Sunday, 27 March 2011

What Uganda witnessed during the 2011 elections was mere calm NOT peace

Many stakeholders who observed the just concluded elections concluded that the elections and the campaign period were relatively peaceful.  This assertion seems to run through almost all the reports released by both the local and international election observers immediately after observing the February 18th Presidential and Parliamentary elections.  Whereas many observers steered clear of pronouncing themselves on the freeness and fairness of the election, they all found solace in affirming the peaceful nature under which the election was held.  Personally, deeming the just concluded election as ‘peaceful’ has continuously made me very uncomfortable. 
A few months prior to the elections, we saw a warm gesture by the police deploying massively countrywide to safeguard citizens from both possible terror attacks and/or any eventualities that could be sparked by the general election and campaign excitement.  Though this could be judged as a signal of positive state responsiveness, many ordinary citizens got very concerned on the unprecedented enormous deployment of both uniformed and non-uniformed security personnel.  Throughout the electoral period, it became increasingly unclear whether the tense security measures applied were proportional to the assessed risk.  Calls for more strategic deployment days before the presidential and parliamentary Election Day, landed on the deaf ears of the police which was the lead security agency charged with managing election security.  Whereas the primary role of public security should be to maintain the rule of law and guarantee peace, this did not seem to be the case.  Security during elections could have had the unintended effect of instilling fear and panic amongst those ‘protected’.  Many questions still linger on whether the type and number of public security forces deployed were competent, appropriate and proportional to the threat at hand.  Despite the fact that a number of political figures and civil society members challenged the manner in which the police managed the election period deployments, government firmly defended their action and even ‘pledged’ to increase security presence days before, during and in the aftermath of the general elections.
One could easily equate the period prior to and after the general elections to that of the cold war between America and USSR - 1945 – 1960.  The Cold War featured periods of relative calm BUT of international high tension.  Although there were no direct military clashes between the two countries, they expressed the conflict through conventional force deployments and propaganda.  In the much more contemporary world, such a scenario could be likened to the ‘frozen conflicts’ in the Balkan states. Drawing from these experiences, it is clear that the mere absence of war does not then mean there is presence of peace.  During the election campaign period, what was visible in the country was therefore temporary calm BUT peace remained and still remains elusive. There were mutual perceptions of hostile intention between the security and the civilians especially those who held/hold dissenting political views.
The people remained/remain tormented by the army that decorated all parts of the country.  To many Ugandans who had last seen such heavy presence of the army during the guerilla war fare days, this seemed to be not just an undeclared curfew but a direct security lock-down by the government. 
Days around the presidential and parliamentary polls, businesses remained closed in the city, upcountry towns and even in the smallest trading centers in the countryside. At the announcement of the presidential elections results on February 21st, Kampala streets emptied of traffic and a wave of eerie stillness swept across the entire country.  It was as though a state of emergency had been declared.  This contrasted the widely known social nature of Ugandans who love celebrating their victories and overtly mourning their losses as has been the case in previous elections.
This therefore means that the political mileage that such a barrage of security could have been the unintended tension between the citizens and the state and consequently a message to the citizenry to steer clear of electoral activities including the voting exercise itself.  What seemed like a serene election environment was or could have simply been a promulgation of psychological terror on the people of Uganda.
We wouldn’t want to regress to the ancient times when leaders used subtle intimidation and espionage as political tools to ensure that their people remained submissive and obedient.  During those primordial times, rulers managed to keep their subjects calm and undemanding through instilling a sense of fear.  In India for instance, Balban, who ruled from 1266-1286, was famous for passively using state institutions to keep the subjects fearful and respectful.  Often times the display of armed soldiers, decoration of the hall of audience, etiquettes and rituals were so overwhelming that even ambassadors and visitors usually received a shock by the show of Balban’s power and sometimes fainted.  Although these rulers successfully ensured calm in their territories, the citizens remained on tension and maintained complete silence. This was not peace.
Taking stock of the laws passed or brought before the Parliament of Uganda between 2006 and 2011, you will discover that most of them reflect a deep distrust in the inherent fundamental freedoms and liberties of the people.  Laws including: The NGO Registration (Amendment) Act 2006; The Access to Information Regulations 2007; The Proposed Public Order Management Bill 2009; The Press and Journalist Amendment Bill 2010; Regulation of Interception of Communications Act 2010; and The Institution of the Traditional and Cultural Leaders’ Bill 2010, were an attempt to purge critical voices prior to the 2011 elections and could have only served to deliver cosmetic peace throughout the electoral period.
Peace should therefore be seen as a primary principle and a prime virtue, an inner tranquility and serenity of soul and, so much more than cessation of war. It is a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice.
We need to collectively work together to deliver real peace to this country.  The currently existing superficial peace is a direct product of the proliferation of both the observable and unseen militaristic state machinery which if not reversed could inspire ill-intentioned people on both sides of the political divide to exploit the tension at hand.  The need to act is extremely urgent in order to resolve the invisible impasse in the political space and curb the growing groundswell of political anger. 
It’s only the feel of peace that can help us attain stability in our country where freedom and friendliness exist amongst the citizens and the state.  At this critical juncture, the government needs to come to a realization that the use of armed force to control the actions or inactions of citizens could only serve to confirm the extent to which the country is increasingly becoming a police state.  This strategy would therefore be unsustainable because just as the human nature is, people will become adept at trying to beat the superimposed tension. There is no compelling explanation for the state to remain too suspicious of its very own citizenry.
Probably one of the most critical challenges that lie ahead is for government to strike a good balance between demands for security as well as comprehensive democracy in order to guarantee real unsuspicious peace for the citizenry.

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