The Evolution of “Life Presidents” in Uganda

Sam — By Sam from Uganda

Samuel Nakwagala was 25 years old when Uganda attained her independence from Great Britain in 1962. A year earlier, he had joined the Uganda Post and Telecommunications Company as a Postmaster in Busembatia Town in eastern Uganda.

With a lucrative job and happy family, an independent Uganda meant limitless horizons for the Nakwagalas since they would now be directly in charge of their destiny. The 1962 elections were held and the Uganda People’s Congress Party won. Nakwagala’s highschool contemporary Milton Obote was appointed as the executive Prime Minister while Edward Mutesa was appointed as the ceremonial Head of State.

The Nakwagalas were now in full charge of their country. Uganda’s economy was booming with exports of copper, coffee, cotton and hydroelectricity. Uganda’s agricultural sector was feeding the East and Central African region and Uganda’s GDP growth rate was almost the same as that of India and South Korea. A constitution was drafted which stipulated that there would be presidential elections every five years. Ugandans were happy with the federal system of governance because it granted them more control of their affairs and brought services closer to them.

Four years after independence, Milton Obote fell out with Edward Mutesa. Soldiers loyal to Obote attacked Mutesa’s palace and forced him into exile. This marked the beginning of bloodshed in Uganda. A state of emergency was declared; Obote abrogated the 1962 constitution and declared himself president. He went ahead and abolished kingdoms and declared Uganda as a one party state. Corruption, nepotism and assassinations became the order of the day as Obote attempted to do all he could to consolidate his grip on power.

Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin Dada in 1971 and Ugandans welcomed the coup with open hearts. “We were strong believers in kingdoms that Obote had abolished and we had hopes in Amin restoring them. Obote had lost track and denied us the right to elect leaders of our choice but with Amin, we knew we were going to restore the rule of law in Uganda,” says Nakwagala.

Idi Amin started off with economic reforms of Africanizing the Ugandan economy. He expelled immigrants from Uganda in order to create jobs for Ugandans. “We were happy when Amin chased away the immigrants,” adds Nakwagala.

Idi Amin’s honeymoon did not last long. He abolished the constitution, declared himself life president and started ruling by decree. Any opposition to Amin meant death and many Ugandans fled to exile. The economy collapsed because the Ugandans who replaced the expelled immigrants did not have the skills to manage it. Ugandans who had fled to exile mobilized and waged war against Idi Amin with support from the Tanzanian Government and in 1979, Uganda was liberated from Amin’s life presidency.

Ugandans organized the December 1980 elections which were won by former President Milton Obote. One of the contestants, Yoweri Museveni, rejected the outcome and waged war against Obote in February 1981. This war had devastating effects on the economy: lives were lost and out of frustration, Milton Obote was overthrown by his own army in July 1985 and General Tito Okello became the President of Uganda.

Nakwagala’s home was ransacked, his property was destroyed and he was tortured with his children as a punishment for supporting the dethroned Government. General Tito Okello’s reign was short lived as he was overthrown by the guerrilla rebels of Yoweri Museveni in January 1986. Nakwagala chose not to take revenge when his tormentors were defeated by Yoweri Museveni. He instead started a reconciliation initiative in Nasuti Village to promote tolerance in communities in 1986. Community dialogues would be held in his compound, and he would preach peace and sensitize his village mates about the political mistakes of Uganda.

Hope for any peaceful transition of power is a dream that is far from near for Samuel Nakwagala and all Ugandans. General Yoweri Museveni has been President since 1986. He amended the constitution in 2005 to remove term limits and he went ahead to contest for his third term in 2006, fourth term in 2011 and fifth term in 2016. Museveni is now 73 years and ineligible to contest for his sixth term in 2021 due to a constitutional age limit of 75. However, he has tabled a bill seeking to remove the age limit and with his ruling party commanding 80% of the Parliament, that bill will be passed and he will be eligible for his sixth term. With the life presidency syndrome in Uganda, only peace and tolerance as preached by Samuel Nakwagala can enhance harmony after regime change.

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Press and Freedom of Speech in Eritrea

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— By Teclit form Eritrea

A tiny country in the horn of Africa, Eritrea is mostly known for their human rights violations, lack of freedom of speech, press, and dictatorship. Eritrea borders Ethiopia, Sudan, Djibouti and the Red Sea.

Press: In 1996, the temporary government of Eritrea announced a new law of press. Two years later, in 1998, private newspapers started to be published, and people started to follow and read them. Many critical articles were published, educators started to use these articles, and many youngsters, like students from the University of Asmara, started to work on these sites.

On September 18th 2001, the government announced that they would close private newspapers for the security of the country. Owners and writers started to be detained and kidnapped and we still don’t know where they are.

Not only them; even ministers, generals, military commanders, students, and religious people were detained when they demanded change and democracy.
I will always remember the journalists that sacrificed their lives for freedom of speech and press: Dawit Isaac, Amanuel Asrat, Fissehaye Joshua, Dawit, Temesgen, Matiwos, Mahmud, Sium Tsehaye…and many other unknown journalists are in prison.

Freedom of speech: In Eritrea, freedom of speech is not accepted. People can’t criticise events, things, or officials, and if heard, they are known as guilty in Eritrea. If you listen to a radio programme from abroad, you could be sentenced by security. At events, you are not allowed to speak unless you are in support of the government officials. Critics are not liked by the leaders. Many innocent people, like Asmara University students, are detained for more than 10 years. Some of them have escaped, while others have lost their lives in detention centers.

We Have the Say!

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— By Cecil from Kenya

The 2007-2008 post-election violence that Kenya experienced was all due to ignorance, ignorance of the fact that we were, as citizens, just but pawns in the politicians’ game of chess. They manipulated our feelings, incited our animosity and fanned the flames of hatred that were drawn along ethnic lines.
In Kenya, there are around 43 tribes. What richness in diversity! However, with time, this diversity has morphed into negative tribalism where each tribe seeks to have the larger piece of the national cake.

In 2007, during our national elections, there was the resounding hope that the government would leave power. I remember that our entire extended family had camped at our house for three days as we awaited the results that we hoped would favor the opposition. Funnily enough, with the surety that those we supported would win, we bought a music system ready to welcome the results with celebration. When the results were contrary to our expectations, we were entirely gob-smacked. We felt like we needed to do something, but what?

As people went out on the streets to contest the results, an undesired president was sworn-in in the dark of the night as a ploy to ensure that the citizens would have to accept the outcome. Indeed it was justified that we as citizens, the people with the say, were angry and rather disappointed that in a ‘democratic’ nation, our views were still swept under the carpet in such a condescending manner. It was as if the elections were just a formality with a predetermined winner. It was as if we were automatons ordered to execute whatever our ‘owners’ instructed. However, the line was crossed when politicians who felt duped used their supporters to perpetrate crimes that bordered, or even were, crimes of madness.

Some politicians, from their podiums, were and are still heard echoing statements such as, “Use machetes on those who are against us”. Such statements fueled cruelties that range from the murder of over 50 unarmed Kikuyu women and children, some as young as a month old, by locking them in a church and burning them alive in Kiambaa village near Eldoret, to the cold blooded shooting of civilians who were protesting in the slums of Nairobi. Tribalism continued to peel off its mask and reveal itself in its rawest form when women were raped and their husbands killed in the Rift Valley regions, when looters broke into stores and made away with whatever valuables they found in deserted cities, and when the displacement of people occurred all throughout the country.

Schools were closed, workplaces shut-down, and most other Kenyans, including myself, were locked in their homes, in fear of stepping out to an embroiled and volatile environment. Life was indeed brought to a standstill! However, if we, as Kenyans, knew our worth, and realized that we could express ourselves in other ways apart from violence, we would not have caused the death, displacement, and heartbreak of many. We should realize that politicians could potentially use us as tools, but the line should be drawn when they want to use us as tools for evil.

The anticipation surrounding this year’s election is palpable. It seems to be a two horse race between, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, who are the children of the founding fathers of the nation. Their rivalry dates back to when their fathers, Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga, had differences on how power would be shared right after independence in 1963. Thereafter, Jomo became president and Oginga the leader of opposition. Seeing that the two were from the different Dholuo and Agikuyu communities, the ‘vendetta’ seems to have transcended generations and is at full swing once again this year. The unease in the air can be felt by all, as each of these and other language groups prepare to take their place on the political table, and if possible, snatch the highest seat. There is also the fear that what happened in 2007 will happen again. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission promises a free and fair election with the incorporation of digital voting, which we really do want. However, this time, if rigging occurs once again, we shouldn’t be used by politicians to accomplish their own self-centered desires, but in a spirit love, we should draw together as a nation and speak up for what we believe in….WITHOUT VIOLENCE.

Stolen Hope

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— By Farida from Togo

On February 5th, 2005, the national television of my country, Togo, went blank, only showing an image of the president. The neighborhood went silent, shops closed, lights were turned off, doors shut: there was panic everywhere. This was the first time ever in our country that all televisions stations went blank showing only the picture of the president. Rumours started circulating that maybe he had died. A neighbor came to our house and confirmed the rumors to my father, the president had passed away. Gnassingbe Eyadema was his name, and he ruled Togo with an iron fist for 38 years. He was the most feared person in the country, and at some point he was considered immortal. 
Deep in my heart I was relieved because I had longed for so many years to see my country freed from that dictator. I had silently prayed for it every time my father or one of his activists’ friends was jailed and tortured by the military at the command of Eyadema. I wanted to celebrate that moment with my dad, who was sitting in the dark; it was dark throughout the entire capital city because of a power outage  For the first time in my life, I saw my dad crying. I was very much surprised because I expected him to be relieved. This was the man who had jailed him numerous times in the past, tortured him for months, broken thirteen of his ribs, 9 of his toes, expelled him from the university for life, and killed several of his friends. I asked, “Dad why are you crying?” and he replied, “All my life, I was hoping that one day, Togo would be freed from this regime and this man will face trial for all the atrocities he has committed. And when I think that he gets to die, and my friends who were killed will never have justice, I feel devastated”. All I could tell him was sorry. At 8pm, the General of the Army appointed the son of the deceased president as the new head of state, even though our constitution states clearly that the president of the National Assembly was to take over when the president dies. Everybody was shocked and confused by this, a military coup, and this was the beginning of a new horror story in Togo. However, thanks to pressure from the opposition and protests, the regime finally accepted to allow the Vice President of the National Assembly take over as president, because the President of the Assembly was exiled to neighboring Benin. Elections were announced for the 24th of April. 
The electoral campaign of 2005 was extremely dramatic. The opposition formed a coalition to support one candidate and all predictions were pointing at his victory. Never in my life have I witnessed such vivacity in my country. Every campaign day was a celebration with almost everyone wearing yellow, which was the color of the main opposition party. “Ditia Kpoe Leyi,” was the slogan for the opposition militants, and it substituted as a greeting wherever you went. Then came Sunday April 24th 2005; the very day we believed would forever mark our history, like April 27th did when we got our independence 55 years earlier. Polls were to be opened at 7am, and by 5 in the morning polling stations were already overcrowded. People were determined to vote, and stay to protect their votes. There was lots of excitement and militants were touring polling stations to report on the voting activities and the trends at each station. At 5pm, polling stations closed and the vote counting started. At the station in my neighborhood, people gathered outside the school classrooms that served as voting rooms to hear the polling agents give the results. The screamings that came with the announcement that the opposition candidate, Bob Akitani, was the winner of that station, was close to the screaming that followed the victory of our soccer team at the African Cup of Nations qualifications. People were singing and dancing, and people all throughout Lome, the capital, were celebrating the victory of their candidate. Although I was 15 and didn’t vote, I also took part in the celebration. That was without knowing the worse had yet to happen.
As people were chanting victory songs in the whole city, militaries attacked every single polling station, teargassed and arrested numerous people, and seized the ballots. We were all in shock and couldn’t believe what had just happened. Two days later, at night on Tuesday April 26, which was the day before the celebration of Togo’s 45th independence day, militaries were sent in all the opposition stronghold neighborhoods to “neutralize” the youths, as the electoral commission was declaring the son of the deceased president, Faure Essozimna Gnassingbe, the winner of the elections against all predictions. Over 1,000 Togolese people were killed that night. In a country of 6 million inhabitants, that was a huge number. Over 60 thousand people fled the following days to Ghana and over 30 thousand fled to Benin. The city was torn completely and there was smoke, blood, and debris all over the place. On May 3rd 2005, I was reading about the victims of the massacres in a newspaper when I found the name of two students from my high school. One was in his freshman year, like me, and the other was a senior. Like about 1,300 other Togolese, their only crime was to live in a neighborhood tagged as an “opposition stronghold.” 
I was angered, sad, and had never felt that helpless in my life. And whenever I imagined that it could have been me, or a sibling of mine, I couldn’t help but cry. That was when I started writing about dictatorship, military repression, and human rights abuse in Togo. I wanted the world to know about us, to hear our stories, to feel our pain and our helplessness. From then on I have never stopped, and as of today I have published over 400 articles on Togo and have become one of the most known activists from my country. When I started blogging in 2009, I never expected my voice to be heard. I was just a 19 year old trying to express her anger against injustice and hoping for change to come. But the more I wrote, the more audience I built as people were connecting to my stories. People will contact me and ask me to write about their stories, because they are afraid to do it themselves. They assumed that I was not afraid of anything, because the multiple threats and attempts on my life never stopped me from voicing my opinion. But the truth is, I too am scared. I am scared of crying just like my father for failing to one day bring justice to my friends. And whenever I think of that moment, I say: “Farida, you must keep going. You must keep going, you must keep going.”
Writing not only gave me a voice, it also made me an opinion leader, and my attempt to reject that leadership role was a failure. I became someone that others wanted to hear from and seek guidance from. Whenever there is a political turmoil in Togo, people will reach out to me to seek my opinion. So I am trying to improve myself so that my words will not create more division, but bring more closure and have an impact for the betterment of my community.