Uganda will vote on Thursday in the presidential and parliamentary elections, which are joking about political repression when singer-turned-politician Bobi Wine challenges President Yoweri Museveni’s 34-year rule.
The most prominent of the ten opposition candidates is National Unity Platforms Bobi Wine – a 38-year-old ragga star who has used his popularity among Uganda’s youth to defy the 76-year-old president and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.
On December 26, the government banned campaign meetings in the capital Kampala and 15 other counties, citing the risk of spreading Covid-19.
This is despite the fact that Uganda has only registered 301 coronavirus deaths. Its population is considered one of the least vulnerable because it is the world’s second youngest, with more than 48 percent of Ugandans under 15 years.
“A staged event”
Vin (whose first name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu) said at a news conference on January 7 that he “expected a live bullet to be fired at me at any time”, and announced that he had asked the International Criminal Court to investigate Museveni and senior human rights officials from 2018 – namely “widespread use of firearms to kill, assault and other violence”.
One of Wine’s bodyguards was killed and two journalists were injured in confrontations between security forces and his supporters on December 27. Vin said his bodyguard died after an army vehicle drove him. He added that the bodyguard helped an injured cameraman who was reportedly shot in the head in an earlier hassle. The army said the bodyguard died from injuries caused by falling out of a car.
The next day, Patrick Oboi Amuriat, presidential candidate of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), collapsed and was in hospital after police sprayed him in the eyes as he tried to join supporters at a rally.
“Clear manipulation of public debate”
November had seen a much higher number of deaths. Wine was arrested for violating Covid-19 restrictions at a rally – sparking unrest across the country, with protesters blocking roads in Kampala. The security forces struck with tear gas and bullets. At least 54 people were killed and more than a thousand were arrested.
“This is no longer an election,” said Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy and international development at Birmingham University. “It is a staged event to try to legitimize Museveni’s presidency and the ruling party.”
“Violent repression is nothing new in Uganda,” added Eloise Bertrand, an expert on Uganda at Warwick University. But “repression seems to have intensified this time and targeted more stakeholders.”
Museveni explained that “Uganda’s overall security position is robust” and that “it was definitely a miscalculation for the plans to imagine that they could use such anti-people techniques” in a TV address on November 30.
The Ugandan president then appointed his son, a general, as commander of the special forces on December 17. “Obviously, this is about ensuring control over the most effective element of the military,” said Ben Shepherd, a former adviser to the Greater Lakes Region at the British Foreign Office, now a consultant at the Chatham House Africa program.
‘Sanitized from quacks’
The government has cracked down on the media and civil society as well as opposition candidates and their supporters. “You insist that you have to go where there is a risk,” Ugandan police chief Martin Okoth Ochola told reporters at a news conference on January 8. “We will beat you for your own sake to help you understand that you are not going there.”
Ali Mivule, one of the two cameramen who were injured at the wine meeting on December 27, told the Voice of America that after being “fully identified as a journalist”, the police chief “aimed the tear gas gun at me and shouted” security damage “.
Authorities successfully demanded on December 9 that Google shut down at least 14 YouTube channels supporting Vin and most of them live stream his campaign events – accusing them of passing on “extremist or anarchic messages”.
The State Media Council announced on December 10 that both Ugandan and foreign journalists would be banned from covering the election if they did not receive accreditation. Foreign journalists who had already been certified were asked to renew their accreditation requests.
Next week, the regulator said in a Facebook post that it registered journalists to ensure that reporting was “cleared of quackery” – adding that journalists enjoying “recognition of state actors” would receive a “secure passport to cover events”.
Three journalists from Canada’s CBC News were arrested and deported from Uganda in late November, despite being accredited.
Museveni’s government has also cracked down on Ugandan civil society. Armed police arrested and blindfolded prominent human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo and his food companions – three other lawyers and a wine staff – at a restaurant on December 22.
“Every group that questions the authorities is being brutalized,” he told JowharLeela Jacinto in November. “I do not feel safe, but this is my home and I am not going anywhere.”
Opiyo’s arrest came after the state closed the Uganda National Election Watch in October – an umbrella bloc of civil society organizations seeking to review the election – accused two NGOs in the “terrorist financing” group.
“Attempts to monitor the election have been cut off and mutilated at every turn,” Cheeseman put it.
At the same time, the Ugandan government has been active on social media in support of Museveni, according to Facebook, which on January 11 closed a network of accounts linked to officials on the grounds that they “used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, publish themselves to be users, divide posts into groups again so that they seem more popular than they were. ”
Which way for Uganda? Bobi Wine takes on his seated Museveni
‘A structural change in Ugandan politics’
Museveni and NRM were hailed as forces of stability after his takeover of dictator Milton Obote in 1986, the culmination of a five-year guerrilla war.
“Museveni is still popular with large sections of the rural population, especially older voters who remember positive things that happened during his presidency in the 1990s and 2000s, such as major improvements in internal security and impressive economic growth,” Shepherd said.
But Museveni faced mounting criticism after Uganda’s constitution was amended in 2005 to abolish the presidency – before a further amendment removed age limits in 2017.
The president’s main contenders in the 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016 elections were Kizza Bisegye, Amuriat’s predecessor as leader of the FDC. The 2006 election went to court, where a judicial review found evidence of a comprehensive vote in favor of Museveni. Bisegye was charged with treason in 2016 and has been repeatedly arrested and assaulted. He is not in this year’s election.
After becoming a Member of Parliament in 2017, Wine replaced Bisegye as Uganda’s biggest opposition leader by using Afrobeat music to appeal to the country’s youthful electorate. Vin has called his polemical ragga songs “edutainment” – education through entertainment.
The opening lines of his 2016 hit Situka (meaning “Stand up” in the Luganda language) exemplify this approach: “When leaders become misleading and mentors become painful, when freedom of speech becomes a goal of oppression, opposition becomes our position.”
“Wine is a charismatic, engaging and effective speaker,” said Cheeseman. “He has also shown special courage, and this has made him a kind of living martyr in Uganda.”
Bobi Wine is categorically different from Kizza Bisegye as a threat to the Ugandan establishment; Bisegye represents the old political school for much of Uganda’s huge youth population, says Shepherd. “Many of them – largely due to the country’s relative development results earlier in Museveni’s time – are well educated and well connected to the outside world, but lack opportunities.”
“It has created a structural change in Ugandan politics that elites have been aware of but do not really know how to deal with,” he concluded.