Uganda is holding its legislative and presidential elections on 14 January 2021 under elevated tensions following a campaign period marred by state violence and intimidation. Incumbent President Yoweri Museveni is widely expected to win, securing a sixth term in office and extending his 34-year rule. However, the main opposition candidate and leader of the National Unity Party (NUP), Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – known by his stage name Bobi Wine – has presented Museveni with his most significant challenge in decades.
Wine has managed to translate his popularity as a music star into significant electoral support. This first became evident in 2017 when he successfully contested the parliamentary seat for the Kyadondo County East constituency beating both the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) candidate and that from the main opposition party the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). However, Wine only emerged as a political threat to Museveni in 2018 after he accused security forces of opening fire on his vehicle and killing his driver during an anti-Museveni protest connected with a by-election in Arua. Wine, who made these accusations on social media, was arrested the next day on spurious charges of inciting violence. His arrest instigated protests in opposition strongholds and the capital Kampala. Wine’s fame as a musician attracted international scrutiny leading to increased pressure on the regime, which eventually dropped charges. It emerged that Wine was tortured during his incarceration leading to him receiving medical treatment abroad and further condemnation of the Museveni regime.
The ability of the opposition leader to draw international scrutiny and widespread support including the willingness of his supporters to protest marked him as a major threat to Museveni. In the following two years, Wine was repeatedly arrested and harassed by security forces. This intimidation failed to have its desired effect, and in July 2019 Wine announced his attention to contest the 2021 presidential election. A year later he was appointed leader of the NUP and was the clear opposition flagbearer going into the election campaign.
The campaign has been marred by state violence and intimidation as it used the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to justify crackdowns on opposition activities and ban rallies and campaigning. Naturally, this prohibition has not applied to the NRM or Museveni. Security forces used the coronavirus regulations to justify again arresting Wine on 18 November. This detention sparked protests in Kampala during which at least 37 people were killed largely due to the tactics of the security forces.
The Ugandan government led by the 76-year-old Museveni has struggled to repress Wine and his supporters, especially given their use of the internet and social media to broadcast security force excesses and organise across the country. This is has driven the state to ban social media since 12 January with reports suggesting that the internet could be shut down during the election period. This is concerning and potentially portends planned state violence during and after the election.
It should be noted that it’s not just Wine’s unique characteristics as a popular charismatic celebrity and strong-willed leader which have created such difficulties for the ruling party; demographic changes in Uganda have also had an impact.
Uganda is among the youngest countries in Africa with a median age of approximately 16 years. The majority of Ugandans have never known any president other than Museveni but are an unprecedently tech-savvy generation which has access to social media and international reporting outside of state control. Accordingly, they have been exposed to the series of youth-led democratic movements across the world, including those in Africa which have resulted in regime change. This has created expectations of what is possible.
In addition, Uganda’s economy is not growing fast enough to absorb young people entering the workforce, leading to increased frustration with the state and Museveni in particular. This anger is particularly acute in major urban areas such as Kampala, Nansana, and Kira. These demographic and economic changes have led to increased political frustrations which were already reflected in Wine’s music, making him a viable avatar for these youth grievances.
However, despite these demographic shifts and widespread frustrations, Museveni is widely expected to win the election by a substantial majority. This is due to the President’s total control over the state apparatus including the military. Voter repression and intimidation campaign will successfully prevent hundreds of opposition supporters from voting and the country’s electoral commission lacks the necessary independence to ensure a free and fair election. Compounded by government’s refusal to grant accreditation to many international observers, the social media ban, and possible internet blackout, this all but confirms the NRM’s intent to secure the election by any means necessary.
These anticipated electoral irregularities and election day intimidation tactics de facto ensure that the vote will not be considered free and fair and that the opposition will reject the results. This, in turn, will likely spark widespread anti-regime protests which will be met with violence by state forces and opposition figures will be arrested. There is a strong possibility of violence and civil unrest in the days after the elections especially once the results are announced.
Whether or not the accurate election results are released, it is clear that Museveni and the NRM face a growing challenge to their rule. Demographic and social changes will gain traction, leading to increased social and political tensions and increased unrest in Uganda in the years to come.