The price of democracy

Ugandan experience a curious case study

In Summary

• We want to fight to make our lives better, but not if we could lose it all in the process

Illustration of a protest
Illustration of a protest

During a short study visit abroad, I met a Ugandan woman who was a Doctoral candidate and took over our class once in a while. It was right around the corner from Uganda’s 2016 elections and President Museveni was making headlines for the ill treatment of his opponent Besigye.

I couldn’t stop myself from blurting out the question that had haunted my mind all these years, “Why don’t Ugandans stand up to Museveni’s authoritarian regime?”

As a millennial Kenyan, I was fortunate to witness the downfall of Kenya’s longest dictatorial rule in 2002 after former President Moi left power and his chosen heir suffered a staggering defeat to the National Rainbow Coalition. Moi had been in power for 24 years before that.

By witnessing the peaceful transfer of power from one head to the next using the democratic process, I became a big proponent of democracy, believing solely that power resides in the people.

I had wondered often and loudly while discussing authoritative regimes in Africa, why the people didn’t rise up to one oppressive leader. “Because people are comfortable now,” the Ugandan replied. “They have seen what it is like when wars are fought. They have seen the horrors of a politically insecure country. No one wants to see that again,” she said calmly. The reply threw me off. Up until then, I had never thought of life’s comforts as preconditions for our political beliefs.

She walked me through Uganda’s bloodied history as she recounted the horrors her people had seen. The people in the working class now had seen so much suffering at the hands of dictators, wars and political coups. They are comfortable now, she said. Most people have a job, a home, a car and a stable peace. If the cost of it was dictatorship, then so be it.

At the same time, we were in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. My supervisor was intent on doing research on the Arab Spring from our journalistic perspective. The Arab Spring was a series of anti-government protests that took place in several Arab nations in the world that started in the early 2010s.

Whereas some of the revolutions were successful and authoritarian regimes were overthrown, major consequences of those revolutions are still felt in those countries today. I was in awe at the power of the people during those times, and I would try to focus my research on the positive impacts of the revolution, trying to formulate a research objective around my belief of ‘the power of the people’. The result was overwhelmingly adverse.

In essence, I am just like every Kenyan: loud-mouthed and fiercely opinionated on matters of governance. We shout on social media to protest against issues we vehemently disagree with. But if you think about it, how many of us actually push for change regardless of what it will cost?

We drive to work navigating through roads with potholes large enough to swallow our precious China-made vehicles whole. We spend most days of the week without electricity or water. We queue in line at hospitals for an entire day. We watch as roads, villages and homes get flooded in the current rainy season. We complain, for sure, to our friends or in the media.

But at the end of the day, we all return home and hope that the sun shines the next day so it may dry out the floods and solve our problems. We want to fight to make our lives better, but would we reconsider the fight if we know we could lose it all?