BUSINESS + POLITICS
Uganda vs USA: the search for true democracy?
7th February 2021
There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the truth.
A heated contest of democracy continues to play out in Uganda despite election results reaching conclusion in mid-January. Just this week, lawyers for opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu filed a Supreme Court challenge to dispute President Yoweri Museveni’s victory under the assertion that the vote was rigged. Better known for his singer stage name, Bobi Wine’s petition comes at the culmination of an already tense battle, which looks unlikely to cease any time soon. Not only did Uganda face some of the worst pre-election bloodshed in years, media and press censorship showcased the dubious lengths resorted to in this case. The situation reflects an ever-changing geopolitical environment, swept by social media and threatened by different conceptions of corruption. The potential causes, consequences and conflicts that result are harnessing global attention. Questions arise too, particularly tough questions. Queries that most imperatively ask how this increasingly international issue will ever be resolved?
76-year-old Museveni has won every election since gaining power in 1986 and the current day proved no different. An array of allegations suggested this year suffered from the same tampering as those prior, an outcome that was tarnished by perverted ballots, intimidation of the opposition and the tragic deaths of at least 54 people. The Electoral Commission announced his most recent triumph on the 17th of January 2021, with 58.6 percent of votes affirming his re-election. Wine, one of ten other candidates, forged second place with 34.8 percent, popularity fuelled by his ignition of Uganda’s youthful population. While some celebrated, the presidential contender commiserated under “effective house arrest”, a depiction the government rebutted as mere security provision. Justice Simon Mugenyi Byabakama, head of the Electoral Commission, urged citizens to “remain calm and accept the outcome of these elections”. Bobi Wine, sealed in his own home, stated; “whatever is being declared is a complete sham, we reject it and we dissociate ourselves with it.”
Perhaps most compelling is Uganda’s latest contribution to the fast and fraught conversation around media and politics. After Facebook suspended some Ugandan accounts suspected of purposely undermining public debate in the country, the government followed suit. Press secretary Don Wanyama told the BBC that the platform was inappropriately morphing itself into a “political party”. In response, Museveni shut down social media ahead of the election itself, accusing the company of “arrogance” in denying forums linked to his campaign equitable operation. Effectively, however, his condemnation carried an analogical purpose and came with identical consequence. Only this time, all sides were silenced.
Except, arguably, that of the State, still instrumental and allegedly fraudulent off-line.
Museveni at the UN, United Nations Photo on Flickr
On one side of the Pacific, there is insurrection in Capitol Hill denying the licit handover of power to Joe Biden. On the other, there is revolt in Myanmar. Defender of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi faces accusations of voter fraud and imprisonment despite her party securing the election. Then there are converse cases like Uganda, where rebellion against a convincingly corrupt regime is more salient. Across the world, the electoral process is losing its validity and that world itself is shrinking within the narrow and yet, uncontrollable limits of advanced technology. While critics of conspiracy in the US call on modern media corporations to improve regulation, Uganda’s censorship indicates the true difficulty underlying this debate. As contexts start to clash, tackling this burgeoning area of accountability appears more onerous than ever before.
The country is the 15th in Africa to restrict media and the press, while Trump’s coining of the “fake news” phenomenon to restrict opposing ideas has influenced trends in authoritarian Syria, Venezuela, Libya, Somalia and Russia. On the flip side of a grimy coin, Trump supporters themselves are the purported disseminators of questionable theories that have gained traction through sites such as Parler. A marked paradox, efforts to prevent the spread of falsehood and incitement of violence in one set of circumstances can lead to political unrest and illegitimacy in another. The prevention of one man’s coup is the suppression of another’s freedom, so to speak. The support of one man’s expression is the source of another’s violent demise. Both actions serve to protect democracy. Can either attempt to do so without risking it too?
Whether protection is the purpose behind such measures may be a misconception in itself. Analytical perspectives have doubted the motives of media companies, who are only now making moves at the end of Trump’s reign and in the setting of severe disapproval across their own social platforms. The influence of this pressure, profit and an increasing presence on the African continent are all viable, dangerously dynamic grounds for Facebook to take action and plausibly interfere with state sovereignty.
On the other hand, relying on international intervention in regulation appears unlikely to achieve anything either. Third-state intervention could be classified as further infringement upon freedom of the media, while ulterior interests that Western countries hold are not to be underestimated. Reluctance to properly interfere with oil producing allies like Uganda may restrict the potential for enforcement mechanisms attempting to balance liability with autonomy.
Thomas Jefferson, an avid proponent of the free press, is the same man who held: “the press is impotent when it abandons itself to falsehood.” Centuries on, the quest continues for a truth that slips further and further away. In fact, asking if there is even such thing as “truth” anymore feels futile. What does merit scrutiny may not be the media, but the field the media finds itself in. The root reasons that bolster beliefs in Qanon conspiracies. The historical and socio-economic circumstances that facilitate division in one country and prop up autocracy in another. Failures in education, legacies of colonialism, symptoms of an unsustainable world order. Addressing these inequalities may prove most difficult of all, but attempts otherwise do not appear any easier!
Maybe there are only two sides to every story after all. Perhaps there are elements of truth and democracy inherent in both. But in these critical junctures of humanity, where lives as well as opinions are at risk, it is worth being on the right side.
Featured photo by Mbowasport on Wikipedia Commons