The Fight for Democracy in Senegal and Uganda

05.21.2021 | Christina Oyelowo

Government corruption acts as a clear barrier to democracy and free enterprise around the world. In Africa, many nations have experienced this firsthand. Often, turbulent transfers of power, restrictive control of resources, and the will of the people being ignored are common occurrences.

As 2021 progresses, troubling reports from Senegal and Uganda add to concerns that the spread of political corruption and authoritarianism are not slowing down. While these two nations are separated by thousands of miles and boast considerable differences, they have experienced many similar troubles as power struggles ignited tensions this year.

In both cases, the current regimes have attempted to silence major opposition voices, leading to protests, media blackouts, and arbitrary arrests. If this is such a common occurrence, how can real change be expected? Or is there hope that a Ugandan or Senegalese “Spring” may occur as seen in the MENA region throughout the early 2010s?

Senegal

The West African nation of Senegal has been regarded as a symbol of peace in the turbulent region. Senegal has been a well-functioning democracy, but issues of democratic backsliding are a concern. According to Freedom House, Senegal has declined from the status of “free” to “partly free” within a one year period. In March of 2012, the country’s current leader Macky Sall became the head of state. Initially a popular leader amongst Senegalese, Sall has been the focus of recent protests by those who fear that he will consolidate power for himself prior to the 2024 Presidential elections by making it more difficult for political opponents to campaign against him. That’s a growing trend among heads of state in the region.

When authoritarianism remains unchecked, and conversely when corruption goes unchecked, lack of political accountability can allow for one or the other to flourish.

Recent political turmoil was sparked by rape accusations and subsequent arrest of Sall’s primary rival, opposition leader Ousmane Sonko. Sonko’s parliamentary immunity was later revoked by an ad hoc commission in order to face trial for the alleged crimes. Sonko, a devout Muslim holding popular support amongst many Senegalese youth due to his open critiques of the elite, has denied all accusations and accused the President of conspiring to bar him from politics. As Sonko made his way to court to face the allegations against him, clashes broke out between his supporters and the police. The protests later evolved to be critical of not only the perceived unjust arrest of Sonko, but to also condemn other sources of contention amongst Senegalese people, such as economic stagnation and government neglect. The protests grew substantially, and in both the streets and on social media, cries of “Free Senegal” and “Macky out” have all but drowned out those of “Free Sonko,” showcasing that the case of Sonko is representative of a larger problem.

Uganda

Nearly 8,000 km away in Uganda, protests occurred in the capital Kampala as the longtime leader, President Yoweri Museveni, remains at the center of political turbulence. Originally taking power in a 1986 coup, Museveni had brought relative peace and stability to the nation during his tenure. However after “winning” six elections, his reign has been characterized by corruption and the political repression of opponents. Following months of campaigning, popular opposition candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, lost the election to Musevini, 58.6 percent to Wine’s 34.8 percent. Following the announcement of the results, Wine stated that his party would challenge the results, claiming the election was fraudulent. However, Wine was then placed under house arrest by Musevini’s forces. Speaking out against Wine’s treatment as well as the questioned election results, Benjamin Katana, the head of Wine’s legal team, outlined numerous ways that opposition members were unable to verify the results of the election, despite promises made by the current government.

The sentiments were echoed by other opposition challengers who agreed that the election was biased. All ten other presidential hopefuls contested the results, claiming that the elections were neither free nor fair. Wine has since called on his supporters and the citizens of Uganda to protest the results. As in the case of Senegal, Ugandans rallied on social media platforms to share their thoughts and opinions shortly before the government introduced an internet blackout. Museveni later warned in a televised address that opposition supporters who allegedly plan to disrupt his inauguration in May face arrest.

Corruption

In both countries, recent events mark instances of political corruption. One seemingly easy way for international actors to ensure that democracy can flourish is to be “watch-dogs” of a sort during election seasons. In the case of the Uganda elections, the U.S. Embassy in Uganda declined to observe the election after authorities denied more than 75% of its accreditation requests. A key observer, the European Union, stated that its offer to deploy electoral experts was rejected. The head of the African Union observer team, Samuel Azuu Fonkam, told reporters he could not say whether the election had been free and fair. In Senegal, Amnesty International called on the Senegalese authorities “to immediately halt arbitrary arrests of opponents and activists, respect freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.” It also urged the authorities to “shed light on the presence of men armed with clubs next to the security forces.” With similar stories repeated throughout Africa, many international actors and NGOs have been left to critically evaluate the impact of their work. This raises the question: how can it be ensured that these leaders are held accountable, and the will of the people is enacted?

When authoritarianism remains unchecked, and conversely when corruption goes unchecked, lack of political accountability can allow for one or the other to flourish.

By helping the business community take action in the public and private sectors, by promoting transparency and strengthening compliance standards, authoritarianism has less room to grow.

Many steps can and must be taken to ensure that authoritarianism is kept at bay and systems of democracy are given the space to flourish. First, authoritarian countries and their ability to collaborate with like-minded nations must be monitored. When authoritarianism can spread from one nation to the next, its sphere of influence grows, giving authoritarian nations further access to promote their beliefs. In addition to monitoring, the free press must be unleashed as their work helps to keep the public informed, enable diverse voices, and hold leaders accountable.

Furthermore, the power of civil resistance should not be overlooked. When democratic backsliding occurs and democracies find themselves struggling, the power of the people can prove to be the catalyst for getting democracy back on track. This has been seen in various cases including the US, South Africa, and Germany. Lastly, by increasing the role of the private sector, businesses become self-sufficient and less reliant on government, making them more immune to authoritarian acts or at least able to see such efforts taking place.

The work that CIPE and other organizations focus on directly impacts this. By helping the business community take action in the public and private sectors, by promoting transparency and strengthening compliance standards, authoritarianism has less room to grow. The tools to ensure that Senegal and Uganda, along with the rest of Africa, can leave both authoritarianism and corruption in the past are there, but it is the responsibility of those with real power to make sure that those tools are effectively employed.