Sticky authoritarianism: Uganda’s violent election has exposed divisions of age and class

The country’s economic model has created growth but few jobs

In a pool hall in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, a group of boxers and nightclub bouncers are discussing elections. They were recently taken to meet an army general, who offered them money to wear t-shirts of the ruling party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), and fight rowdy opposition supporters in the streets. The sum was not enough, they thought. Then disappointment turned to fear when a well-known champion boxer who had publicly backed the NRM was gunned down by security agents in the night, amid rumours that he had fallen out with his erstwhile patrons. Politicians view the urban poor with contempt, says a bouncer. “When they see them in the ghetto smoking weed, they think that they are useless,” he complains. “But they come to realise they are useful when it is time for elections.”


Ugandans went to the polls on January 14th, with results due after The Economist had gone to press. Officials will almost certainly declare victory for Yoweri Museveni, who has been president since 1986. But the election has been defined by the rise of Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, a 38-year-old musician and opposition candidate who has faced arrest, obstruction and gunfire on the campaign trail. Like the disgruntled boxers, he spent his youth hustling in the ghetto, sometimes sparring in the ring himself. His popularity brings to the fore generational and class fissures, and the shortcomings of an economic model that has brought growth but few jobs.


Those trends are not unique to Uganda. In the 1980s, under pressure from international lenders, many African governments enacted pro-market reforms. In time, with debt cancellation and soaring commodity prices, economies grew. But few countries graduated from farming and mining into more productive activities, like manufacturing. Many young people found precarious work in providing services, often informal ones, like selling second-hand clothes or riding motorbike taxis (see chart).


Mr Museveni, a former Marxist, fought his way to power just as the cold war was ending. He soon embraced the new market orthodoxy, privatising state firms, floating the shilling and opening up to trade and foreign investment. Over his 35 years in office, poverty has fallen, growth has averaged 6% and the inflation rate has rarely reached double figures. But the proportion of Ugandans working in industry has shrunk. The economy today creates formal jobs for barely a tenth of the 700,000 young people who reach working age every year.


The remainder get by as best they can, in farming, odd jobs or petty trade. Many migrate to Arab countries to work as security guards and maids. In the towns and cities, where populations have grown sevenfold under Mr Museveni, the sting of injustice is sharpened. The residents of Kamwokya, a poor quarter of Kampala, need only stroll up the hill to find the city’s most glamorous shopping mall. It was in those unpaved streets that Mr Wine grew up, styling himself the “ghetto president” in songs upbraiding the powerful. “We come to express exactly what’s on the poor man’s mind,” he sang.


Though this new politics is quintessentially urban, it has trickled out to small markets where dealers bring goods—and ideas—from the city. Grievances are often local. Faridah Kange, an activist for Mr Wine in the eastern district of Budaka, says people there are furious that the government is chasing them out of wetlands, where they started growing rice after cotton co-operatives collapsed. Such outspoken dissent unsettles some older Ugandans, who remember the instability and civil war of the past. “Those who have never got education, they cause all this commotion,” says Aksoferi Karegnet Kulany, the chairman of the NRM Elders’ League in mountainous Kapchorwa. “They want shortcuts to getting things.”


In Mr Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform (NUP), the hustlers’ revolt has found common cause with sections of the middle class, such as recent graduates. But it is only in the central Buganda region, in which Kampala lies, that the established opposition has decamped en masse to the NUP. The NRM still saturates politics in the villages, where it is hard for other parties to organise. Lauben Bamwesigye, a farmer in the west, says he hears Mr Wine’s message only when the young folk visit from town at Christmas. “They came, they preached the gospel, and they went back,” he jokes.


Mr Museveni is backed by the rich, who look to him to protect their interests. Many large firms are owned by foreigners or Ugandan Asians, grateful to the man who welcomed them back after their expulsion by the dictator Idi Amin. Critics say the tight nexus between politics, security and business is increasingly controlled by brokers from Mr Museveni’s ethnic group, especially his own family, who award contracts, control access and grab resources. In 2018 an ex-politician from Hong Kong was convicted by an American court for paying $500,000 to Sam Kutesa, the foreign minister (and father of Mr Museveni’s daughter-in-law), to secure favours for a Chinese company. Ugandan officials denied the payment was a bribe.


The state is also a conduit for foreign aid. Even as covid-19 relief money has flowed into the budget, so spending marked as “classified expenditure” has flowed out of it. Much of this money went to the army and the president’s office.


Intensifying repression is straining old relationships. America is assessing options to reduce assistance in the event of more violence, and congressmen have called for sanctions on some security chiefs. Tibor Nagy, America’s senior diplomat for Africa, expressed concern on January 12th after Uganda blocked access to social-media platforms just days before the vote. But Mr Museveni has presented himself as a bastion of stability and sent thousands of Ugandan troops to a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. “Maybe we are a bit overwhelmed by a region which is falling apart,” muses a Western diplomat in Kampala. “What happens if Museveni falls?”


The choice between stability and justice is a false one, not only in Uganda but in many African countries where young populations chafe against sclerotic systems. Economic discontent has animated movements from the hip-hop activists of Y’en a Marre, in Senegal, to the leftist populism of the Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa. In Sudan and Mali, street protests have helped topple presidents. The problem is not just bad leadership. Changes in trade and technology are making it harder to pull off an industrial revolution. In the meantime, frustration festers.


As a young man, Mr Museveni helped Uganda out of “a deep ditch”, says Miria Matembe, a former minister, but now he has “a total obsession with power”. To preserve it he relies ever more on money and violence. Ugandan security forces shot at least 54 people dead in November, during protests sparked by the brief detention of Mr Wine. The victims were motorbike drivers, chapati sellers, carpenters, mechanics and others, almost all hustling in the city’s informal economy. Two days before the vote armoured cars drove through Kampala, soldiers peering from gun turrets, while helicopters hovered overhead. Mr Museveni has been fighting wars all his life, against brutal despots, messianic rebels, foreign warlords and Islamist extremists. His final war is on the ghetto.


This article was published by The Economist.

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