Ugandan Elections - National Unrest as Museveni's Reign Persists

By HANNA BAJWA

On January 14th, 2021 President Yoweri Museveni won the Ugandan General elections, commencing his sixth term. President Museveni has been in power for the last 35 years and faces 10 different challengers – the most prominent being Robert Kyagulanyi, known by his stage name Bobi Wine.


Under the original clauses of the 1995 constitution the President should not have been able to run for office after 2005, but after a constitutional change he was permitted to be in office until age 75. However, in December 2017, the constitutional obstacle of an age limit for a presidential candidate was also removed - an issue which led to brawls on the floor of parliament and a police raid on the building.


Many saw this as the NRM's (National Resistance Movement) way to allow Museveni to become president for life. The NRM has transformed the country, bringing peace to regions that were previously engulfed in war while also helping Uganda be, not just regionally competitive, but also globally. Despite these changes, he has also weakened the independence of some of the country's key institutions to ensure fewer challenges to his authority.


Justice Simon Mugenyi Byabakama, chair of the Electoral Commission, declared Museveni the winner of the presidential election on January 16th, stating that he won 59% of the vote, with Wine taking 35%. Voter turnout was 57%. Despite this, Bobi Wine has challenged his loss. When it comes to challenging election results, the outcome of every previous presidential race, except the 2011 one, has been contested in court. In all cases, the courts ruled that the irregularities were not serious enough to warrant an annulment.


Wine’s National Unity Party (NUP) told the press they have evidence of ‘ballot stuffing and other forms of election malpractice’. Wine claims he had footage that proves voter fraud but due to the internet blackout he was not able to share it. Both the US and Britain expressed concern over the validity of the election results, noting the internet blackout throughout Uganda since before election day, and both nations have called for investigations to begin. The US State Department’s top diplomat for Africa also tweeted saying that the ‘electoral process has been fundamentally flawed’. Uganda had blocked access to social media and messaging apps ahead of the election, coming just a day after Facebook shut down ‘fake’ accounts it said were linked to the government, saying they were being used to boost the popularity of posts.


However, this is not the first time the government prevented access to internet services during a critical period. During the 2016 election, the government blocked social media on polling day and for several days after, which led to the proliferation of VPN use in the country. In response, the Ugandan government gave internet service providers a list of 100 virtual private networks (VPNs) to block. The AFP and Reuters news agencies quote industry sources as saying that telecoms executives were told the ban was in retaliation for Facebook blocking pro-government accounts.


Bobi Wine has built his campaign on causing a ‘political upheaval’ against President Museveni’s 30-year ‘dictatorship’ and pledged to end ‘widespread corruption’. The reggae star campaigned for basic needs like improving access to healthcare, education, clean water, and justice. Although Wine’s songs have always targeted these issues, he transitioned from music to politics to try and enact a much needed change in Uganda. Despite losing the election, Wine’s NUP won 56 seats in the new Parliament, local media reported, up from zero in the previous Parliament.


When Wine first began his campaign, President Museveni dismissed the threat, believing his popularity was limited to the capital. As time went on however, he began to draw crowds in from across the country. Wine primarily targeted young Ugandans through social media, as they make up the majority of the population using social media, aiming to build a ‘new Uganda’. Wine’s use of social media has continued even after the election.


Wine has remained under military house arrest as his supporters called for his release, updating his followers through tweets. Despite the High Court ruling after 11 days of house arrest that this was illegal and unconstitutional, he remained trapped by the military inside his home. Once it became clear that Museveni was going to stay in power, already 20 years ago, the security forces, touted as a people's police and army, turned their guns on his political opponents, so Wine’s house arrest is not all that surprising. Despite Wine’s large social media support, official figures, which the NUP alleged had been tampered with, would later show that the large rallies and his social media popularity did not necessarily translate into the votes he needed.


Bobi Wine may be the change that Uganda needs, but the forces in power will do everything to prevent this change from occurring. Although the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have called for investigations to take place, the results of the election are unlikely to change anytime soon. The question of what will happen to Bobi Wine still remains, yet it is certain he will continue to dispute the election results for some time.


Image: Flickr (DFID - UK Department for International Development)