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In Uganda, deepening divisions will Museveni’s autocratic rule

President Yoweri Museveni arrives at his inauguration, in Kololo, Uganda, May 12, 2021. (AP/Nicholas Bamulanzeki)

By Liam Taylor

On May 12, after 35 years in office, Yoweri Museveni was sworn in for his sixth elected term as president of Uganda. The ceremony marked the end of a year-long ritual centered on what was misleadingly called an “election.” Shots were fired, money changed hands and then, almost as an afterthought, Ugandans went to the polls in mid-January. In the preceding and subsequent months, opposition supporters have been harassed, beaten, abducted, tortured and even killed.

The process is better understood as a manifestation of power than as a choice about who wields it. The 2021 election did not unseat Museveni—it was never likely to. Instead, it made plain the reality of his power. His regime has survived this long because of its ability to absorb the social fractures that toppled past dictatorships.

But that order is crumbling from below. Sharpening class divisions, ethnic resentment and a gaping generational divide have found expression in the People Power movement of Robert Kyagulanyi, a popstar-turned-politician who is better known by his stage name of Bobi Wine. The regime has responded with brutal tactics, honed in war.

The insurgent mood was already clear during the opening act of the election: the primaries through which Museveni’s National Resistance Movement, or NRM, selected its parliamentary candidates. On the week of that vote, in September, I was in Sheema, a small town in southwestern Uganda, where a wealthy former customs official, Dicksons Kateshumbwa, defeated a sitting Cabinet minister. There were not enough jobs for the youth, Kateshumbwa told me, promising to end the “bad politics that has divided our people.” This was opposition rhetoric, deployed in the ruling party’s internal battles.

The primaries were tough for incumbents everywhere. Voters rejected more than 100 members of parliament, including 15 ministers. Such upheavals are not unheard of; they act as periodic safety valves for popular frustration and keep rival factions within the NRM’s fold. But the primaries also exposed the party’s institutional weaknesses, including endemic bribery and violence. John Musila, a defeated candidate in eastern Uganda, told me that another NRM politician pointed a pistol at him in a tallying center when he alleged the results were being doctored. “We can’t be in government and then people continue stealing just like that,” he said.

The NRM has been in power since 1986, but Uganda’s social fabric has now become too fissiparous for the party to contain. In most communities, there is a village chairman or respected elder, who mediates between the people and the NRM party-state. In recent interviews, some of these grassroots power brokers told me of mounting grievances over land grabs, taxation, petty corruption, joblessness and state violence. On the shores of Lake Victoria, a local NRM party chairperson, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely, complained of the extreme tactics the army was using, including “torture and extortion,” to enforce fishing regulations. “I’m an NRM cadre. From ’86, right from the bush,” said the party chair, referring to the Ugandan Bush War, the rebellion that brought Museveni to power. “But there are people who think they are more powerful than everybody... When the fish is rotting, it is rotting from the head.”

The rise of Bobi Wine and his People Power movement was a symptom of this discontent. The self-anointed “ghetto president” built upon the legacy of Kizza Besigye, the opposition leader who had challenged Museveni in the previous four elections. But whereas Besigye was a former soldier who served as the personal physician to Museveni during the bush war before becoming disillusioned with the NRM, Wine was a young civilian. With Besigye sitting out the most recent race, Wine became the figurehead for anti-Museveni sentiment.

In its culture and outlook, People Power is a quintessentially urban movement: fluid, youthful and online. One of its election strategists told me that Bobi Wine planned to ride a wave of support coming from the “people from the ghettos, from dilapidated neighborhoods, the poor people, the forgotten ones.” There was a revolutionary subtext to this strategy: Museveni could buy and bully votes from the countryside, but the cities would rise in protest.

There was a trace of bluster to Wine’s talk of an uprising, but Museveni took it very seriously indeed. In speeches, he warned that the opposition was plotting an insurrection with the backing of unnamed foreign powers. On Nov. 18, Wine was arrested on the campaign trail for allegedly violating COVID-19 restrictions. The streets of Kampala erupted in protest. Police officers, soldiers and plainclothes gunmen poured onto the streets, firing indiscriminately: the state has since admitted to killing 54 people—only 11 of whom were actually rioting, according to an internal report leaked to the Daily Monitor, a local newspaper. In the months that followed, more than 1,000 were arrested, and hundreds more abducted by the army. Apparently, the state thought it was fighting an urban war, not an election.

Museveni’s regime has survived this long because of its ability to absorb the social fractures that toppled past dictatorships. But that order is crumbling from below.

Beyond Kampala, the regime tried to stop Wine’s movement taking root. The singer was repeatedly blocked on the campaign trail; his car was shot at, and his radio appearances were canceled. More subtly, the NRM painted him, unfairly, as a tool of Buganda, the traditional kingdom in the central region of the country from which he hails. The divisive legacy of British colonial-era policies make it easy for the government to portray the kingdom’s assertiveness as a bid for dominance. That line of attack made “a very serious” difference to the performance of Wine’s National Unity Platform, or NUP, in the northern region, said Samuel Obedgiu, one of its leading activists there. “Somebody down at the grassroots, they are easily convinced by that propaganda,” he explained.

The poll itself was conducted on Jan. 14, amid an internet blackout. “What was obvious and visible even on face value was the military interference with the electoral process,” says Sarah Bireete, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Governance, one of several civil society groups that deployed 4,129 observers across the country. She described irregularities including boxes of ballot papers with broken seals and missing ballot papers, especially in the west.

Museveni was declared the winner with 58 percent of the vote, against 35 percent for Wine. But without an independent audit it is difficult to establish the full extent of electoral malfeasance. Around 400 polling stations—out of 34,344—reported a statistically improbable turnout of 100 percent, requiring that nobody had died or moved since the voter registry was finalized. Activists from the NUP allege that soldiers stuffed ballot boxes. In Isingiro district, for example, the NUP claims that results from 47 polling stations show more ballots counted than registered voters, while many others reported a total number of male or female voters greater than that on the registry. Reports of bribery and intimidation are widespread. However, the NUP did not provide me with evidence to support Wine’s claim that he really won 54 percent of the vote.

Paul Bukenya, spokesperson for the Electoral Commission, says the election was “a successful exercise” and that he was “not able to comment” on the allegations made by the NUP. He added that any candidate can challenge the results in court. (Wine lodged a court petition but withdrew it, saying he would not get a fair hearing.)

Yet psephology becomes superfluous in a context where violence structures political choice. A week before the election, I was in Bushenyi, in Museveni’s home region of Ankole. Most people I met in the villages said they would vote for him. Perhaps they were scared to say otherwise to a stranger. But the reason they gave—genuinely felt, I thought—was that there would be a war if he left power. “Who would start it?” I asked. “Museveni would!” was the common reply.

This sense of latent violence pervades political discourse in Uganda. In a recent statement accusing the opposition of “stoking tribal animosity,” Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa explicitly recalled the history of genocide in neighboring Rwanda—a cynical comparison, but one that reflects the insecurities of the small and privileged ethnic elite around Museveni. Wine is also casual in his warnings that the ongoing human rights abuses being committed by Museveni—which are real and serious—amount to a “silent genocide,” a clear exaggeration.

The danger is not that these warnings come true, but that they lubricate violence of a more mundane kind. Wine’s supporters are scared, exhausted and jailed. His calls for protest have so far come to nothing. In the north, for example, only one NUP office remains open. Of the half-dozen activists I met there last year, two are now in exile, and a third withdrew in fear from his race for a council seat. The party will have to work hard to rebuild beyond Kampala and the Buganda region, where all but two of its 59 MPs are based.

As for Museveni, the old soldier is now 76. After the removal of a presidential age limit in 2017, there are no constitutional obstacles to a life presidency. His new term will see murmurings about the shape of an eventual transition: Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who commands an elite military unit, is rumored to have presidential ambitions. Another figure to watch is Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister who split with Museveni before the 2016 election, ran unsuccessfully against him, and is now being lined up for a return to government.

Regardless of machinations at the top, though, the problem of finding jobs for young people will continue to vex. Museveni will hope that Uganda can begin producing oil from its wells—scheduled for 2025—in time to ease debt pressures and the economic overhang from COVID-19. In the meantime, the social fissures and discontent that the NUP tapped into will remain. Museveni’s grip still holds, but the ground is shifting beneath him.

This article was published by the World Politics Review.

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