Uganda’s 2021 election buildup already feels familiar

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On February 18, 2016, Uganda re-elected long-serving president Yoweri Museveni for the fifth time. However, it was one the most tightly-contested election he has faced during his rule, which now spans more than three decades.

At least, it was expected to be one of the most tightly contested but such hopes were largely dashed when Museveni’s main rival – the highly popular opposition leader, Kizza Besigye – was arrested and detained just days ahead of the vote.

Besigye was promptly released but arrested once again the day after the election, which saw Museveni secure another win with 60.8 per cent of the vote – a fraudulent result, according to his rivals.

Besigye was ultimately charged with treason after holding a mock swearing-in ceremony, announcing himself as the rightful winner of the election. It wasn’t the first time Museveni’s long-time rival had faced treason charges and it wouldn’t be the last time he found himself arrested for political activities.

Now, Uganda is warming up for its next presidential election in 2021 and Museveni has been given the all-clear to run yet again after an age limit in the constitution was removed. This time, he faces Kizza Besigye once again but there’s a new crowd favourite in the running: pop star turned politician, Bobi Wine.

Once again, Museveni’s popularity is at an all-time low and the new superstar in Ugandan politics has commanded strong support among young voters with plenty of time left to persuade more people should he decide to run for president. However, Museveni has faced all of this pressure multiple times and Bobi Wine must deal with the harsh reality of becoming the president’s primary opponent if he wishes to become Uganda’s next leader.

Currently placed under house arrest, Wine is getting a good idea of what this will entail for him and the buildup to Uganda’s 2021 election already feels very familiar.

The fall of a strongman?

Even the speculation that Museveni could finally be toppled in a democratic vote is reminiscent of Uganda’s previous election in 2016. Once again, his popularity is lower than ever before but we were also saying this three years ago, ahead of the previous vote. The latest opinion polls show support for Museveni has dropped to 32 per cent of the votes – the lowest in his entire tenure and significantly below the 50 per cent – plus one vote – majority required for a presidential candidate to win an election.

However, Museveni is still the most popular candidate with newcomer Bobi Wine coming in with 22 per cent of the vote, overtaking Kizza Besigye with 13 per cent. The remaining 20 per cent were undecided, though, which leaves plenty of room for these numbers to change.

This is in stark contrast to Museveni’s 61 per cent election win in 2016 but let’s not get carried away. There’s plenty of time for Museveni to pile the pressure upon his rivals and let’s not underestimate the power of political intimidation ahead of presidential votes.

After all, strong men like Museveni have forged long careers from seizing and holding on to power, no matter how challenges the circumstances might appear.

Enter Bobi Wine and the promise of change

Robert Kyagulanyi is an Afrobeats musician and lawmaker who goes by the stage name of Bobi Wine. He’s a popular artist and he’s also becoming a very popular political figure among those who want change in Uganda – especially among younger voters. Crucially, his popularity among those who will become old enough to vote before Uganda’s next election shouldn’t be ignored.

Museveni is well aware of this threat, too, and Bobi Wine has faced a difficult time recently at the hands of authorities in Uganda. Like Kizza Besigye before him, Wine was charged with treason last year – although the charges were ultimately dropped – and the MP  has been arrested multiple times since.

He’s currently under house arrest, yet again, and the challenge of going head-to-head with Museveni has only just begun for the 37-year-old.

By edging out Besigye as Museveni’s main competitor, the spotlight will only be focused more intensely on the pop star-turned-politician. While Bobi Wine’s traumas at the hands of Ugandan authorities shouldn’t be played down, Besigye has suffered this kind of treatment for 14 years without ever really coming close to toppling Museveni – despite the hype that precedes elections.

Uganda’s police, resident district commissioners (RDCs) and the regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC) have maintained the same tactics throughout this period – not only placing immense pressure on the likes of Besigye but also media outlets that help deliver their messages. Among all of the arrests, charges of treason (among other crimes) and prolonged detentions, police have also stormed radio stations to remove Besigye mid-sentence while authorities have warned media houses not to give the opposition figure airtime – or risk having their licenses cancelled.

Journalists face similar pressure from authorities.

Election day in Uganda sees the streets of Kampala lined with troops, military helicopters circulating above in the air and armed responses to anything that looks like a protest or opposition political activity. It’s a far cry from the scene you might expect surrounding a “free and fair” vote.

There’s no way of really knowing how intimidated voters feel about supporting the man who, to many, remains a larger-than-life-figure; the man who defeated 28 different rebel groups, brought peace to their country and established Uganda as a leading power in Africa’s Great Lakes region.

Featured image: By Adam Jones, Ph.D. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22178452

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.