Uganda: Dirty Election Tests Museveni's Ties to Key Western Allies - Officials Brace for Likely Sanctions

President Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet during National Resistance Movement delegates conference (file photo).

A quarter of a century after being listed among a "new breed" of progressive African leaders, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni faces an uphill struggle to win back western allies and reassert his legitimacy after a disputed election which followed violent campaigns.

In power since winning a guerrilla war in 1986, President Museveni was announced winner of the January 14 election, his sixth, with 58.6 percent of the vote. However, with his main challenger, the musician and MP Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu aka Bobi Wine under house arrest since election day, and with evidence continuing to emerge of widespread fraud, widespread concerns remain.

The United States and the European Union last week declined to congratulate President Museveni and instead sought to reiterate their calls for security forces to account for the harassment of political actors and abuse of human rights during the campaigns.

Officials from the US government, a major aid, diplomatic and military ally, warned of consequences against Uganda government officials for repeatedly engaging in "wilful subversion of democracy".

The EU High Representative Josep Borrell Fontelles also weighed in, expressing grave concern about the continued harassment of political actors, including Mr Kyagulanyi who won 34.8 percent of the vote according to official figures. The candidate says he won and has rejected the official results.

"The EU welcomes that no major violent incidents were reported on election day but regrets that the disproportionate role given to security forces during the elections brought forth violence in the pre-electoral period, harassment of opposition leaders, suppression of civil society actors and media, and the raiding of a domestic observer's office," Mr Fontelles said in a statement released January 21.

The US government is calling on Ugandan authorities to hold accountable security personnel responsible for the killings, violence and abuses that dominated the campaign.

"We reiterate our intention to pursue action against those responsible for the undermining of democracy and human rights in Uganda," Morgan Ortagus, State Department spokesperson said in a statement.

On January 19, Senator Bob Menendez, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, applied more pressure, echoing his previous strongly-worded statement on the election campaign, particularly after the November 18-19 protests during which 54 people were killed by Ugandan security forces.

"Sadly, Uganda's January 14 elections were yet another reminder that the Museveni regime has no interest in respecting the democratic aspirations of the Ugandan people. The pervasive harassment of opposition politicians, the obstruction of election observers, repeated abuses by security forces and internet blackouts, and allegations of vote rigging, have cast serious doubt on the credibility of the entire electoral process," said Mr Menendez. The American official warned that Washington is unlikely to accept and move on.

"Faced with fresh evidence that President Museveni has no intention of charting a new, democratic course for his country, the United States and its international partners must now respond," he said.

"A business-as-usual approach will not suffice. Towards that end, I look forward to working with the incoming Biden administration to clearly and unequivocally demonstrate to the Museveni regime that there will be consequences for those that repeatedly engage in the wilful subversion of democracy. The United States must stand with the Ugandan people as they pursue their democratic aspirations."

On January 18, Canada called on Uganda authorities to immediately free Bobi Wine from house arrest, adding it was deeply concerned by the serious restrictions in place during Uganda's elections, including restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, association, expression, and the nationwide internet shutdown.

Regional leaders that have congratulated President Museveni include Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania, South Sudan's Salva Kiir, Zambia's Edgar Lungu, Burundi's Evariste Ndayishimiye, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Chinese government have also congratulated Mr Museveni on his re-election, but criticism from European partners and especially from the Americans is causing concern in Kampala.

The US is the largest bilateral donor, with just under a billion dollars annually in development and military assistance to Uganda. Apart from the money, most of which funds health programmes, military and diplomatic cooperation in Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi and DR Congo has, over the years, put stability at the heart of the foreign policy between the two countries.

And while Washington has spoken out about governance challenges in Uganda before, recent events around the election have strained relations. President Museveni and recently-arrived ambassador Natalie Brown had a frank exchange of views at the end of December following the arrest of four human rights lawyers in Kampala.

Following that meeting, a small working committee was quietly set up between the two countries to iron out differences but these have only continued. On January 9th the US embassy in Kampala issued a statement warning of "disturbing signs" that civic space was closing in Uganda after authorities froze the bank accounts of civil society organisations involved in civic education around the elections.

The embassy in Kampala then withdrew all its election observers on the eve of the polls after the Electoral Commission accredited only a quarter of names it submitted, and officials have criticised the shutting down of the Internet for five days from the eve of the election as undermining transparency.

When Ms Brown attempted to visit Mr Kyagulanyi who has been under house arrest since Election Day, she was barred, apparently on the orders of State House. The candidate's lawyers have also been barred from meeting him as he considers a legal challenge against the result, forcing them to seek court orders for his release, for which ruling will be delivered on Monday.

Nigerian human rights lawyer Femi Falana on January 18 also filed a complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Arrests seeking an opinion that the continued detention of the politician is arbitrary and violates Ugandan laws. Ugandan officials led by President Museveni have pushed back against the criticism. During a televised victory speech on Sunday, he accused an unnamed country in the region of interfering in the election.

Foreign Affairs Minister Sam Kutesa echoed similar sentiments while briefing foreign diplomats about the election in Kampala on Wednesday. "We underline that Uganda has sufficient capacity to deal with its affairs and rejects meddling in its internal affairs."

Government spokesman Ofwono Opondo also hit back at Ms Brown. "What she has been trying to do blatantly is to meddle in Uganda's internal politics, particularly elections, to subvert our elections and the will of the people," he said on Twitter. "She shouldn't do anything outside the diplomatic norms."

Privately, however, Ugandan officials worry that the new American administration under President Joe Biden will exert even more pressure on the country over its human rights record and governance deficits.

"There was a bit of pressure under President Trump but he largely left us alone, which was okay," a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told The EastAfrican.

"But the democrats tend to meddle a lot and it is not clear what their priorities are, and whether regime change in Kampala is one of them."

Officials in Kampala are bracing for sanctions against individuals accused of human rights abuses, including travel and visa bans, in the short-term as western allies turn up the pressure.

Two camps have thus emerged within the inner core in Kampala, according to sources interviewed by this newspaper: A moderate faction that believes the long-term relationship can survive short-term turbulence, and a more hawkish faction that is urging for a pivot away from the West and towards Asia.

Across opposition strongholds in Uganda's capital, the reaction to President Yoweri Museveni's contested re-election has been muted, with his rival's supporters too fearful -- or dispirited -- to take to the streets. With their leader under house arrest, and soldiers still out in force, backers of presidential runner-up Bobi Wine have been waiting and watching in nervous limbo since the opposition decried the January 14 poll as a "sham."

- Additional reporting by Jonathan Kamoga

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