"Museveni" by Gabriel White is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
Global Affairs

Tensions mount in Uganda as election day nears

Cover Image: “Museveni” by Gabriel White is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

As Uganda prepares for a national election this week, the human rights abuses of President Museveni’s Government show no sign of abating. Amnesty International is but one human rights organisation raising concerns, reporting late last year a “persistent use of excessive force by the security forces, arbitrary arrests and detention”. The tactics of President Museveni, who is running for his sixth term, suggest that he has no intention of conceding.

Commencing last year, his campaign has been marked by violent treatment of the opposition by the military and police. The brunt of these incidents has been borne by Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, of the National Unity Platform (NUP), and his supporters. The 38-year-old singer and actor, better known by his stage name Bobi Wine, is running for the presidency. On the 18th and 19th of November 2020 alone, 54 people were killed whilst protesting the arrest of Wine, which occurred on Wednesday of that week. “Every day, we are met with heavily armed military officers. It’s always tear gas and grenades, live bullets and beatings,” said the candidate during his visit to the town of Lyantonde.

In the wake of such events, the President has been condemned by media outlets for failing to denounce the brutality of the police. He has also been accused of orchestrating the shakedowns to create fear. During his speech in Kotido, he warned that supporters protesting Wine’s arrest would be “crushed” should they choose to protest further. 

Wine, who according to polls threatens to dethrone President Museveni, has been detained three times. He expressed fears for his own safety after police fired bullets at his car, temporarily knocking his campaign off course. He also claims that on the 27th of December, the military police killed his bodyguard, running him over as he was helping a reporter suffering from tear gas injuries. The Military repudiated this statement, saying the reporter had fallen from a speeding car.

Violence has not been the only cause for concern. Under the pretext of preventing the spread of COVID-19, campaigning by the opposition has been barred in cities throughout the country. Although lockdown regulations in Uganda had been imposed and crowds had already been limited to 200 people prior to this, Amnesty has proclaimed that the lockdown regulations were “weaponized … as pretext for political repression”. By contrast, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement has gathered in large crowds throughout the lockdown period, uninterrupted by police.

These events are not dissimilar to those of the 2016 election, in which police were given powers to disperse opposition supporters arbitrarily. Last year, those powers were found to be illegal and unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court. Museveni’s main opponent in previous elections, Kizza Besigye, was arrested while attempting to uncover fraudulent voting during the election. He claimed that there was violence and suppression at polling stations along with voter intimidation. Previous protests led by Besigye in the 2006  and 2011 elections have also had deadly outcomes.

In line with results from the last five presidential elections, a poll conducted by Research World International puts Museveni in the lead for the presidency, amassing 47% of votes, compared to 21% for Bobi Wine. However, this randomised sample of 2,321 voters may not be inclusive of the influx of votes expected to come from the younger population. These could offer a strong support base for Wine who, before turning to politics in 2017, rose to fame in East Africa as a musician. His music, often socially conscious and critical of Museveni’s rule, may well increase young people’s registration and voter turnout. With people under 35 making up over 80% of the Ugandan population, this could have a strong impact. Wine, although perhaps not expected to receive a majority, could take Museveni’s share of the vote to below 50%, leading to a runoff; something that has not happened in all of Museveni’s 34-year rule.

Wine remains hopeful of his ability to unseat Museveni democratically, using his youthful fan-base to his advantage. “I know that I am fully qualified to lead Uganda but I know it is not my qualifications alone. It’s the qualification of all the Ugandans who want change”, he said. Whether Wine’s aspiration comes to fruition remains to be seen on the 14th of January.