Ugandans will tomorrow go to the polls to elect a president to lead the country for the next five years. Incumbent 76-year-old Yoweri Museveni will battle it out with his fierce critic Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu.
The polls, whose campaigns in the capital Kampala and parts of the country have seen deadly chaos, might provide the highest hurdle yet for Museveni, the once-loved, former freedom fighter and perennial winner of presidential polls.
Observers predict a Museveni win, but, unlike previous years, there are a few fundamental shifts in the country he has ruled for 34 years. The biggest of them is change in demographics.
While Museveni has traditionally enjoyed support from majority of the population, an emerging youthful population in the country of 45 million people is today more demanding than their parents.
For them roads and tap water are not reason enough to reelect Museveni. Electricity connectivity and promise of a dairy plant excites them less than their parents. Even romanticisation of liberation war fought between 1980 and 1986, and which propelled Museveni to power, holds little enchantment to their day to day needs. Instead, poverty and unemployment have led the youth from the politics of Museveni into the hands of fiery rhetoric of revolution advanced by Ssentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine, and his National Unity Platform party.
Although just half Museveni’s age, Wine has had raving endorsement from some of Africa’s most respected voices. “Bobi Wine represents the face of democracy for Uganda,” said Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. “Even before we met, I’d taken an interest in his movement, his candidature and his passion. And I share it; I share every bit of it,” Soyinka told Quartz Africa recently.
In the past year Wine, a self-declared ‘Ghetto President’, has been arrested, clobbered, detained and teargassed. A bodyguard has fallen to a bullet. At least 16 of his supporters have died in chaos believed to be State-sponsored. Fearing for his life, he has fled the country several times. Yet Wine has persisted in his onslaught.
When polling stations close later tomorrow, the likelihood of him emerging winner will be slimmer than he may want to publicly acknowledge. “This will not be for lack of support,” International Relations lecturer and political commentator Macharia Munene told The Standard. “In Africa not very many elections against incumbents are won at the polls; unless there is overwhelming wind of change that sweeps across, not just the people, but through the holders of true power as well.”
Although Museveni might be unpopular in certain quarters, he still maintains a tight grip on power in the landlocked East African country.
The Executive is firmly in his control since he is mandated by the country’s constitution to wield Executive power. The Judiciary serves under his beck and call and the 457-member legislature has a history of acting in not just preserving itself, but in preserving itself under the shadow of the president who has been in power for three-and-a-half decades.
In 2017, against what was then thought to be popular will, MPs openly voted 317-97 to turn into law a Bill that sought to scrap presidential age limits.
If the amendments to the then existing laws were not passed, Museveni would have been ineligible to vie for the Thursday vote. From the 2017 amendment, it was clear that Museveni, who was then 71, was not ready to surrender the reins of the country.
Since then his grip on power has tightened. He has also made a steady but sure attempt to clip the wings of opposition to his rule, particularly cutting Wine’s influence down to size.
According to Worldmeters, Uganda is one of the countries with the world’s youngest populations, with 77 per cent of its people under 30. The country’s median age is 17 years. Last year the nation’s electoral body announced that over 1 million new voters would not participate in tomorrow’s polls.
The electoral commission said at the time it did not have the resources or time to register new voters, as they were busy rolling out the electoral process for the vote.
“In the run-up to the 2021 elections, Uganda’s government has systematically cracked down on rights of political opposition, human rights defenders, civil society actors and journalists in what is likely to undermine the prospects of a free and fair election,” read a statement by the Uganda Election Watch Group.
The group accuses Museveni’s government of weaponising the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic by using health containment regulations as excuse “to violate the rights of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”
Over the months leading to the poll, Uganda’s Judiciary and other administrative state institutions have also come under scrutiny as opposition politicians fill court rooms on trumped up charges.
But as a heavily policed Kampala braces itself for the possibility of chaos, pockets of pro-Museveni support still exist. These are what will make it increasingly difficult to unseat the incumbent.
About 74 per cent of the country’s population lives in rural areas. It is from this population that Museveni has over the years found his biggest and most fervent supporters. Only 11 million of Uganda’s 45 million people live in urban areas that have, over the many elections that Museveni has contested, been the epicentres for opposition politics and confrontation between the State and agitators for regime change.
For the rural population Museveni first represented liberation and development. It is under his watch that large parts of the country became food secure, got access to electricity and potable water. Hence there is a section that will forever be loyal, and prefer another Museveni term.
Tomorrow’s polls will still pose an ironical question to Museveni and his supporters. Observers have touted this election as having the hallmarks of a rigged contest, yet Museveni’s ascension to power was on the back of his, and other like-minded individuals, protest of a rigged election.
In 1980 Museveni ran for president and lost to Milton Obote. The elections were widely believed to have been rigged. Museveni and former president Yusufu Lule formed the National Resistance Movement. Museveni led the armed NRM’s National Resistance Army, which waged a guerrilla war against Obote’s regime.
The resistance prevailed, and on January 26, 1986 Museveni declared himself president of Uganda. He was elected on May 9, 1996, and his backers won control of Parliament in legislative elections that followed.
Museveni was reelected in 2001 and in 2006 after constitutional amendment passed the previous year eliminated established term limits for presidency. He was again elected in 2011 and 2016.