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What is Museveni afraid of?

Questioning the change Yoweri Museveni promised Ugandans when he seized power in 1986, two university students, Ibrahim Bagaya and Doreen Nyanjura, have written a book, Is this the Fundamental Change?, juxtaposing Museveni's speeches with Uganda's present realities. A scheduled book launch for April 11 in Constitutional Square, the heart of the capital of Kampala, did not take place, however. In a scenario now common in Uganda, Bagaya and Nyanjura were arrested and detained for "inciting violence." While political rallies in Constitutional Square are banned, police have denied receiving a letter from the organizers informing them of their scheduled gathering. The police say they will press charges against the students.

The book -- with a foreword by the Hon. Nandala Mafabi, leader of the opposition in parliament -- is widely seen as anti-government. In Uganda, writing a book critical of the president or ruling party is considered by the authorities to be synonymous with inciting violence.

These latest events mark a growing trend of Ugandans writing books critiquing the Museveni regime. The government response in all these cases has been to arrest the authors, thus bringing them untold fame and actually publicizing and popularizing the books in question, which otherwise might not have sold many copies.

The book release was scheduled to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the formation of Activists for Change (A4C), the pressure group behind the "Walk to Work" protests against rising food and fuel prices. Early last week, Attorney General Peter Nyombi invoked the Penal Code Act and banned the group, a move highly criticized by civil society groups.

But government suppression of dissent is only making the people involved more determined, and also wins them public sympathy. Clearly, it is the issues that lure people to join demonstrations that need to be addressed: Until the people see government commitment to improving basic services and infrastructure, disgruntlement will continue to grow.

In a country where the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, there are more and more angry young people. Uganda's Daily Monitor ran an article on the number of unemployed in the country, arguing that they are a ticking time bomb for the establishment. There is also a great discrepancy in wealth between those who fought in the liberation war and those who did not.

While the government is investing more in the security forces (reports show that Uganda has, for the first time, exceeded Kenya in military spending), it is doing very little when it comes to providing services for the people and improving infrastructure. (The current state of public infrastructure in this country is appalling).

For years the youth were told about the "bad days" of previous regimes. But this rhetoric is like a history book sitting on a shelf gathering dust. For many of the Museveni generation (those born after 1986), given the state of hopelessness many of them face, the "bad days" are now. Indeed, this appears to be the most challenging time of Museveni's presidency. Protests are increasing. Many Ugandans with no personal memory of the previous regimes understand that they are being led down the road. They are growing more critical of the government and want to see the state of affairs improve. They want change.

Last year, Vincent Nzaramba was arrested for writing a book calling for the President to leave power. Now, with Ibrahim Bagaya and Doreen Nyanjura joining the fray, one only wonders how many more young people are becoming critical and penning their views.

For some time, Ugandans believed the younger generation was apolitical, but these events should serve to change our minds. They are only the beginnings of growing political activism among the previously disinterested youth. 

MARC HOFER/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Indonesia veering towards dysfunctional democracy

The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono suffered a heavy political defeat this month when its plan to raise fuel prices was rejected, not only by a vote in the House of Representatives, but also under pressure from massive street protests.

Nearly 14 years after abandoning its authoritarian government, Indonesia may claim to have a functioning democracy; an open debate with wide public participation over an issue as important as fuel prices is certainly one positive indicator. But there are also grounds for arguing that Indonesia is now veering towards a dysfunctional democracy, one where populism and the rule of the majority have increasingly overpowered rational and moral arguments for more responsible government.

The will of the people has prevailed in guaranteeing that the price of gasoline in Indonesia -- at the equivalent of 50 cents per liter -- remains among the lowest in the world. Indonesia's "noisy democracy" went up by several decibels in the weeks before April 1, the day fuel prices were due to increase by 33 percent. No political cause is more popular in Indonesia than cheap gas: Almost everyone (except perhaps those who have to balance the books at the end of the day) embraces it. The outcome of this debate -- in the House of Representatives, in TV talk-show programs, in cafes, in offices and in the streets -- was inevitable, if not predictable: They who advocate cheap oil win.

The government, whose job is to balance the budget or find the money to pay for the heavy cost of subsidizing domestic fuel consumption, is almost alone. Lost in the noisy debate was their argument that the energy subsidy bill for 2012, at 225.35 trillion rupiah ($25 billion), was already eating up 15 percent of state spending. That's a huge sum, one that could be better spent on more important social and economic programs, such as poverty eradication, schooling, health care for the poor, or the construction of economic infrastructure. The other argument -- that the gasoline subsidy is enjoyed mostly by the wealthy rather than the poor -- was also lost in the debate.

Indonesia may have been rich in oil once, but the new millennium saw rising domestic consumption and rapidly falling reserves, turning the country from an oil exporter to a net importer. Old habits (and paradigms) die hard: Indonesia only quit the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 2008. Judging by the recent national debate about fuel prices, it appears that most people still believe, or would like to believe, that Indonesia is still flush with oil.

Cheap oil unfortunately also means cheap politics. What those advocating for cheap oil are not saying, out of ignorance or self-interest, is that someone, somewhere, will have to pay for that (costly) fuel subsidy. The pro-cheap oil side may have prevailed, but the government of President Yudhoyono is not the ultimate loser in this game. The biggest losers are the people and the taxpayers -- in other words, the entire nation. The very same people the advocates for cheap oil claim to speak for will have to pay the price, either through taxes or the potential loss of services such as education and healthcare.

This defeat could effectively turn Yudhoyono -- who is half-way through his second and constitutionally last term - into a lame duck president for the next two years. The defeat in the House and in the streets shows how much his popular support has declined since he won office with a 62 percent mandate in 2009. Two parties that joined his coalition government in 2009 also voted with the opposition to ensure his defeat.

Reports of corruption within Yudhoyono's Democratic Party, and his failure to fire those involved, have some people wondering whether the president -- the man who won the 2004 and 2009 elections on anti-corruption platforms -- still has the moral authority to lead: In his first term, Yudhoyono increased fuel prices three times, with little opposition in the House or in the streets, using the same arguments that he employed this year. The difference is that, this time around, people have simply stopped listening to him.

More troubling for Indonesia's nascent democracy is the message sent with this government defeat: If you can't win your case through a civil debate in the House, mobilize the people in the streets to wage your fight for you. And don't forget to make ample use of the catchphrase "on behalf of the people." What we saw in the streets just now was not so much "people power" as it was "mob power." Indonesians will have to brace themselves for an even noisier democracy in the coming years.

 

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