free and fair elections…or else?

“Uganda’s past elections have been marred by reports of fraud, intimidation, and politically motivated prosecutions of opposition candidates. If these upcoming elections follow that same pattern or worse, it will put the United States and our relationship with Kampala in a very difficult position. We might have to consider restrictions to our assistance and limiting our engagement with Uganda’s security forces.”

That is U.S. Senator Russ Feingold writing in today’s Daily Monitor. While the political process is by no means completely free or fair, and while journalists regularly report to the Orwellian titled Media Crimes Department of CID (Criminal Investigations Department), I find Mr. Feingold’s op-ed pretentious.

“Divisions and upheaval surrounding February’s elections could undermine the country’s unity and potentially its stability. It could also weaken the government’s international reputation and partnerships. Therefore, it is critical that the government take steps now to build public trust in the election process and the country’s democratic institutions. As a true friend to Uganda, [USA] should press them to take these steps and provide support as appropriate. The stakes are too high to ignore these issues.”

I think many Ugandans are quite aware of the high stakes. Living through decades of political upheaval and violence, which occasionally still rears its ugly head, leaves memories and losses that are not easily forgotten. In any case, people certainly do not need a U.S. senator to tell them how high the stakes are in their own country. Feingold’s thinly veiled threat to pull back U.S. military support of the UPDF is more likely to annoy the country’s leaders than send them running for political reforms. I do not disagree with the substantive points he raises, but his words come across as those of a parent warning his rebellious teenager that bad behavior will result in an a reduction of pocket money. And that’s annoying.

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