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Museveni has failed to win over young, urban Ugandans: why he’s running out of options

Campaign posters of President Yoweri Museveni hang on a cable a day after the election commission said he won a sixth term in office. (YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images)

Yoweri Museveni has claimed victory in Uganda’s recent elections, potentially extending his presidential rule to 41 years. The elections were marred by widespread claims of rigging, malpractice and intimidation. At the receiving end of this was his thoroughly brutalised opponent, the pop star-turned politician Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine.

The question is, what’s next?

Museveni’s political party – the National Resistance Movement – has been the ruling party in Uganda since 1986. But its popularity has now hit rock bottom in the country’s urban areas, particularly among young people.

Kampala, like most of Uganda’s urban areas, has long been an opposition stronghold and the urban challenge to Museveni was clear even before Bobi Wine arrived on the political scene in 2017.

It’s difficult for anyone to know exactly how much support Wine and his National Unity Platform command across the country. But what’s clear is that Museveni has been rejected in the capital. Wine’s party won nine of the 10 parliamentary seats in Kampala, with the 10th being retained by its incumbent, an independent MP. Museveni’s party also won just 8% of the mayoral votes cast in Kampala.

Of the many challenges facing the president, the mobilisation of young people living in urban areas is one that clearly will not dissipate. Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world, with a median age of 17. Moreover, between 2015 and 2020 its urban growth rate was higher than any other country globally. Given that disaffected urban youth are so central to National Unity Platform’s support base, urban opposition is likely to fester and grow after this disputed election.

On the one hand, Uganda finds itself in uncharted territory. The beaten opposition candidate is from the growing demographic of dissatisfied urbanites, and his party has swept the board in Kampala and surrounding districts like no other opposition party before.

On the other hand, there is a sense of déjà vu. Museveni’s party didn’t win any seats in Kampala in 2016 either.

So what did Museveni do to try to regain political dominance in urban areas after previous elections? And what does this mean for the future?

Our research explores this. It focuses on the National Resistance Movement’s attempt to dominate Kampala over the last two decades, and especially since 2010.

It shows the breadth of strategies and tactics used against urban opposition. Wads of cash, institutional restructuring, waiving taxes and regulations, militarisation and open terror on the streets were among them. But they’ve all failed to stop Kampala’s residents from voting against him.

Uganda is at a crossroads. It is clear that Museveni is running out of tactics, and business as usual is no longer going to be enough. Either the country’s young, urbanising population needs to be taken much more seriously by the regime, or Museveni takes the country down the road of all-out military dictatorship.

Two decades of shifting strategies

Most media attention has understandably been focused on the brutal repression of opposition. Nevertheless, we can see that Museveni’s long campaign to claw back support in Kampala was multifaceted. It included efforts to manipulate institutions and co-opt urban youth, as well as to coerce.

Since the early 2000s, Museveni has made efforts to win over Kampala’s huge numbers of informal workers. He built support among the city’s market vendors, carpenters, salon operators, restaurant owners and transport workers by constantly intervening to prevent the city council from implementing taxes and regulations. He also showered workers’ associations with micro finance schemes and other sporadic favours. This may have even yielded some results with an uptick in support in 2011’s election.

But it became apparent between 2011 and 2016 that his push to transform the city through the new Kampala Capital City Authority also made him unpopular with informal workers. Many found themselves at the sharp end of “clean up” operations on the city’s streets.

In the run-up to the 2016 election – by which time Bobi Wine’s politically-charged music was already rattling the president – Museveni even co-opted a dozen of Uganda’s other leading pop stars into his own campaign song.

This failed to prevent his very low vote share in Kampala in 2016. He then went into overdrive to buy influence among urban youth and opposition figures. He established an informal “ghetto fund” and “brown envelopes”, allegedly diverting money from official government projects, and sent “socialites” and “philanthropists” into city slums to distribute cash and consumer goods.

Wine’s home neighbourhood of Kamwokya was a particular target for Museveni. His State House acolytes wrote gigantic cheques to youth organisations - handouts that took place largely outside official channels.

In this respect, Museveni’s attempt to gain support in urban areas in the 2021 elections was not only about repression. But it still failed.

Looking ahead

What, then, will Museveni do next?

Fierce urban opposition didn’t prevent him from claiming a “large margin” of victory. After all, over three quarters of Uganda’s population still live in rural areas, and Museveni has always dominated rural Uganda.

Given this, it is possible that he could just abandon efforts to win urban support, instead adopting a strategy of containment towards Bobi Wine and his urban followers.

There are, however, at least two good reasons to think this unlikely.

The first is Uganda’s extreme urbanisation trajectory. The problem of urban opposition, if ignored, will only grow. The balance of voters is shifting away from Museveni, and he knows it.

The second is that abandoning cities to the opposition will mean maintaining very high levels of urban militarisation and repression, especially since Bobi Wine (now released) will surely try to continue mobilising his base.

This level of ongoing brutality is unlikely to be what the regime wants. Museveni likes to show people who is boss in public, viciously and periodically; but not continuously. His relationship with Western donors is still valued, and full-blown military rule is not a good option.

He might try to offer something new to offer city dwellers – such as major transport and housing projects or industrial jobs.

But for reasons relating to land tenure, corruption and the city’s politics, Kampala is a notoriously difficult context in which to deliver these kinds of projects. That’s why the regime has always fallen back on informal favours and populist gestures. Evidently these are no longer sufficient to stop urban opposition mounting.

This article was published by The Conversation.


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