On January 14, Uganda held presidential and parliamentary elections in which the main struggle was between the current head of state, who has been in power for 34 years and ran for a sixth term, Yoweri Museveni, and reggae singer Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine.
Since independence in 1962, Uganda has suffered many coups, revolts, and civil wars, which have all but evaporated since Museveni seized power in January 1986 and the country gained its reputation as a haven of regional stability. Notably, like most current African authoritarian rulers, Museveni began his political career as one of the leaders of the leftist guerrilla movement National Resistance Army and a fighter against the dictatorship of the odious cannibalistic ruler Idi Amin. However, after coming to power, Museveni swiftly made a sharp turn from the revolutionary Marxism he had favored in the 1970s and 1980s to a liberal market economy, as recommended by the United States and the IMF. Museveni used the emergence of the Lord’s Resistance Army, an armed sect that went to war with the government in 1987, to bolster his reputation as a fighter against terrorism and to strengthen his military and strategic relations with the United States and attract international aid.
Under Musеveni’s influence, in 2005 the Ugandan parliament lifted limits on the number of presidential terms. In 2017, Museveni again changed the country’s constitution and repealed the law limiting the president’s age to 75.
During his presidency, Museveni has tried to implement economic reforms, including taking into account the recommendations of the US and the IMF. As a result, laws were developed to make life easier for businesses, prices were deregulated, and power was decentralized, unprecedented for African countries. In 2017, IMF Director Christine Lagarde even called Uganda an example of an “African success story”.
But it was not enough, especially for Ugandan youth, who make up the majority of the population (78% of citizens are under 30), having grown up under one president, but who still have no real prospects for qualified employment. As a result, according to Gallup surveys, a third of the country’s residents dream of emigrating, which created the basis for opposition to the authorities. So it is not surprising that it is in this youth milieu, symbolized by the sociocultural youth archetype, that the personality of “ghetto president” Bobi Wine, the largest populist extra-systemic politician in recent years, was formed, with Washington, too, placing some bets on him.
The current election campaign, in which 11 candidates for the presidency participated, was quite tense. Two days before the election, Uganda blocked access to Washington-controlled social networks, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres “raised concern over reports of violence and tensions in parts of the country.”
The 38-year-old Bobi Wine, creator of the populist People Power Movement that challenged the incumbent president, gained popularity in the early 2000s as a reggae performer. In 2017, he became a member of parliament and gained a strong foothold in the opposition, criticizing the actions of the authorities and calling for a change of regime. Despite his anti-government campaigns, arrests, and detentions, he continued to hold office in the parliament controlled by the presidential majority.
Wine has been arrested twice since announcing his run in the current election, has appeared in public in a bulletproof vest, and has often spoken about threats to his life. On December 27, he claimed that his bodyguard was allegedly hit by a military vehicle while dispersing an election procession. According to Wine himself, a week before the election he took his family out of the country after he received credible information of pending physical attacks on his wife and [the] kidnap of their children.
Under Wine’s leadership, the movement of politicized and massively disadvantaged youth became a serious and organized political force that challenged Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni. Bobi Wine even managed to win over to his side several politicians from the “systemic opposition”.
Museveni, the acting president, in his struggle against Wine and other representatives of the country’s opposition forces, who were dissatisfied above all with the 34 years of uninterrupted leadership of the country, not only sought to maintain the social base of the regime, but also to split the opposition without resorting to large-scale repression and by occasionally co-opting dissidents into the bloated party-state organism. At the same time, Museveni became increasingly reliant on military and militarized structures, officials and party members loyal to him, as well as big business and influential Afro-Indian tycoons, whose monopoly positions in politics and economics he began to protect at the cost of unpopular and increasingly authoritarian measures.
On the eve of the election, in order to create favorable conditions for the ruling elite of the country, a number of oppositionists were arrested. On December 22, Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer who headed the country’s influential human rights organization Chapter Four and represented a number of NGOs whose accounts had been blocked the previous day on charges of money laundering and related malicious activities, was arrested by agents of the country’s Security Service.
On December 30, UN human rights experts called on the Ugandan government to curb “violent measures” by security forces and drop charges against opposition activists arrested during the “election suppression,” as reported by Reuters.
On January 15, Uganda Electoral Commission Chairman Simon Mugenyi Byabakama described the past presidential and parliamentary elections as successful, and stated that turnout was high and voting was largely peaceful, despite measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. According to the announced data, the current 75-year-old head of state Yoweri Kaguta Museveni wins the presidential elections in Uganda.
As always, in an effort to bring dissonance to political developments in other countries, the US authorities, in a statement by Morgan Ortagus, State Department Spokesperson, immediately after the announcement of the election results, expressed “concern” over reports of “irregularities during the election”. Disregarding violations of democratic principles in the recent US presidential race, the State Department was quick to declare instances of “violence” by local law enforcement in the run-up to the vote, calling for “an independent, credible, impartial and thorough investigation into these reports and that those responsible be held accountable.”
Hopefully, the new US administration will set an example in this regard for other countries to investigate their own abuses of democratic principles before, as has become a White House tradition, interfering in the affairs of other sovereign states.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.