Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta. Picture: Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

Johannesburg - The road to democracy in East Africa seems a long, lonely and winding one as several of the countries engage in campaign mode with elections approaching over the next few years. Elections will be held in Tanzania and Burundi next year, Uganda in 2021 and Kenya in 2022. Rwanda will hold elections in 2024.

But are there any prospects for genuine democracy on the horizon? Two African experts from the region give opposing views.

“None of the region’s countries has an opposition to speak of, with observers predicting the slow death of democracy in the region,” wrote Fred Oluoch in the East African.

While Kenya has a fairly active opposition which has regularly challenged the government, a March handshake last year between President Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, leader of the coalition opposition Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), has left a vacuum that even civil society has not filled, said Oluoch.

There has also been growing restrictions on the media when hitherto Kenya was considered a reasonably free environment for journalists to ply their trade.

In Uganda and Tanzania respectively, Presidents Yoweri Museveni and John Magufuli have worked to ensure their re-election with divided oppositions operating under restrictions, asserted Oluoch.

Museveni, who will be turning 75 this year, has ensured that he will be able to run for a sixth term in office in 2021 after the Ugandan parliament passed a law overturning age limitations on presidential hopefuls. He has been at the helm since 1986.

There has also been a crackdown on the media. Several radio stations in Lira District in northern Uganda have refused to host leaders of the Opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), citing threats from security officials.

Popular opposition activist and MP, former singer Bobi Wine, has endured beatings, incarceration and home detention for his activism against Museveni.

In Tanzania, a coalition of four opposition parties on April 15 filed a case at the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) to block the implementation of the Political Parties Act, 2019, that was signed by Magufuli in February, which they say is aimed at suppressing pluralist politics in the country.

The Act provides for term limits for political parties’ leadership and punishment for party leaders who violate party laws. It also seeks to bar political parties from forming defence and security groups, while seeking to enforce peaceful and orderly meetings, explained Oluoch.

In Burundi the opposition is stifled despite President Pierre Nkurunziza asserting he would not contest in 2020 after his 2015 third term caused a major political crisis.

Rwanda is renowned for President Paul Kgame’s draconian rule and his intolerance of any criticism, with many political dissidents jailed, murdered or intimidated.

However, a note of rare optimism has come from retired Ugandan Supreme Court Judge, Professor George Kanyeihamba, regarding the dearth of democracy in that country.

He warned that if nothing dramatic happens in Uganda to ensure a more democratic state, the defeat of Museveni and his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party is guaranteed – at the hands of people power.

“History has shown again and again that it is not the individual opponents of sitting rulers who win elections or liberation wars, but the people,” said Kanyeihamba.

According to the retired judge, the NRM will be defeated by the people due to the tide of arrogance, impunity and a false sense of entitlement it exhibits - and its insensitivity to the grievances of ordinary Ugandans.

“The people’s political victory is further cemented by some of the misdeeds, crimes and failures the NRM government has been responsible for, not to mention the human rights abuses, corruption, unequal political and economic distribution of state resources by the ruling party,” argued Kanyeihaba.

He said this behaviour had inspired a lot of people, including justices of the Constitutional Court and Supreme Court in their individual rulings to criticise and reject the lifting of the presidential age limit.

African News Agency (ANA)