Muli mutya? Mugyebale ko? Thank you for your kind introduction and all of you for having me today. This is my first time in Uganda but not my first time hearing of Makerere. Makerere Oyee, Makerere Oyee, Makerere RAH!
Great. OK, now who is taking me on a ride in the electric car afterwards? More seriously, there’s a proud history of academic thought and activism at this institution, so I’m happy to speak with you today and looking forward to having a real exchange.
Your country helps to maintain the peace of this whole region. Ugandan forces are helping to fight Al Shabaab in Somalia, and to protect civilians in three countries from the LRA. Ugandan leaders are negotiating regional economic and transit agreements, and trying to solve the crisis in Burundi. So we have a lot to thank you for, and a lot to talk about when we come to Kampala. And because of your leadership, sometimes we lose out on the chance to speak with you and your government about your own domestic hopes and visions.
But as we look around the world, one thing is plain: Even if we must sometimes fight outside our borders to protect ourselves and our friends, our security depends even more on what we do at home to stay true to our principles and to keep our democratic institutions strong.
I just came from Tunisia, a very new democracy in North Africa that has come under terrible pressure from terrorism. It is beefing up its security and its borders, as it must. But it has also resisted, thus far, the voices that say, “Security first, democracy later.” Tunisians understand that to beat terrorism, they have to preserve the bonds of trust between their government and its citizens. That’s the only way to keep the country united and strong against a common enemy. If the government loses the trust of its people, because it abuses their rights or tolerates corruption, the state will eventually become hollow and weak, grievances will grow that its enemies will exploit, and a common front for security and progress will become impossible.
Think about the countries where Ugandan soldiers have served – Somalia, the CAR, South Sudan. What do they have in common? In each one, there was a fundamental failure of governance. Leaders governed for themselves, not for their people. Human rights were violated. Ordinary citizens saw that their governments no longer represented their interests, and that they had no peaceful, democratic means to change things for the better. So some took up arms; others became easy prey for the false narratives of extremist groups. An older generation of Ugandans knows this story all too well, having lived through the violence and fear that a break down in governance can bring.
None of us want Ugandans ever again to experience at home the problems that your peacekeepers bravely go abroad to help solve. We want the bonds of trust between your government and its people to keep growing stronger. We want the people of Uganda to feel that they can always make their lives better by taking part peacefully in the civic life of their country. That’s one reason why we speak out for democracy and for respect for human rights here. It’s not just a principled stand. It’s because we know that our continued partnership with Uganda for peace and prosperity in this region depends on the continued and growing strength of Ugandan democracy at home.
As you probably know, we champion these ideals not just in Uganda, but in all countries. We think people everywhere should be able to speak their minds and worship God freely; that they should be able to choose their leaders freely; that they are entitled, no matter how much or little power and wealth they have, to equal treatment by the police and by the courts; that no one should ever be subject to torture, or have to tolerate corruption, especially in the institutions meant to serve and protect them. We think constitutions should be respected and not changed solely to suit the interest of one person or party.
You may have heard our president, Barack Obama, talk about these issues when he came to Kenya and Ethiopia this summer, even as he admitted that America itself is far from perfect as a democracy, that we too must keep struggling to improve ourselves. This is a constant struggle that President Obama and our leaders acknowledge. For example, one of the most important points President Obama made was this: Democracy does not depend on a single person, for, as he put it, “If a leader says I’m the only person who can hold this nation together, then that leader has failed to truly build his nation.” What truly holds a nation together are its institutions and its laws. When a country’s institutions are strong and just and trusted by its citizens, people can debate ideas and argue about who should be in power, without having to worry about creating conflict and strife. That’s why the greatest leaders in history have focused more on consolidating their legacy, by building institutions that will outlast them. President Museveni has recognized this as well, as he wrote last week in the New Vision, that corruption and “ego-centrism” of the governing class are major obstacles to creating effective and strong institutions.
And so I’ve come here to Uganda this week, in the lead to your next election, as a friend committed to the advancement of a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic Uganda. I’ve spent the last two days meeting with members of your government and parliament, with the opposition, and with civil society, discussing everything from civic space to the Cranes’ big win on Sunday!
Now the United States doesn’t take sides in foreign elections, we have no favorite parties or people. But we do take a stand when it comes to the process. We hope to see healthy competition and all the different elements of a free and fair election, from a free press, to respect for freedom of assembly, to an impartial military and police force. We want to see everyone’s voice heard and everyone’s vote to count. The only outcome we want to see is one that Ugandans will believe in.
And we hope that out of this election will emerge a Uganda with democratic institutions that strong enough to manage, whenever the people will it, a transition from one group of leaders to another, from one generation of Ugandans to another.
It is clear that this country is full of passionate, patriotic, and creative citizens. And that regardless of party affiliation people want the same things: jobs, stability, good services, and a democratic Uganda. Some Ugandans I’ve met, however, have told me they worry people have lost faith in the process, especially young people who may feel that politics are pointless, or dirty, or something for their parents’ generation.
But here’s the thing. Youth…you…are more than 75% of the population and growing. And that means you have an incredible power to influence the future of your country. But only by voting do you leverage that power. Your presence in an election means that candidates have to speak to issues that you care about. If you don’t show up, you’ve left all of that power on the table, for someone else to pick up.
I’m not trying to understate the barriers in Uganda to political participation and successful elections. While here I’ve raised our concerns with the government over a lack of clarity in the Public Order Management Act, uneven implementation of election laws, and the potential for misuse of state resources and politicization of state institutions. I have made it clear to all parties, including in the opposition, our expectation that they will refrain from provocative actions that may raise tensions and increase the possibility of violence. We know the pressure the media faces and the impact that has on voters’ ability to access information. But even while we encourage the government and political parties to address these concerns I challenge you to make a choice.
You can choose to join the process, and peacefully demand that your government, parties, and candidates address the issues most important to you and exert your collective power. Or, you can choose to disengage. If you choose the former, I can’t guarantee your country will become better. If you choose the latter, I think I can guarantee that it won’t.
Earlier, I mentioned some countries where governance has failed. But for each of those, I can name an equal number where citizens banded together and demanded integrity in their system and succeeded, often aided by an imperfect yet still democratic election. Like in Nigeria earlier this year. Or in Ghana in 2008. And youth have often played a decisive role. In Ghana, for example, when a close election between two strong parties risked sending the nation into crisis, youth from both parties started handing out ice cream to their supporters camped out at the tally center and urged them to remain calm and patient. The counting continued, a district’s vote was rerun, and the result was eventual peaceful transfer of power with the full confidence of the public.
Even in countries where the deck seemed hopelessly stacked against civil society, in places as far away as Sri Lanka and just this month, in Burma, citizens realized that on election day, in that magical moment when they are standing alone in the voting booth, they have all the power in the world. And their vote was essential in demonstrating their countries’ resiliency and strengthening their path to democracy.
Elections aren’t everything. A ballot, alone, cannot give you justice or a job. But it can give you a say. So I hope you will take part. I hope some of you will run for office, if not now, then someday. If you do, I hope you will play by the rules even if others don’t; that you will listen to your opponents with respect even if they are disrespectful. I hope that you will share in the responsibilities of building your country, even though the problems you will face are hard, even though it will require you to make compromises from time to time, and to find common ground with those who disagree with you. America’s partnership with Uganda is all about empowering and encouraging you to play that part, and to support the country you will shape as you do.