Democracy – still happening

It’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening in the world, especially when new stories are flooding the news outlets (OMG did you hear that SCHWARZENEGGER had a secret KID? And apparently John Edwards is still relevant?). Something important is still happening, and it’s spreading to places that one might not suspect:

For a man who has lost three disputed presidential elections to his archrival, Kizza Besigye is enjoying the kind of political resurrection that can only happen by accident. The leader of the Forum for Democratic Change has become the face of an unprecedented uprising in Uganda. It began with a “Walk to Work” demonstration in mid-April, a small, unassuming protest against soaring food and fuel costs. Had Besigye and his small group been allowed their demonstration, it probably would have passed without much fuss or attention. But instead they were met with riot police with billy clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. It was the kind of security force overkill that sends a clear message: The government of President Yoweri Museveni is terrified of dissent and is willing to quash it by whatever means necessary.

I’ve never been in a position of political power, so I can only extrapolate from what I know of history, what I’ve seen in the news and in various fiction and non-fictional media. There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to dissent that happens in the mind of a dictator, whereby whenever someone speaks up against you the immediate reaction is to try and prevent that person from speaking. This seems to be particularly likely when the dictator is surrounded by a group of sycophants.

What’s happening in Uganda, aside from the criminalization of gay people, is that the political infrastructure is starting to crumble under President-For-Life Museveni. Because of his paranoia and sense of slipping control, he has completely overreacted to a small, non-violent protest and in doing so, has elevated his chief political rival.

This overreaction likely owes a debt to a number of factors:

  • The massive uprisings happening across north Africa and the Arab peninsula were triggered, initially, by high food prices and cost-of-living increases under a tyrannical government;
  •  The recent return of Besigye to Uganda after an extended period of exile means that Museveni has a powerful rival now within his own borders, albeit under house arrest;
  • The high level of scrutiny that Uganda has “enjoyed” recently due to its rampantly anti-gay legislation has brought extremely unwelcome attention to a country that, before then, hadn’t really been famous since Idi Amin was in power;
  • The ordinary types of despotic paranoia I mentioned earlier in this post.

So here’s an important lesson for those of you hoping to use this blog as a sort of Machiavellian how-to guide to be a successful political ruler: avoid overreacting. If your political rivals are gaining popularity, figure out what is fueling that rise and then find a way to circumvent it (preferably by fixing the problem your rivals are promising to solve). And, whatever you do, don’t piss off the foreign media:

At the same time, the police were stopping the media from getting in to see Besigye. The roads were blocked with spiked belts. When we tried a back route, our unassuming SUV was first followed then stopped by police. Last week, Uganda’s minister of information called the international media “enemies of the state.” Journalists have been detained, their equipment seized and a few local reporters have been beaten by police as they tried to cover the demonstrations.

There’s no quicker way to raise the “tyrant” flag than to crack down on free speech rights. If you want your rule to extend indefinitely, be open, be honest, and be transparent (or at least appear so). Respect human rights, respect private business (but regulate it when necessary), treat your political opponents respectfully, and if you have to silence dissent, do it swiftly and away from the eyes of the cameras.

Hmm… maybe I shouldn’t have said that last part.

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