In 2021, at least 15 million Ugandans will queue in their respective polling stations to choose their preferred leaders, and as always the greatest attention will focus on the presidential race. The last time this happened in 2016, many people suggested that President Yoweri Museveni was on the way out as he faced a new challenge: along with long-time opposition candidate Kizza Bessigye, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi decided to throw his hat into the ring. Against these predictions, I argued that Museveni was strong enough to retain his iron grip on the country. And sure enough, he won by 65.75% against Besigye’s 35.37%.
The same thing is likely to happen in 2021. Many commentators are excited about the chances of well known musician and leader of the People Power party, Robert ‘Bobi Wine’ Kyagulanyi – especially since he formed an opposition alliance with Kizza Besigye, who now leads the People’s Government, a Kampala-based pressure group. But as so many times in the past, there are good reasons for thinking that Museveni will hold on to power. While in the previous elections, claims of voter bribery, intimidation and rigging have been cited as the reasons for Museveni’s wins, this time around the global COVID-19 pandemic has handed the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party a new lifeline.
The coronavirus pandemic will play an important role in the election even if it no longer represents a major challenge to public health. With about 778 confirmed corona cases and no related death so far, the government’s containment measures are clearly working – to their credit. But the NRM never lets an opportunity go to waste, and it has also leveraged the crisis to score some early wins.
On June 16, the country’s electoral commission released the election roadmap with activities and timelines running from 22 June 2020 until somewhere between 10 January and 8 February 2021 when the votes are to be cast. According to the roadmap, all candidates are expected to conduct their campaigns digitally, whatever that means. On face value, this looks like a fair thing to ask of politicians during a global pandemic. But wait for it …
To keep education going, the government has committed $100m to purchase at least 10 million radios and 140,000 television sets. These will be distributed free of charge to the over 70,000 villages in the country. According to the government, these will be used to relay school programs to the hundreds of thousands of students across the country. But, as ever with the NRM, there is a political twist.
The TVs and radios are going to allow the president directly into the homes of millions of Ugandans just at the point when rallies and door to door mobilisation – the standard startegies of political parties in a country where Twitter and Facebook have a limited reach – are being prohibited.
The urban bias of the Ugandan opposition
For decades, the opposition has tried to unseat Museveni and failed. There are many reasons for this, including repression and electoral manipulation. But there is also another reason. Nine out of ten times, the opposition focus their energy in the urban centres, where they enjoy enviable support. For its part, the NRM focuses on the rural areas where it is easier to control the information that citizens receive and their access to public services. With 76% of Uganda’s population living and working in rural areas, this is a winning strategy.
To this inbuilt advantage we now need to add the impact of the new rules and regulations. Digital campaigns mean that no politician can travel from one town to the other with droves of their supporters hanging on the sides of their fully branded campaign vehicles, blaring music and ‘vote for me’ recitals. In turn, these restrictions will ensure that the candidate with the best communication infrastructure will win.
With an Internet penetration of just 42%, concentrated in the urban centres, social media is a limited tool for any candidate. Bobi Wine’s twitter following of 700,000 followers is impressive, but it will not win an election – especially give that Twitter is not widely used in rural areas. By contrast, Museveni now has tens of thousands of radios and TVs in villages around the country, and can use his control over the state broadcasters to channel pro-NRM propaganda into the eyes and ears of the electorate.
In addition to the many challenges that the opposition faces, it has a tendency to beat itself by dividing the anti-NRM vote. In 2016, the opposition alone had seven candidates, mostly scrambling for the lean and elusive urban vote, weakening its chances. Recent African history teaches us that unless the opposition fields a single candidate, the incumbent is likely to win.
This means that much will depend on the newly forged alliance between Bobi Wine and Kizza Bessigye, whether they can agree a formula to contest together in 2021, and whether they can persuade others to join their side.
A brand new broom?
The emergence of Bobi Wine certainly presents the president with a new challenge. In many ways, he represents a new breed of leader. Unlike Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye who are both former NRM generals, Bobi Wine is seen as a brand new broom. This means that he is not tainted by involvement with the NRM, and represents an unknown quantity for whom Museveni has yet to develop an effective strategy.
Indeed, the Kyadondo East first time legislator has never been in politics or national leadership in any form. He comes with no broken promises, zero political baggage and a clean record as a man of the people. The audience he has amassed through his music over the decades believe that he speaks for them and no one else, and are keen to be represented by one of their own at the highest level.
In this sense, one of Wine’s greatest qualities is his perceived authenticity: he is one hundred per cent from the ghetto. In fact, before his shot at politics he was called the ghetto president. As a musician, his genre is popular with vast swathes of Ugandans, making him appear to be in tune with the thoughts and tastes of the people he seeks to lead.
While not much has been revealed about his performance as MP for Kyadondo East, his constituency seems to be happy with him. Whether this is because he has delivered on his promises, or because his constituents believe that he will one day deliver them the presidency, is hard to tell. What is clear is that Uganda’s newest political entrepreneur’s star continues to rise.
The more things change, the more they stay the same
Yet despite all these advantages, it would be foolish to expect Bobi Wine to win – even if his United Forces for Change alliance with Kizza Bessigye proves to be durable.
Personality, charisma and an unblemished record is important. But it is structures and networks that enable candidates to connect to voters that win elections – and control of the security forces and the electoral commission that enable the incumbent to outmanoeuvre their rivals. No matter who he partners with, Bobi Wine will not have these things at his disposal, and so the smart money will be on President Museveni to further extend his already lengthy stay in office.
Sakwa M. James is a Communications Consultant and Current Affairs Commentator based in Nairobi.