This week UK Member of Parliament Dr. Paul Williams, long a stalwart advocate for human rights, public health, and democratic governance in Uganda, motioned to debate the status of democracy in Uganda – a Commonwealth nation.
The MP for Stockton South recalled his own warm memories of volunteering and living in Uganda while also imparting his first hand experience with some of the crucial weaknesses of the East African republic’s democracy. Of course, Williams’ discussion covered the alarming repression of opposition politicians in the country, including Bobi Wine, writing:
I also want to mention Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine. He is a young, charismatic musician with a large popular following. He was elected to the Ugandan Parliament at about the same time that I was elected to the UK Parliament. While I, in a friendly way, get to be critical of our Government without harassment, Bobi has been the target of totally undemocratic behaviour by his. In August last year, he and four other MPs were arrested by the military while campaigning for a by-election. His driver was shot dead, and he was severely beaten by soldiers before being brought to court on trumped-up charges that were later dropped. Bobi Wine was eventually handed over to the police and released, but that was just another example of the Ugandan Government using the military to prevent democratically elected politicians from doing their job.
Fortunately, MP Williams’ concerns are nothing new. He’s demonstrated time and again his ardent support for Bobi Wine and other persecuted political voices in Uganda. Williams’ goes on to provide reason for UK responsibility, writing:
Why are all such attacks on democracy important? They are important for the Ugandan people, the people who might one day want to see a different Government in their country. They have no hope of ever seeing a different Government if this one undermines democracy to cling on to power. The attacks are also important because of international standards and accountability. Uganda is a partner to our country in the United Nations, in the Commonwealth and, in multilateral relationships, through the European Union; and partners hold each other to international standards. The attacks are also important because they undermine the ability of the UK and the Ugandan people to work together on shared goals.
The attacks on democracy also allow a small group of people to retain power, a group of people who are illegally benefitting from that power and patronage. The corruption has meant that the UK’s Department for International Development has stopped direct budgetary support to the Government of Uganda. In 2012, €12 million was channelled out of the aid budgets from Ireland, Denmark and Norway directly into the bank accounts of officials working in the Prime Minister’s office. We now have to provide our UK support through private sector and non-governmental organisations. We cannot pretend that that is a good thing—it is always better to work with Governments—but, to be honest, we know that if want to help the people of Uganda, we cannot give money to their current Government.
Save for a few exceptions, the debate left little room for doubt regarding the opinion of the MPs in attendance – democracy is under threat in Uganda, and the UK has a responsibility to watch, listen and help when possible.