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Democracy in the Third World

By Guy Hallowes - posted Friday, 22 January 2021

We have recently been assailed by news of the election in Uganda. Pop music star Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) was challenging incumbent president Yoweri Museveni, a former general who has been in power for some thirty-five years. In the early years of his presidency Museveni did a wonderful job cleaning up the mess left by his predecessors since independence in 1962 (nine, including the infamous Idi Amin). More recently, however, Museveni – like virtually every African leader – has focussed solely on clinging onto power.

Museveni has now been declared the winner of the election but, inevitably, the losing side has claimed that the results were rigged. It would surprise me greatly if they weren't.

Transparency Internationals corruption perception index – in which a low ranking reflects a high level of corruption – places Uganda at 137 out of 198 countries rated, the same as neighbouring Kenya. For comparison, Australia is placed at 12 out of 198 countries, and the USA at 23.


This is part of the problem. Uganda is a poor country but, largely as a result of the introduction of Western medicine, the population has grown from about 1.7 million in 1900 to 47 million today, an unsustainable growth rate. A small elite, believing they are entitled to a Western standard of living, hoards most of the country's limited wealth and has gathered round the powerful president. Had there been a change of government, corruption levels would have remained much the same; the only difference would be the beneficiaries of that corruption (ref: 'It's Our Turn to Eat' by Michaela Wrong). So it is very much in the interests of the current elite to maintain Museveni in power.

That the country needs a change from the current regime is not in question. A regime lasting 35 years is bound to atrophy. Whether Bobi Wine knows anything about running a government remains to be seen. There appears to be no record of him holding any sort of official position, even in local administration, although he is a member of Uganda's Parliament.

Naively, we in the West assume that 'one adult person, one vote' means democracy. It doesn't.

In the United States there has been a concerted effort over the last four years to subvert the democratic process and concentrate more power in the hands of the already-powerful president. This effort failed by a hair's breadth. Why? Because of the well-established, strong, independent arms of government within the US democratic system. An independent judiciary. An independent Congress (House of Representatives and Senate). Fifty state governments. An independent, state-based legal system. A military under civilian control. An incorruptible, albeit rather complicated, state-based electoral system. The FBI and the CIA providing independent advice. In the end, democratic arrangements prevailed: a new President has been recognised and sworn in.

Does any of this apply in Uganda. No, not in practice. The judiciary is nominally independent, but that is just an illusion. Museveni's rise to power began in the National Resistance Army and Uganda's military is under his personal control, as are the police. All national security operations are directly under the control of the President. The constitution (Uganda's fourth since independence) establishes a nominally federal structure comprising five states, each with its own legislative assembly, and a district; however, the country is effectively run from the centre and the high level of corruption ensures that all elements 'toe the line'. So, the institutions that support democracy in Western Governments just don't exist in Uganda.

Unfortunately what applies in Uganda applies throughout Africa to a greater or lesser extent. The one exception is tiny Botswana, with a population of two million or so, which has had a 'no corruption' regime since independence in 1966, introduced by Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana's first President. Presidential time limits (two terms of four years) are respected for example. Largely as a result, Botswana's per capita GDP is among the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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About the Author

Sydney-based Guy Hallowes is the author of Icefall, a thriller dealing with the consequences of climate change. He has also written several novels on the change from Colonial to Majority rule in Africa. To buy browse and buy his books click here.

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