Northern Uganda

This started as the on-line journal of Africa Anonymous while she was an Graduate Fellow researching and working in Northern Uganda. You gotta be good. You gotta be strong. You gotta be 2,000 places at once.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Referendum Day, also known as the day people don’t have to work

I’ve been a bit silent on my end. It isn’t because there isn’t enough to say because in any given day I compose several editorials in my head on the state of affairs here. I am lacking in both time and the drive to dedicate words. Today there are no excuses. Today Ugandans are to go to the polls to vote in a national referendum, that to many, will help seal the fate of this here country. The bottom line: referendum equals day off, though the substantial work before me speaks to the contrary.

So let’s get to business. For those of you who have followed me through this Ugandan odyssey, you probably already have a sense of the political climate, but let me provide a quick summation. Uganda’s post-colonial history: violent, corrupt, divisive, entrenched systems of patronage (also known as giving all the favors to your friends and family), poverty, and power by means of the gun. Then in 1986, a man by the name of Yoweri Museveni leads a successful guerrilla movement, capturing Kampala and bringing an end to Obote’s second term in power (NOTE: our future guesthouse is right down the road from Obote’s former residence which lies in shambles of its former glory with blown out windows, stolen gate and a military detach set up in the back yard).

Yadda yadda yadda, Museveni is hailed as a “new African leader”, ushering in economic growth, poverty reduction, HIV/AIDS prevalence reduction, and the promotion of women within government – all under a one-party system known as the National Resistance Movement. This “new African leader” managed to maintain his title despite the fact that one of the worst humanitarian disasters on the planet persists in the northern region of the country due to a nearly two decade war that is essentially waged on children, turning children into vicious fighters and young girls into wives of old brutal commanders (oh, and the 1.5 million people forced to leave their villages for desolate and decrepit camps). OOPS! I am not supposed to bring up that part. And with the change in Museveni’s HIV/AIDS policy to sweeten his image to Bush, Jr., in addition to the lack of data in northern Uganda, Museveni’s supposed success story in tackling the AIDS epidemic is questionable.

Let me try to get back on track. You see, there seems to be a problem with these “new” African leaders. When it is time to go, or in Museveni’s case, when the constitution says two terms (5 years each) is enough (though the man has held power for 20 years now), Africa’s leaders tend to get a little wily. Whereas there is life after president in much of the Western World (ok, maybe not for Bush Senior, but think Bill Clinton), there tends to be no life after president in Sub-Saharan Africa. Nelson Mandela is of course the exception to this rule, as he stepped down after one term and has led a tremendous public life in the aftermath of his presidency. But most African leaders are of a different caliber. When the clock begins to tick and one’s power begins to expire, it is time to pull all the tricks out of the hat (Mugabe, Mobutu – wait, this list will be too long). Without going on to yet another tangent related to Museveni’s motivations for staying or not staying in power, it is evident that Museveni could face retribution for acts that he has committed throughout his presidency should he back down.

As I have mentioned previously, the Ugandan Parliament voted overwhelming to lift the term limits from the constitution last month. That is one obstacle overcome for Mr. Museveni. Today’s referendum simply asks if Uganda should maintain the one-party state (the National Resistance Movement severely restricts the operations of parties, requiring that candidates for all offices stand independently) or if space should be opened for multiple parties. Previously Museveni would naturally lean towards maintaining the status quo, but there are some international strings tugging on Museveni, and now he claims to support multi-party politics.

The donors (primarily the UK and the US) have asserted pressure on Museveni to step down and open the political arena so that “democracy” can somehow be consolidated. As Uganda is a donor-reliant country, Museveni is already feeling the heat of international pressure. The UK is already withholding aid, expressing its dissatisfaction at Uganda’s progress towards a multi-party democracy. Museveni loves to tout that he wants nothing more than to return to his farm (claiming to make more money as a farmer than president – I’ll let you form your own opinion on that one) and Farmer Bush Jr. also nudged Museveni into going back to the “ranch”. Simultaneously, Museveni has built a myth that only he can lead Uganda, and should he step down, nobody would be able to fill those shoes.

Back to my world. How is the referendum looking in Lira? If it is any indication, my local colleagues were all too eager to inform me of the day, but when I asked them if they were going to vote, NONE of them had registered and therefore would not be partaking. Driving through town this morning I did not see a single polling station and I have yet to meet a single individual who is voting.

Aside from the referendum hoopla, I am beginning to get into the nitty gritty of getting this project up and running. I had excellent trips to both Soroti and Kampala in the last week. Now I have my sights set on immersing myself in the “field” also known as the IDP camps.

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