rural areas, and are treated unequally under inheritance, divorce, and citizenship statutes. In most areas, women may neither own or inherit property, nor retain custody of their children under local customary law. 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. 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 are barred from forming unions. Strikes are permitted only after a lengthy reconciliation process.