Elections billboards for Uganda’s presidential candidates on a street in Kampala, Uganda. Photo by: Baz Ratner / Reuters

The United Kingdom's “shameful” response to repression around recent elections in Uganda means the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has failed an early test of its commitment to open societies, according to experts.

Uganda’s Jan. 14 election was preceded by state-led violence resulting in at least 54 deaths, and marked by a shutdown of social media and the house arrest of the main opposition candidate, Robert Ssentamu, also known as Bobi Wine. Incumbent President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986, declared victory despite allegations of fraud and voter intimidation.

A Jan. 16 statement by FCDO Minister for Africa James Duddridge said: “The UK Government welcomes the relatively calm passing of the elections in Uganda and notes the re-election of H.E. Yoweri Museveni as President.” The rest of Duddridge’s statement acknowledged “concerns” about the political climate and internet shutdown and called for investigations and legal resolution.

The statement was criticized as weak by many in the development sector, especially given that “open societies” is a priority area for FCDO.

The statement was “inconsistent with the political reality,” according to Angelo Izama, a Ugandan journalist and analyst. He added: “It didn’t speak at all to the scale of what was going on in Uganda, which by any standards was a uniquely severe challenge to democratic norms.”

“If you are going to pull your punches on Uganda, you're going to pull your punches on most countries out there.”

— Professor Nicholas Cheeseman, professor of democracy and international development,  University of Birmingham

Professor Samuel Hickey, from the politics and development department at the University of Manchester, said it was a “disingenuous response to quite how violent and repressive the election was, which was the worst in the last four decades.” Hickey said that after the first paragraph, “the rest of it is standard boilerplate response; you could probably check it against any other response to any other election in Uganda or elsewhere. It obviously doesn’t imply any action at all.”

Democracy and international development Professor Nicholas Cheeseman, from the University of Birmingham, said that “to laud media and observers in a statement without noting that media was heavily censored and without noting EU observers were not actually on the ground because they were deliberately not invited by the government … is very misleading. It creates the impression these institutions were able to function when of course they weren’t able to function as they should have been.”

The statement potentially “played into the hands of Museveni,” Cheeseman said.

After opening the new FCDO last year, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab wrote that “open societies” would be one of the global challenges at the heart of his department’s development policy.

While there is still little detail from FCDO about how it will tackle this issue, Raab wrote that this work would “strengthen democratic institutions, human rights, free media and effective governance.”

According to Hickey, “this is a really interesting test case for the new FCDO, which claims that it wants to have a strategic alignment between its own interests and countries where it can make a difference … What seems to be happening so far is the U.K. is privileging its strategic interests over its concern with open societies.”

Hickey pointed out that Uganda is a relatively stable country in a fragile region and also a significant contributor of peacekeepers to Somalia, where the U.K. also has a security interest.

However, he suggested FCDO may be considering “less-public means ... to send a message to the government in Uganda.”

Cheeseman said that “if you are going to support democracy around the world, Uganda is a pretty easy test case. This is not China or Saudi Arabia, a major economic power with influence at the United Nations and beyond. If you are going to pull your punches on Uganda, you're going to pull your punches on most countries out there.”

The statement played into a trend of “consistent inconsistencies” that are “undermining our [the UK’s] reputation as a force for anything in the world,” he added.

Cheeseman continued: “This gives us important early insight into where FCDO are probably going to end up on democracy promotion. We are probably going to have a lot of good talk … a lot of good work behind the scenes [such as supporting civil society and democratic strengthening programs] but on the big ticket items where everyone is paying attention, we are going to continue to pull our punches … I do not think FCDO will be standing up for democracy on those really big issues.”

Duddridge appeared to respond to some of those criticisms by issuing a new statement on Twitter on Tuesday, which raised “significant concerns about restrictions of political freedoms following the Ugandan elections.”

Via Twitter.

While the academics acknowledged it was a much stronger statement, Cheeseman questioned why it hadn’t been made sooner and Hickey said it still did not imply that any action would be taken.

Some Ugandan critics said it made no difference. “This feels like [a] last minute face save after the Americans have put up a bigger fight and been more open about what kind of irregularities and violations that were happening,” said Rosebell Kagumire, the Uganda-based editor of the African Feminism website.

She said it still didn’t convey the “gravity of the situation,” especially regarding Wine’s house arrest. “A personal tweet is not reflective of the greater foreign policy they should be showing … they’ve played a very important role in propping up this regime… they are partners with it,” she said. “That this is the hardest statement they have come up with so far, it’s still shameful.”

About the author

  • William Worley

    William Worley is the U.K. Correspondent for Devex, covering DFID and British aid. Previously, he reported on international affairs, policy, and development. He also worked as a reporter for the U.K. national press, including the Times, Guardian, Independent, and i Paper. His reportage has included work on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Bangladesh, drought in Madagascar, the "migrant caravan" in Mexico, and Colombia’s peace process. He can be reached at william.worley@devex.com.