It’s an interesting time to be in Uganda. Last Saturday, I had dinner with some friends in Fort Portal before heading out to the clubs. As we approached the first establishment, one of my friends noted the still atmosphere broken by the occasional burst of cheer. I immediately groaned out loud imagining a club full of people glued to whatever football match was displayed on the television screens that normally played music videos. I was wrong. People were glued to the television screens but it wasn’t a football match that held their rapt attention, it was the Ugandan Presidential Debate, and it blared from every speaker in the club.
Earlier that day, I observed a group of people, known as the “Crime Preventers,” marching around town in crisp army uniforms. These groups were trained by the government to aid the police and military in keeping communities safe and preventing voter intimidation during the election on February 18th. They are said to be impartial but they are paid by the ruling government and exist in large numbers throughout the country. I can’t help but think of the Peace Keepers in The Hunger Games but maybe I’m just being dramatic.
It is important to note that Uganda has never experienced a peaceful transition of power. The current president, Yoweri Museveni, who helped overthrow the notorious Idi Amin, has been in power for 30 years under whispers of rigged elections and state-sponsored violence. In fact, Museveni had the constitution changed in 2006 to allow himself the chance to stay in power under claims that it’s “what the people want.”
Apart from the books I’ve read, I’ve heard references to the Amin-era regime only from the older teachers at my school. It seems as though initially Museveni’s rise to power was a welcome change from the dictatorial rulings of Idi Amin and Milton Obote and understandably so, he has been credited for Uganda’s substantial (albeit, slow) economic growth and stability. The Ugandans that I have been lucky enough to be associated with proudly describe Uganda as a peaceful nation but the government of Uganda is marred by corruption and there is plenty of evidence to back it up.
The media is calling this presidential election the closest it’s ever been with the main opposition, Kizza Besigye, garnering significantly more support than in the past. (Besigye ran against Museveni in 2011 and lost, receiving only 30% of the votes). Campaigns have been relatively peaceful until yesterday when riots broke out in Kampala after Besigye’s arrest, inciting military interference in the capital city.
Peace Corps has instructed us to stay in our villages for the next 2 weeks and remain highly alert. We were told to prepare a “go bag,” in case of an emergency evacuation. Although I don’t think we will need to evacuate, I am torn up about the election for many reasons and the only thing I can do is try to figure out how to fit my cat into my go bag.
As always, opinions expressed in this blog are mine and do not reflect those of the United States of America or the Peace Corps.