Uganda

Museveni declares victory over Bobi Wine and will be in power for another five years

Print edition : February 26, 2021

Police officers at a checkpoint on a street leading to Bobi Wine’s house on January 17. Photo: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP

President Yoweri Museveni speaking to supporters on January 21 in Kampala. Photo: Luke Dray/Getty Images

Bobi Wine at a press conference at his home in Magere on January 15, the day after the presidential election. Photo: Sumy SADRUNI/AFP

President Yoweri Museveni has declared himself victor in the recently concluded presidential election that was marked by the unparalleled use of strong-arm methods that left his challenger, Bobi Wine, with no chance.

By all accounts Yoweri Museveni, the long-serving President of Uganda, faced his biggest electoral challenge when the country went to the polls on January 14. He has since declared victory over Bobi Wine, his much younger rival, and will be in power for another five years. This time, however, the Ugandan people and the international community have put him on notice. Despite the world’s focus on the pandemic, the international media and Western governments keenly observed the elections in Uganda this year. The opposition in Uganda is never given an even playing field, and in previous elections too Museveni used the state machinery and the armed forces to ensure a positive outcome. But this time, the blatant rigging and the strong-arm methods used to ensure the incumbent President’s victory were unparalleled.

Museveni, a former Marxist guerrilla leader who seized power in Uganda 35 years ago and has since ruled the country with an iron hand, is evidently in no mood to fade away gracefully from the political scene despite his advancing years. Over the years, the 76-year-old President has tinkered with the Constitution to extend his stay in power. In 2005, the Ugandan parliament removed presidential term limits to allow Museveni to remain in power indefinitely. In 2017, he got the Constitution changed again to remove the presidential age limit of 75.

His main opponent was the young and charismatic rapper Robert Kyagulanyi, known popularly as Bobi Wine. His songs about the glaring poverty and inequality in the country have made him a cult figure. The 39-year-old singer has emerged as the most serious challenger the Ugandan President has yet faced. For almost a decade, the rapper who was born in poverty and grew up in a ghetto in the capital, Kampala, has waged an unrelenting struggle against the Museveni-led government despite suffering beatings, assassination attempts and jail time.
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In the months leading up to the election, the singer politician was arrested three times on trumped-up charges. The first time was in November 2020 when he went to register his candidacy for the presidential election. On another occasion, his car was surrounded and shots were fired in the full glare of the police. He had to wear a bulletproof jacket and a helmet on the campaign trail.

After the polls closed, the young politician alleged that “that the military had taken control” of the balloting and that the election was “never a fair and free one”. Uganda has never witnessed a peaceful transfer of power in its turbulent history. The goodwill that Museveni accumulated for bringing relative peace to the country after decades of violence seems to have evaporated some time ago. Three quarters of the Ugandan population is under 30 years of age and has known no ruler other than Museveni. Wine has struck a chord with the youth of the country since he entered politics and won a seat in the country’s parliament five years ago. In the cities, unemployment is rampant, with even college graduates being forced to do menial jobs. Wine was among the first politicians in the country to call on Museveni to retire from politics and make way for the younger generation. The Ugandan President, rattled by his young opponent’s growing popularity, described Wine as a “political upstart” backed by foreign powers.

Museveni also holds the post of Commander-in-Chief of the army. The United States played a big role in “professionalising” the Ugandan army by providing training and supplying millions of dollars’ worth of arms. In November, the Ugandan military and police used deadly force to quell protesters demanding a free and fair election. According to Museveni himself, 53 protesters were killed. Ugandan newspapers reported that the army had fired indiscriminately into the crowds. The youngest victim was a 15-year-old boy. Wine filed a case against Museveni and six of his top security officials in the International Criminal Court in the first week of January accusing them of being involved in murder and human rights violations.

It was clear from the outset that there was no way that Museveni would allow the holding of a transparent election. He once said that he would only leave office after the whole of Africa was united and had become one state. Shortly after the polls closed, the police and the army chased Wine’s election agents away from 22 districts and sealed his party’s headquarters. “No one allowed to go in or come out. Museveni after committing the most vile election fraud in history has resorted to the most despicable forms of intimidation,” Wine tweeted after the election result was announced.

Internet blackout

The government imposed an Internet blackout in the country in the days immediately preceding and following the election. It used the restrictions it had imposed to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 to prevent the opposition from holding public meetings. The President, however, addressed many large public gatherings in the run-up to the elections, accusing the opposition of being backed by foreign “agents” and “homosexuals”. The Ugandan government has a zero-tolerance policy towards LGBT groups. He accused the opposition of planning to fan a new “insurrection” that would spread chaos across the country. Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform, had developed an app, Uvote, that would have allowed his polling agents to monitor election results. Despite the Internet blackout and other restrictions, the opposition said that it had enough proof that the government had rigged the elections. There were very few international election observers. The government denied the U.S. and the European Union permission to send election observers to the country.

After the results were announced, Wine immediately announced that he would contest the result in a court of law. The government responded by putting him and his family under house arrest and ordering the military to raid his compound and arrest his security guards. Museveni used similar tactics in the closely contested 2016 elections too. Ugandan security forces had then surrounded the house of Kizza Besigye, his main rival, for 40 days after he said that he would challenge the results of the election.
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A High Court judge ordered the Ugandan government to end the siege on Wine’s residence after 10 days. The U.S. government and human rights groups demanded an immediate lifting on the restrictions imposed on him. Natalie E. Brown, the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, was prevented from visiting the singer at his house. The Ugandan government accused the U.S. of interfering in its domestic affairs and trying to “subvert” the results of the 2021 election. The Ugandan authorities said that Wine could only leave his home under armed police escort, stating that any public appearance by him could trigger new riots.

The U.S. State Department spokesman said that it “condemned the continuing attacks on political candidates and urged the government to respect their human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the right of free expression”. This is the first time that the U.S. government has used such tough language against one of its closest allies in the region. President Bill Clinton had once hailed Museveni as a “role model” for the rest of the continent. The U.S. State Department now says that it is considering targeted sanctions on Ugandan officials involved in the electoral malpractices. The U.S. provides more than $970 million in aid annually to the country.

Although Kampala and other cities voted overwhelmingly for Wine, Museveni still has support in rural areas. That vote may not have been sufficient for him to have garnered the 59 per cent vote share the Electoral Commission of Uganda credited to him. Wine’s official vote share was 35 per cent. Museveni went on national television to claim that the 2021 presidential election was “the most cheating free election” since the country gained independence in 1962. Despite the obviously flawed nature of the presidential election, the opposition made significant gains in the parliamentary elections that were held concurrently. The ruling National Resistance Front lost a lot of seats in its traditional strongholds. Wine’s party swept the Buganda region. Around 35 top ruling party Members of Parliament, including the Vice President and many Cabinet ministers, lost their seats.

More than two decades of chaos

Uganda’s new generation has no memories of the liberation struggle that Museveni waged and the relative stability he brought to the country after more than two decades of chaos and bloodshed. Idi Amin, the military man who seized power from Milton Obote’s civilian government in 1971, wrought havoc on the country’s economy and widened ethnic divisions. Obote overthrew Amin and was reinstated in 1980 with the help of President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who sent a military force to topple Amin’s brutal military regime. Obote was again overthrown in a military coup in 1985, and the country plunged into another cycle of violence.

The chief of staff of Museveni’s guerrilla army was Paul Kagame, who later became the President of neighbouring Rwanda. Many of the fighters in Museveni’s force were fighters of Tutsi origin. After the horrific genocide in Rwanda in 1994, a Tutsi-dominated government came to power in the country. Both leaders own a great deal of responsibility for instigating the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The war at the end of the last century resulted in the death of more than a million Congolese. The game plan was to install a puppet regime in Kinshasa and plunder that country’s immense mineral wealth.Kagame must have warily watched the political developments in Uganda. Museveni at least gives the opposition some space to operate with limitation. Kagame, on the other hand, jails and assassinates political opponents at will. But he continues to be a favourite of the West even as Museveni seems to be falling out of favour. The two leaders who were once as thick as thieves are now estranged. Kagame’s main accusation is that Museveni is plotting to overthrow his regime. Both Kagame and Museveni consider themselves guarantors of peace in the region.
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As recent developments have shown, Museveni no longer has the unquestioning support from the U.S. and its allies. President Donald Trump’s administration, notwithstanding its admiration for authoritarian rulers in the region and beyond, was critical of the way the election exercise was conducted and Museveni’s reluctance to shed his strongman image and cede power peacefully. The U.S. wants a peaceful transition of power to a new leadership while ensuring that Uganda remains a staunch political and military ally.

Besides providing troops to fight alongside the U.S. in the Horn of Africa, the Ugandan government has also sent its soldiers to fight as private military contractors to guard American installations in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. When Uganda went to the polls, the Trump administration was in the process of withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Somalia. Uganda and Kenya were the major East African countries contributing troops to the U.S.-led war against the insurgent Al Shabab Islamist fighters in Somalia. Uganda has more than 6,200 troops currently in Somalia.

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