With the 2021 Presidential Election in Uganda fast approaching, We examined the Ugandan political climate, including the arrest of Bobi Wine and Patrick Amuriat, both presidential candidates and what it could mean for Uganda's democracy.
Eliot L. Engel, US Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, adequately captured the political climate that surrounds the Ugandan Elections when he stated that;
"For almost two decades, President Museveni has shown he is incapable of conducting an election without jailing his opponents and brutalizing Ugandan citizens expressing their desire for a more inclusive democracy".
The 76-year-old rebel soldier turned President, through questionable tactics, has never lost a single election in his political career and seeks to ensure his political dominance by contesting for re-election in January 2021.
With the rise of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu (popularly known as "Bobi Wine"), the President Faces serious opposition ahead of the upcoming elections. Unsurprisingly President Museveni has acted within his historical precedent. On the 18th of November 2020, the nation witnessed the arrest of Bobi Wine and Patrick Amuriat, both presidential candidates.
Unlike prior politically motivated arrests, the second arrest of Mr. Wine has had devastating effects. The arrest sparked protests in the country and led to an increasingly aggressive reaction to those protesting his detention, with the death toll rising to 49 and a host of others injured. These protests have been faced with extreme brutality by the security forces, including the police and the army, local protection units, and plain-clothed police officers, who have been filmed firing in central Kampala.
The unfortunate incident came just over a week after general election campaigns started and two months before more than 17.6 million Ugandans are expected to cast their ballots at over 34,000 polling stations. President Museveni will face ten other candidates in the race at the elections, including Bobi Wine, who is 38.
The Rise of Bobi Wine
Bobi Wine's rise to stardom resulted from being a prolific star of Afrobeats with songs focusing on poverty and social justice. In recent times, he decided to fully embrace politics in Uganda and defeat known candidates to become the Member of Parliament (MP) for Kyandodo East in Central Uganda. While in Parliament, Mr. Wine has directed his campaign's energy into a new movement he called "People Power," an inelegant coalition of established politicians, frustrated graduates, and his ghetto hinterland hustlers.
With many voices, People Power speaks. Mr. Wine's political movement may be perceived in different ways by individuals with other dispositions. In Kampala's flood-prone valleys, it sounds like a revolt against the rich. It resembles a youth rebellion on university campuses.
In only about four years in the Ugandan political scene, he is believed to stand the best chance of defeating President Museveni at the January elections. That chance is dependent on his ability to withstand the various arrests and human rights violations that opposition parties have faced in previous Ugandan general elections.
In the neglected north, activists frame it as a struggle against ethnic exclusion. Mr. Wine does not directly rebuff any of the perceived notions, seeing them as symptoms of misgovernance in Uganda. However, what is without contest is Mr. Wine's passionate distaste for the poor running of the country by President Museveni. He has consistently maintained his strong opposition to the government in power and remains committed to removing President Museveni from office even though he recognises the task's difficulty.
As a result of the reputation he gained from the notoriety of his music, he is much adored by the youth. His popularity, coupled with his charisma and public speaking prowess, has pushed him rapidly into political prominence. In only about four years in the Ugandan political scene, he is believed to stand the best chance of defeating President Museveni at the January elections.
That chance is dependent on his ability to withstand the various arrests and human rights violations that opposition parties have faced in previous Ugandan general elections.
Uganda v. President Museveni
President Museveni's determined actions to intimidate the people and his opposition may have left him in a situation where the entire opposition is united against him. Following the imprisonment of Bobi Wine, other opposition parties halted their political rallies and refused to resume until the release of the arrested individuals.
The opposition parties appear to be in unison against human rights violations that unfairly and unlawfully attack their political aspirations. Consequently, the synergy developing in the opposition might present the President on the one hand and the opposition parties, on the other hand, looking to ensure that the President's 34-year rule comes to an end.
This might be an exciting development for the people of Uganda, who may finally be free from the clutches of an individual who has held political power under ransom. While the actions of Bobi Wine might be particular to him, it might have just set up a chain of events that may lead to a more determined populace who would be looking to remove the current President.
Heightened Tension Leading to the January Elections
Bobi Wine's arrest had him denied access to lawyers, doctors, family members, and members of the public, but he was brought to court two days later, charged with violating the provisions of the Public Health Act (breaching Covid-19 regulations), and has been released on bail. However, the course of events has set the stage for heightened tensions leading to the January elections. The loss of lives following Bobi Wine's arrest dwarfs the violence witnessed during the 2016 elections in the country.
The President appears determined to clamp down on protests and individuals that are deemed to be attacking his National Resistance Movement (NRM) supporters. According to him, very soon, they will lose the appetite of even touching an abandoned NRM T-shirt on the streets. It becomes disappointingly apparent that the President is willing to go to any lengths to suppress the opposition.
Similarly, the military quipped that they would conduct 'pre-emptive and decisive' activities to deal with any riots and demonstrations. As the nation inches closer to the January elections, it is reported that there are various armed men, donned in civilian clothes, who are running the streets. This is not too different from the government-recruited voluntary force of "crime preventers" around the nation that operated during the last election cycle in 2016.
The official task of these people was to help decrease violence; however, they worked to convey the military's omnipresence and carried out violent attacks without oversight. Presently, human rights activists, including those that released videos on the gruesome attack against protesters, have been concerned for their safety. There has also been an increased number of arrests following the deadly protests.
The Museveni government, as a result of these encounters, have become masters in the use of violent and intimidating tactics, limited in time and intensity, but with a sufficiently strong message.
The unwavering stance of Bobi Wine does not help the political tension as he continues his fierce opposition of the President without restraints; accusing the President of corruption, human rights violations, and unfair treatment of the various ethnic groups in the country. His political stance is admirable as he has maintained his willingness to push for freedom from President Museveni's political hold and remains willing to die for the cause.
President Museveni has spiritedly, albeit with underhanded tactics, warded off political challenges in multiple "democratic" elections, and it is highly unlikely that his approach would fail him. The Museveni government, as a result of these encounters, have become masters in the use of violent and intimidating tactics, limited in time and intensity, but with a sufficiently strong message.
It exerts ongoing pressure in a way that renders life difficult for opposition figures, but without escalating into significant events. For example, in 2016, Kizza Besigye was detained repeatedly and spent crucial periods under de facto house arrest. The tactic remains the same with Mr. Wine, regularly arresting him and seriously limiting his travel without detaining him for lengthy periods.
Similarly, the NRM tries to discredit the opposition leader by depicting him as a stooge of the West, presenting him as an opponent of stability. This is similar to previous allegations against Besigye for being connected to rebel forces. The message of these repetitive acts is clear: to signal that there is no room for the opposition and its supporters; to convey the message of who truly is in charge, and deter even the slightest chance of success. Protests are almost as quickly silenced in response to these arrests.
State repression attempts to exhaust opposition backer and erode their passion. The actions of the Museveni government have historically ensured that the President remains unbeaten at the polls, and it is difficult to see how Bobi Wine stands a better chance than his predecessors. This is further reinforced as Museveni adopts other less offensive tactics like buying the populace.
The ruling government is not averse to using social media and music to attract support and to counter Bobi Wine’s music strength, has enlisted several musicians with assumed "street cred" as paid advisers. Ultimately, Museveni and his NRM remain prominent across broad swathes of the region. In specific, older, rural voters frequently consider regime change a hauntingly difficult concept as Museveni's inauguration in 1986 had taken the nation out of conflict.
Can Museveni be defeated democratically?
While it may be argued that the violent attacks on protesters might encourage the people to stand against President Museveni at the upcoming elections, the reverse is submitted to be more convincing. The people would likely be unable to muster the numbers required at the polls, and the victory of Museveni becomes a forgone conclusion. Therefore, it is unsurprising that Besigye, who has been runner-up to Museveni in previous elections, has decided to sit out the January polls.
He believes it is impossible to beat Museveni through "democratic" means. This despair is as a result of a recurring theme in African politics. Elections go beyond the mere façade of charisma and the illusion of popular support.
Conclusively, irrespective of the fact that Bobi Wine presents a vigorous opposition to Museveni, it is unlikely that his passion and that of his followers alone would overcome institutional barricades made to ensure defeat. In the wake of Mr. Wine's recent arrest, the death of protesters is undoubtedly deplorable, but it remains to be seen whether the lost lives can spark a win for Democracy in Uganda. It is imperative that the international community pay close attention to the course of events in Uganda and especially the 2021 elections.
Alao Omeiza | Research Assistant, Transnational Policy | firstname.lastname@example.org
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