Since his initial ascent to office in 1986, President Museveni of Uganda is arguably facing the greatest challenger of his political career in presidential nominee Robert Kyagulanyi. Kyagulani, more popularly known as Bobi Wine, is a pop star-turned-politician and at only 38 years old, Wine has gained widespread political momentum in the country.
Wine, a reggae singer, initially became recognized among Ugandan youth through his songs, which touched on pressing issues facing the country, including themes of unemployment, bureaucratic corruption and social inequality. Many Ugandans, especially the youth, deeply resonated with his criticism toward President Museveni, who amended the previous constitutional age limit that prevented people over the age of 75 from running, even though he had already been in office for 36 years before he turned 75.
With around 77% of Uganda’s population under the age of 30, Wine’s use of social media helped grow his fan base among the country’s younger demographics, calling those to work with him for a “New Uganda.” And Wine has been able to successfully gather momentum from disgruntled young people looking for political change. His popularity has grown to such an extent that he was able to form his own political party called the Nation Unity Platform (NUP), which won 56 of 500 parliamentary seats in the January election. This win turned the NUP into Uganda’s largest opposition party. Museveni’s party, the National Resistance Movement, lost about 30 members of parliament seats, including the critical vice president and several cabinet minister seats, to the NUP.
However, the results of Uganda’s presidential election showed President Museveni winning the race with 56% of the vote with only 57% voter turnout, the lowest turnout since Museveni has been in office. Wine swiftly rejected the presidential results, declared the election to be fraudulent and is now challenging the presidential election in Uganda’s Supreme Court.
Accusations of electoral fraud come after questions about how nationwide voting results were transmitted during an internet blackout. The Ugandan government ordered this blackout the day before the election in order to halt electronic communication within Uganda and with outside countries. The government also banned Facebook as well as all other social media platforms and messaging apps after the tech company deleted fake accounts and pages related to Museveni’s campaign.
Because of the internet restrictions leading up to the vote, the election has not been considered transparent by international standards because independent election observers were not permitted to properly monitor and track votes on election day. It has become common for domestic governments to send out invitations to foreign governments and NGOs to observe their upcoming elections to ensure results are respected. Refusing observers is often seen as an admission of electoral misconduct. The United States withdrew from observing the election after none of its electoral requests were approved, and European Union electoral observers were excluded by Uganda’s electoral commission. Domestically, a Ugandan coalition representing hundreds of civil society organisations withdrew after reporting that only 10 of their 1,900 accreditation requests were granted.
Election monitoring is a common global practice touted as a way for international governments to hold each other accountable and to promote free and fair elections throughout the world in an effort to preserve stability. However, it’s clear that the reelection of Uganda’s sitting president this year is more than a domestic political issue, but a rights-based issue — with questions of election integrity, fair and free representation and deep-seeded economic and social inequality festering in discontent.
But Museveni’s government felt increasingly threatened during the pre-electoral period amid Wine’s surging popularity, which led the government to forcefully crack down on opposition supporters. At least 10 journalists covering opposition protests since December have shared that they have been attacked by security forces. Just last week, police chief Martin Ochola threatened reporters by saying journalists “would be beaten for their own good, to stop them going to places where their lives might be at risk.” The dire threat to press freedom within Uganda is an additional marker of concern for the country — without access to information and the ability to clarify election misinformation, Ugandan citizens will largely be left in the dark regarding their own country’s electoral processes.
Several press freedom organizations have condemned this move from the government, citing human rights violations. Kelvin Chan of the Associated Press called this a “digital siege” and the internet cuts and information blackouts are increasingly becoming tools of oppressive regimes.
As for Wine, the party leader has faced police violence for challenging Museveni. Just a few minutes after verifying his presidential nomination in November, televised footage showed him surrounded by authorities and thrown into a police van that then immediately drove to the police station. Wine contested that he had been tortured with “hot metal” placed on him as well as being ‘teargassed.” Wine was arrested again in November when his campaign rally violently clashed with Uganda’s police forces. This confrontation resulted in at least 50 confirmed casualties after the police fired bullets and teargas to disperse unarmed citizens. Ugandan police forces arrested Wine again and charged him for violating COVID-19 restrictions by holding a public campaign rally with more than 200 attendants. On election day, the government ordered a house arrest on Wine, his wife and his sixteen-month-old daughter that lasted until January 26.
Museveni’s actions are creating a civil rift between the younger population and his party. His polarizing policies on social media restrictions and reliance on heavy public police presence have reinforced the view that Museveni is an authoritarian figure among young Ugandans, and a consistent violator of civil and human rights. His brutal treatment of his presidential rival has only cemented his image as a strongman desperately clinging to power. His policies have also been undemocratic, violating freedom of expression and information by preventing access to the internet. In response to why he has restricted social media access, Museveni mentioned that “younger generations spent significant time on social media… helping to spread misinformation.”
Museveni is ultimately undermining his career and crippling his relations with foreign governments with these acts of electoral fraud and domestic violence against his political opposition. Uganda received $929 million in 2019 in aid from the United States, but the U.S. Department of State is now reportedly exploring actions against Museveni and “Ugandan individuals found to be responsible for election-related violence or undermining the democratic process.” Additionally, the European Union has called for a probe into the 2021 election and expressed deep concern with how civil society members and opposition parties were treated during this time.
While a thorough independent investigation from global actors could convict president Museveni, he has already begun reconciling with diplomats and foreign governments through meetings to “gauge the attitude of allies and the intentions of his critics.” Whether or not he will face further challenges to his rule in Uganda depends on these meetings and the resiliency of Bobi Wine, his opposition party, and young Ugandans who are growing tired of authoritarian rule.