Bobi Wine, the leader of the National Unity Party (NUP) opposition party, and the main opposition candidate in the 14 January presidential election, announced on 1 February that he had filed papers challenging the election results with Uganda’s constitutional court. Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, alleges that incumbent President Yoweri Museveni and the ruling party ‒ National Resistance Movement (NRM) – committed widespread electoral fraud and voter intimidation.
The country’s electoral commission declared Museveni the victor in the presidential election with 58.38% of the vote to Wine’s 35.08%. However, the election was marked by countrywide voter repression and intimidation of opposition members and supporters by security forces. Even following the results, Museveni did not act secure in his victory and moved quickly to target the opposition following the announcement of the results. Wine himself was placed under virtual house arrest with the military occupying his premises and preventing him from leaving or meeting with his allies.
Wine and his family were held by the state’s security forces for ten days until the military eventually withdrew on 26 January following a court order mandating Wine’s release. However, the 24 hours it took security forces to obey the order, raises suspicions that the order to withdraw owed more to international pressure rather than adherence to Uganda’s judiciary.
Independent observers, international media, and civil society organisations largely support Wine’s allegations of widespread voter fraud which are unsurprising given Museveni’s control of the security forces and the electoral commission. In fact, this is the fourth legal challenge Museveni is facing after an election ‒ results were contested in 2001, 2006, and 2016. As with those previous petitions, Wine’s petition is unlikely to be successful given the NRM’s control of the country’s justice system. The willingness of the judiciary to order Wine free from extrajudicial detention cannot be read as a harbinger of its willingness to annul the election result and tacitly accuse Museveni and the NRM of electoral fraud.
However, it is clear that the recent election had Museveni worried. Wine and the NUP attracted almost unprecedented levels of popular support. The former reggae star found a way to connect and motivate the country’s large youth population ‒ Uganda’s largest demographic and one increasingly restless about the lack of economic opportunity in the country under the 76-year-old Museveni.
The President will have been fearful of both the number of Wine’s supporters but also his ability to mobilise them. This was repeatedly illustrated in Wine’s rise as a political figure and best exemplified by the widespread protests in 2017 which erupted in urban centres across the country, especially Kampala, following Wine’s arrest. This initial attempt to subdue the opposition politician failed and the security forces were forced to drop the charges against Wine to calm the civil unrest.
It is unlikely that the true election results will ever be known, and it is highly possible even with the high levels of voter intimidation targeting his supporters that Wine won the presidential vote or, at least had enough votes to force a run-off election. However, it does appear that this is the closest challenge Museveni has had in some time.
Accordingly, the President is actively seeking to weaken and oppress the opposition. In addition, to Wine’s own extrajudicial tensions, reports of attacks, wrongful arrests, and intimidation targeting opposition members, activists, and supporters have increased in the days since the election. Indicative of this, a leading opposition activist and academic Stella Nyanzi fled the country to Kenya on 31 January citing targeted harassment and persecution by the NRM and security forces.
Not only is Museveni desperate to be rid of Wine, he has also become increasingly suspicious of civil society and development organisations. It was revealed on 3 February that the President had ordered the European Union (EU)-backed Democratic Governance Facility to suspend its activities in the country. Museveni accused the organisation – which funds democracy and good governance capacity building – of seeking to subvert his government. This reveals growing paranoia and will likely lead to additional international NGOs being targeted and prevented from operating.
This is expected to worsen in the coming months. Wine’s legal contest of the results will keep the matter in both the domestic and international news and continue to draw scrutiny to the government. When, as expected, Wine’s petition is dismissed, he is expected to be targeted by security forces and likely face arrest on dubious charges. This will be especially true if, as anticipated, the electoral challenge is accompanied by opposition-led demonstrations protesting alleged voter fraud. These demonstrations will likely be violently repressed by the security forces and will likely form the basis of a sedition charge against Wine and his allies.
The saga underscores the growing weakness of the Ugandan government and the NRM’s need to rely heavily on the security forces to retain power. This will be exacerbated when Museveni eventually dies. Given his desire to hold on to power, the 76-year-old President has not ensured a stable succession and his death will, therefore, trigger an internal power struggle within the NRM, one that could very likely result in the military leadership taking power either directly or through a political proxy. The more the NRM relies on the security apparatus the more likely this scenario becomes.