MASAKA, UGANDA—This being Africa, and this being election time, you’ll excuse me if I worry about my Ugandan friends.
I’m worried about Gloria, who lives just a few miles from the site of a tire-burning riot a few years ago. I’m concerned about Gloria’s two adorable girls, especially my god-daughter and namesake, 1 ½ year old Stephanie, who finally let me hold her a few weeks ago.
I’m worried about Tabu, who lives in an economically depressed neighborhood where violence might be more likely. I’m concerned that Tabu and his family could become targets if violence breaks out because Tabu is a grass roots organizer for a political party.
Most of all, I’m worried sick about the 320 radio journalists who we’ve trained since last July. These journalists will be immersed in the crowds, right there on the ground, and will be in real danger if violence breaks out during or after the Ugandan presidential election scheduled for Feb. 18.
This worry is understandable, given the legacy of election related violence here in Africa. In Kenya in 2007-08, 800 people died and 250,000 were displaced in post-election violence. Ghana, Zimbabwe, Togo, and Ethiopia have all suffered from election violence in recent years. Now, Cote D’Ivoire is in the grips of what could be a very violent situation.
No one knows if the election this Friday will be violent, although no one doubts that this is a real possibility. There are number of risk factors for violence present in Uganda. The electoral commission, which is supposed to administer a non-partisan, fair election, is widely seen as corrupt and unfair. The 2006 presidential election here was largely rigged, according to a Ugandan court ruling that acknowledged the fraud but did not overturn the result. Stir in past animosities between the government and several tribes, threats and intimidation by candidates and their supporters, and you have a tinderbox just waiting for a match.
After eight months here working with radio journalists, I am confident that this match igniting conflict will not be thrown by the press. I am directing and teaching a Peace Journalism program here designed to show journalists the important role they play in not inciting violence and framing their stories in such a way as to lay a foundation for peace. I believe that the radio journalists understand the stakes, and will not induce the violence here, the way radio in particular has fueled conflicts in Kenya and Rwanda.
The question remains, however: Even if the violence isn’t started by media, will the politicians light the match? Certainly, bitter, defeated politicians are as dangerous as wounded animals. Will there be peaceful post-election protests that turn violent because of brutal security forces? Extra security forces here don’t make things extra secure, and are as likely to spark violence as to prevent it.
Even the most well informed Ugandans I ask don’t seem to know if there will be violence, offering guesses all over the map, from completely peaceful to significant rioting and unrest. If Ugandans do take to the streets, I’m hopeful that the Egyptian revolution can show them that non-violence is a desirable, even preferable option.
As Friday approaches, Ugandans are understandably nervous. Seeing riot police moving around in their full battle gear is disquieting, as is reading about new water cannon and tear gas trucks being delivered in Kampala. The bomb sniffing dogs at the shopping center yesterday didn’t exactly put us at ease.
In a travel advisory urging Americans to exercise caution, the State Department writes, “Uganda’s 2006 presidential and parliamentary elections generally were orderly and peaceful, and there are no indications that the 2011 elections will be any different.” I concur, though I concede that this may be wishful thinking. Whatever happens, my wife, son, and I will be hunkered down safely in a well-stocked apartment in a guarded compound in a well-policed, safe part of the city. So please save your concern, as well as your thoughts and prayers, for the vast majority of Ugandans who do not have the luxury of safety. My family and I hope and pray for peace on Feb. 18 and the nervous days that will follow.