On 18 and 19 November, at least 54 people were killed by security forces during protests triggered by the arrest of musician-turned-politician and presidential hopeful Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine. The national and international criticism on these events didn’t stop the Ugandan state in its crackdown on Wine and his supporters: almost all of his rallies have been met with teargas and state violence, injuring his supporters and close associates. On 1 December, Wine’s car was hit by a stun grenade and a private bodyguard shot with a rubber bullet . Wine suspended his campaigns for a day to report his complaints to the Electoral Commission, before returning to the campaign trail wearing a helmet and flak jacket.
At first glance, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and his challenger Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine have little in common. Museveni has been in power for 34 years. Bobi Wine, barely three years old when Museveni came to power, is a pop star who won a parliamentary seat in 2017. But the ageing rebel-turned-president may well be sensing his younger self in Bobi Wine; driven by anger about injustices, violence, and autocracy to take on those in power.
When Museveni was as old as Bobi Wine is today, he launched his National Resistance Army, which took power in Uganda in 1986. Today, Bobi Wine, who professes admiration for the young, idealistic Museveni, often sports a red beret and quotes icons of liberation politics. For his part, Museveni has labelled Bobi Wine a thug he will crush.
But while Museveni has control over a powerful state with considerable coercive capacity, his attempt to defeat Bobi Wine through force will not make Uganda more peaceful and stable in the years to come. Instead, a paradigm shift in Ugandan politics means that Museveni faces the greatest threat to his hold on power to date.
Unprecedented intense violence
Ugandans are no strangers to state violence surrounding elections under the National Resistance Movement – Museveni’s party. The last couple of elections have been characterised by an increasing projection of regime power. That message was communicated directly and indirectly by regime figures, for example by physically threatening rural voters and their families if they dared to protest. But the intensity of violence witnessed in the run up to the 2021 elections is unprecedented. Why is this the case?
Museveni has long-been suspected to harbour ambitions towards a life presidency ever since he tied the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 2005 to the removal of presidential term limits. He then removed all doubt about this in 2017, when he orchestrated the removal of the upper age limit for presidential candidates in the constitution. This allowed him to run for a sixth term in office at the age of 76. To many Ugandans, elections have become nothing more than a ritual of excessive government spending and violence, the result a foregone conclusion. Long-term opposition leader Besigye acknowledged this when he stated that from now on he would focus on other forms of regime change (such as street protests).
While Bobi Wine indulges in guerrilla iconography in both fashion and speech, he also emphasises his commitment to non-violence and to democratic means of getting to power. During the campaigning for the 14 January elections, President Museveni and the security forces he commands have time and again sought to repress and provoke Bobi Wine and his supporters by meting out violence. However, Bobi Wine has not yielded and remained steadfast in his messaging to the extent that Museveni risks making him a martyr.
Paradigm change: the youth vote
The figure of Bobi Wine has to be understood in this context. Until now, Museveni’s strongest challengers have all been historical comrades of the liberation struggle. Like him, they hailed from Uganda’s western region, where power has been situated since 1986. They would accuse Museveni of having strayed from his revolutionary ideals and they promised they would do better. But, having fallen short in removing Museveni, they increasingly fail to appeal to the rapidly growing youth population: 77% of Ugandans are below the age of 30. This group is too young to remember the wars from which the regime emerged and the end of which has been Museveni’s key claim to legitimacy.
The generational issue looms large. Hailing from the ‘ghetto’, Wine represents a constituency which is increasingly powerful and important: the young – and the unemployed. Wine’s message to the youth has been one of empowerment, affirming their agency, and encouraging them to take charge of their future.
Wine therefore presents a paradigm change in a political conversation held hostage by the historical NRA/M crop: he has infused a sense of hope for change where a sense of resignation to a life presidency had long taken hold.
Although the unconventional Wine, once dreadlocked and photographed smoking marijuana, fails to appeal to older and more conservative voters across the country, ethnic calculus may also be stoking the president’s fears. Wine hails from Uganda’s largest ethnic group, the Baganda, whose traditional kingdom of Buganda occupies the country’s heartland in and around the capital. The relationship between the NRM government and the Buganda kingdom, which commands fierce loyalty among its subjects, has long been tense. Wine has consistently made efforts to have the Buganda kingdom on his side and this could be a game changer: one could call the kingdom the most important non-political political force in the country.
Crucially, while the government has long portrayed Wine as solely eliciting excitement among the capital’s urban youth, images of enthusiastic crowds in rural areas braving teargas and bullets to follow Wine’s campaign have proven this characterisation wrong.
Strengthening your own enemy
While the continued attacks have tried to scare Wine off, it has emphasised his seriousness as a contender. Museveni’s campaign is not creating much momentum – showing rather boring images of the president launching roads, markets and hotels. Meanwhile, pictures of Wine facing teargas, rubber and live bullets and attacks, paint a rather heroic picture. If many voters don’t feel naturally attracted to Wine, the government’s violent crackdown has earned him sympathy, and only served to fuel anger toward the regime. This is the paradox Museveni is confronted with: by clamping down so hard on Wine, he is co-creating and strengthening his own enemy.
Is the escalating violence a consequence of deliberate orders by the Commander-in-Chief? Or is it rather the perverse side effect of an extreme personalization of the state under Museveni? It’s hard to be sure. Any favour, conflict or service of any importance has to run through the President. It is the President who decides on promotions, solves conflicts, and hands out favours – often through the infamous ‘brown envelopes’ that everyone knows contain cash. A fragmented security sector and disparate agencies’ commanders contest for the president’s attention.
Through ever more heavy-handed actions against the opposition, they demonstrate their loyalty and zeal to Museveni in a bid to secure resources and promotions. In turn, this suggests that the situation could slip out of control as political temperatures continue to rise and security sector leaders compete to impress their boss.
Going further than ever before
In this situation, Museveni faces the challenge of identifying the best strategy to deploy. As a result, he has been going much further than before, moving well beyond violence against the opposition. For example, there has been a wave of attacks against journalists and media outlets. Moreover, in an unprecedented move, the Ugandan Media Council last week cancelled the accreditations of all foreign journalists residing in the country, telling them to re-apply within 7 days. In the weeks before, a significant number of foreign journalists were either expelled from the country or prohibited from entering.
Similarly, and equally unprecedented, a number of individuals working for donors and NGOs have been expelled from the country. Particularly telling is Museveni’s reference to opposition supporters and riots as being fuelled by ‘homosexuals’. In the recent past, Museveni has steered away from this issue as much as possible, fully aware of the damage it causes internationally. His return to this topic should therefore be read as a sign of desperation. Finally, the government has last week froze the bank accounts of two civil society organisations, alleging that they were financing terrorism. The two CSOs, the NGO Forum and Uganda Women’s network, are – or were – to play key-roles in the monitoring of the upcoming elections. It is clear that in these circumstances, free and fair elections are impossible.
Where does that leave Uganda? Museveni is determined to stay in power. The price Ugandans are paying for his determination is ever increasing. In 2011, skyrocketing inflation after excessive government spending on elections saw people take to the streets weeks after elections in the ‘Walk to Work’ protests. This time round, the price of Museveni’s determination to stay in power may be weighed in Ugandan lives. Museveni may win the elections, by hook or by crook, but peace and stability are set to be ever more elusive in the years to come.