It was meant to be a celebration. But after days of political protests, violence and arrests of key opposition leaders, the streets of Uganda’s capital were empty and the majority of businesses closed as President Yoweri Museveni was sworn in for a fifth term – extending his 30-year iron grip on power.
Heavy security met party loyalists and visiting heads of state, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Bashir, wanted on war crime charges by the International Criminal Court, received loud applause from those attending after Museveni introduced him.
“Forget about this ICC useless thing,” Museveni said. “Earlier we thought the ICC was useful, but to us, now African leaders, we see it is useless. It’s a bunch of useless people.”
Museveni has been in control of the country since 1986. In 2005, he changed the constitution to allow himself to remain in office.
Restrictions on opposition activity
The lead-up to Thursday’s event in Kampala was met with strong government restrictions, including the detention of the opposition candidate, a heavy police presence and a clampdown on social media such as Facebook.
A ban was also issued April 29 on all opposition activity around the inauguration by Deputy Chief Justice Steven Kavuma.
Longtime opposition leader Kizza Besigye, who has been under house arrest or government supervision since before February’s presidential election, was arrested Wednesday after hosting his own swearing-in ceremony in Kampala.
Besigye encouraged others to “boycott the sham coronation.”
In recent days, police presence has been heavy in the capital. Locals noted patrols about every 20 feet close to the event site, and a video showing police beating civilians also emerged, which was shared widely on Twitter.
Facebook was suspended, as occurred during the February election. Ugandans report that they were unable to access the site the day before the inaugural event and that it remained inaccessible midmorning Thursday.
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Opposition candidates and electoral observers have questioned Uganda’s February election, and rights groups have criticized what they call a violation of rights since Museveni’s victory.
“The arbitrary detention of political opposition leaders and their supporters, the recent ban on live media coverage of opposition activities and the violent disruption of peaceful opposition gatherings in the lead-up to and since Election Day not only violate Uganda’s own Constitution but also fly in the face of its regional and international human rights obligations,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
Presidents for life?
The audience for Thursday’s ceremony was a who’s who of the continent’s longtime leaders, including the world’s longest-president; Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea; President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi; and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Also attending was President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who will make his own controversial bid for a third term.
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Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair defended the Rwandan President’s decision to run again in an interview with CNN at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Kigali.
“I personally think he is the right person for Rwanda at this moment in time,” Blair said. “The questions I always put back to people when they say to me in principle, third term or not, is it depends on the situation in the country and the job that’s being done by their leader.”
Term limits continue to be a focus in a region where several leaders have extended their election mandates. In Burundi, Nkurunziza’s hold on power after a controversial third-term bid has pushed one of the world’s poorest countries into an economic and political tailspin, with thousands killed and hundreds of thousands more fleeing to surrounding countries.
Museveni had a leading role in stalled mediations aimed at ending the conflict in Burundi.
In his speech Thursday, he reiterated his stance that the region should solve its own problems before looking for outside assistance.
“Let us African leaders sit down and resolve these issues. It is not right that Africans should suffer when we have the means to stop this hemorrhage in human life.”