Archie McKenzie

Uganda faces a fraught election

Uganda faces a fraught election
Opposition leader Bobi Wine leads a crowd outside his party's HQ (Photo by SUMY SADURNI/AFP via Getty Images)
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On 14 January, Ugandans go to the polls in what is likely to be the closest election the country has ever had. Their unusual choice: embattled incumbent Yoweri Museveni or popstar-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, better known by his stage name Bobi Wine.

Yoweri Museveni is Africa’s third-longest ruling leader. He is a political chameleon — once a Maoist revolutionary, he has posed as both a liberal progressive and a nationalist conservative while in office. The three-and-a-half decades of the Museveni administration are difficult to describe in a sentence or two, perhaps because most Ugandans cannot remember them all: the average Ugandan was born in 2004 (compared to the average American, who was born in 1982).

Museveni’s 35 years in power mean he has ruled for twice as long as the average Ugandan has been alive. To achieve a similar median-age to years-in-power ratio, a President of the United States would have to occupy the White House for over 85 years. Museveni, at 76 years old, has ruled Uganda for 60 per cent of its post-independence period and has no intention of stepping down soon.

Even when the majority of his citizens were born in the 21st century, Museveni himself still views the world the way he did in the 1980s. ‘I am not your servant…’ the aging autocrat complained at a recent National Liberation Day, a holiday he established to celebrate his victory in the Ugandan Bush War after six years of brutal guerrilla fighting. ‘I am a freedom fighter… I am just a freedom fighter fighting for myself or my beliefs.’

Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin infamously awarded himself the title ‘His Excellency, President for Life… Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular’. While Museveni’s dictates are less comical, he has not strayed far from Uganda’s tradition of flagrant autocracy. In 2005, Museveni scrapped presidential term limits so he could stand for a third term in 2006. In 2017, he abolished the presidential age limit so he could stand again in 2021. A few days before voting to abolish age limits, each Ugandan Member of Parliament received a payment of 29 million Ugandan shillings (about £5,800), officially so that they could ‘consult with their constituents on the bill’. There are only two times in history that Ugandan MPs have been paid to ‘consult with their constituents’ on a bill — the other was the 2005 bill that abolished term limits.

Echoing Amin’s self-bestowed titles, Museveni once wrote: 'the problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power'. How right he was. Once a president of Uganda leaves office, he can be prosecuted for misappropriating his country’s resources — so the only option left to him is to stay in power indefinitely, stealing more from his country so he can cling to office. Nepotism, corruption, and political violence soon follow. After 35 years of one-man rule, Uganda has no strong democratic institutions or presidential term limits and is likely to continue down this path — at least as long as Museveni remains president-for-life.

Against a conventional candidate, Museveni might have cruised to an easy victory. Bohemian challenger Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, is not a conventional candidate. The musician and MP for Kyadondo East radiates charm. 'He’s just so charismatic,' says a campaign adviser. 'The only reason you could not like Bobi Wine, is if you haven’t met him.'

Kyagulanyi’s involvement in politics began during the viciously contested 2016 election campaign, when he released a glossy music video entitled Dembe. Singing in Luganda, the then-33-year-old introduces himself as 'ghetto president' and forcefully condemns election violence (the title of the song means ‘peace’ in Luganda). After Museveni won a fifth term in office, Kyagulanyi decided to take matters into his own hands. A year later, trading on his widespread name recognition, he won the Kyadondo East by-election in a landslide. Two years after that, he announced his candidacy for president at the 2021 election.

Kyagulanyi is brazenly self-confident. It was Kyagulanyi who exposed the 29-million-shilling pay out to MPs for abolishing the presidential age limit. He has been arrested numerous times and is constantly harassed by the police. In August 2018, he spent a week in police custody, where he was allegedly tortured, beaten, and injected with an unknown substance. Museveni dismissed allegations of torture as 'fake news'. During clashes between police and his supporters in December, Kyagulanyi was shot at and several of his campaign staff were put 'in critical condition'. A few days later, the MP began wearing a bulletproof vest to his rallies.

Kyagulanyi is such a dangerous challenger because his ego prevents him from backing down. He is convinced that the vote is rigged against him and 'that if it is a fair election, he would win by 70 per cent'. He sees himself as a modern Mandela — his agenda is to reform Uganda and then leave office. 'The people he admires are people like Obama and Mandela… he would love to be Mandela,’ his aide explains. In November, Kyagulanyi released a music video entitled Ballot or Bullet, a re-interpretation of the words of American civil rights campaigner Malcom X. Mandela’s voice plays prominently at the start: 'there is no easy road to freedom'.

Kyagulanyi is surrounded by a cohort of true believers, spellbound by his force of personality and optimistic about his chances. Some close to him think that Museveni’s days are numbered. '[Bobi] will end up president or dead… I don’t see things going back to normal.'

If no presidential candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote on 14 January, the election will go to a run-off and the violence could get worse. There has never been a peaceful transition of power in Uganda and — whoever wins the election — it is unlikely that this time will be any different.