/ 27 May 2024

Uganda’s religious leaders remain mute about human rights abuses and the backsliding of democracy

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni.
Religious leaders condemn Ugandans who are trying to fight for their basic human rights and democracy but, sadly, cannot condemn Museveni and his kleptocratic regime.

If Uganda’s late Anglican Archbishop Janan Jakaliya Luwum came back to life and visited Uganda he would be ashamed of the generation of religious leaders that succeeded him.

Fear is the daily lot of religious leaders today. They are compromised and remain silent about human rights violations, corruption, atrocities and the degeneration of democracy in Uganda.

The country’s Constitution provides for freedom of belief, with most people in the country being Muslim, Catholic, Anglican, Adventist, Orthodox or belonging to the newly reformed Pentecostal churches.

Religious shepherds have turned into accomplices and enablers of the authoritarian regime in Uganda.

For example, during the annual Black November vigil in 2023 — held to commemorate the 54 people killed and the hundreds disappeared by President Yoweri Museveni’s security agents during a protest in 2020 — opposition parties, including the National Unity Platform (NUP) party, led Bobi Wine (Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu), jointly extended an invitation to various religious leaders to conduct prayers.

To our dismay, all the leaders refused the invitation without giving a reason. Yet they respond to State House invitations, raising public outrage.

Religious leaders are meant to serve everyone, regardless of political affiliation, gender, race and social status. 

Unfortunately, that’s not the case in Uganda; spiritual and religious leaders turn into merchants praying for and blessing the highest bidder.

Religious leaders have turned a blind eye to the industrial-scale corruption and atrocities in the country. The men of God have not condemned the election malpractices that have crippled democracy.

Uganda’s authoritarian regime offers brand-new monster vehicles and cash handouts to religious leaders and, as a result, even the most eloquent ones end up in a trap of political and moral compromise.

The Pentecostal born-agains are the most despicable accomplices to the erosion of democracy, human rights violations and cover-ups of atrocities.

For example, Evangelical Pastor Aloysious Bugingo routinely denigrates the NUP and often criticises people’s right to assemble and discourages people from participating in democratic processes. 

Bugingo joins the list of pastors who praise gun power, which discourages citizens from participating in the democratisation of Uganda.

“The current NRM [National Resistance Movement] regime will rule Uganda until the unborn pregnancies will come to life and die at the detriment of democracy,” he once said.

Bugingo is among the state-sponsored religious leaders who denigrate the concept of democracy.

In rural areas, these religious leaders participate in election malpractices and the repression of democratic representatives from opposition political parties.

Uganda is grappling with large-scale corruption and internal organs have failed to curb it, leading to foreign intervention. 

For example, the UK has placed sanctions on the speaker of parliament Anita Among, yet religious leaders keep flocking her mansion to show their support.

The leaders have also been very vocal about their opposition to LGBTQI rights but, when it comes to atrocities, corruption and the abuse of democracy they are mute.

Recently, Bobi Wine fired Mpuuga Mathias, the NUP’s deputy president and a commissioner in parliament, for fraudulently receiving a 500 million Ugandan shilling (R2.5 million) service award from parliament during his term of office as leader of the opposition. He has denied this.

The Catholic bishop of Masaka province Serverus Jjumba defended and justified Mathias’s actions.

Religious leaders condemn Ugandans who are trying to fight for their basic human rights and democracy but, sadly, cannot condemn Museveni and his kleptocratic regime.

In democratic societies, the economic and social cohesion between religious and political leaders is meant to work for people’s well-being, not against it.

According to the Inspectorate of Government, Uganda loses 9.144 trillion Ugandan shillings a year to corruption. This was equivalent to 44% of total government revenue in 2019.

More than 2 trillion Ugandan shillings go to donations to religious leaders, despite the country having a debt of 96 trillion Uganda shillings.

I call on the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda to embark on reforms, reclaim its mandate and ensure its members promote democracy, accountable governance, human rights and justice for all. 

The reforms would enable religious leaders to overcome their fear and liberate themselves from state capture.

As Martin Luther King Jr said: “To ignore evil is to be accomplice to it.” 

Robert Kigongo is a democracy deliverer supporting reformers and a sustainable development analyst.