For keen observers of Ugandan politics, the results of the 14 January election were a foregone conclusion. President Yoweri Museveni, 76, who has ruled the East African country since 1986, was always expected to be declared the winner. The strategy of the main opposition, led by pop star-turned-politician Robert Kyagulanyi, 38, who uses his stage name Bobi Wine, was to mobilise his supporters on a massive scale through social media and overwhelm any attempts at fraud.
Building on the keen interest and support from media across the globe and lobbyists for his candidature, Wine and his team went to great lengths to expose Museveni’s underhanded tactics in the run-up to the election. Every human rights violation was on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media networks, creating an avalanche of international support.
Attempts by Museveni to put an end to the race using draconian Covid-19 guidelines failed, even though these measures affected the opposition badly given their parties’ limited resources and reliance on massive campaign rallies to mobilise their supporters. The move to selectively enforce these guidelines resulted in more police and military brutality, which Wine’s team exploited and exposed with great ease.
The evidence was there for everyone to see. Museveni, once touted as part of a new breed of African leaders promoting good governance and democracy, was now cast as a cut-throat dictator who had no qualms about killing his opponents to remain in power.
Since Kizza Besigye first challenged the president in 2001, Museveni’s government has killed, jailed, maimed and “disappeared” opponents to his rule. This time around, however, his opponent’s reliance on the internet and social media to organise and expose the regime proved difficult for Museveni until late in Wine’s campaign.
Having fired senior electoral commission staff who played a key part in his victory in the last election, Museveni, who is not shy to express his lack of confidence in the police, turned to the military. He deployed his battle-hardened generals from wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and Somalia to lead security efforts across the country.
He appointed Paul Lokech, a major general referred to as the lion of Mogadishu for his role in stabilising the war-torn Somali capital, as the deputy inspector general of the police. Museveni also reinstalled his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who many say is being groomed to take over from him, as the commander of the elite Special Forces Command, which guards the president. Kainerugaba retained his role as a senior adviser to his father as well.
Control of the internet
But Wine and other opposition activists kept pushing ahead – to the consternation of Museveni, who seemed to be losing control of the narrative around the elections. Earlier, the government had written to Google asking it to block anti-regime YouTube accounts. In some cases, the government was right because some of these accounts had Ugandan pundits living abroad promoting hate speech and other violations. Also, the November protests and riots that had left more than 54 people dead had in part been exacerbated by messages on social media. The overriding intention of the move, however, was to hamper Wine’s most effective campaign tools. Google declined.
In the week leading up to the election, several measures targeting internet use were put in place. First, the internet was slowed in the country. The government then moved on 9 January to block digital distribution platforms such as Google’s Play Store to prevent people from downloading VPNs to get around the expected blocking of social media. These actions might have caused a bit of panic, but most Ugandans had got a taste of it five years earlier when, during the 2016 polls, Uganda blocked social media on polling day, leaving an unprepared population in an information blackout.
A subsequent social media tax, which Museveni defended as a way of dealing with online rumour-mongering, pushed millions of Ugandans who opposed the tax to VPNs. Facebook had also thwarted a campaign by a group of regime supporters using the platform to manipulate public discourse. Neither Museveni nor his handlers were amused and didn’t shy away from making it known.
Hours before the polls, it was clear that nothing would work except a total internet shutdown. The regime’s survival depended on total control of the country, while the opposition strategy was to drive it to make more mistakes and then expose these. Museveni, who has been involved in liberation struggles in Africa since the 1960s, would not take any chances and allow a potential insurrection. He shut down internet services, restoring them only more than 100 hours later, although social media platforms still remained blocked outside the use of VPNs this past weekend.
Wine may have been the exciting new kid on the block in attempting to dismantle an entrenched regime of close to 35 years, but Museveni largely stuck to the script that has kept him in power, and it proved successful.
Aftermath of the polls
Museveni’s conduct in the days after the election results were announced provides an insight into what he is likely going to do. In a televised address to the nation, he talked tough, accusing the foreign media and other “agents” of meddling in Uganda’s affairs.
The international media has always been interested in Uganda’s polls given their news value owing to state-sanctioned brutality, but 2021 was unprecedented, especially the interest in Wine. Only a handful of international journalists were accredited to cover the election after the government issued new requirements just weeks before the polls.
In 2016, Museveni confined Besigye to his home for three months after the election while people “cooled off and moved on”. Unlike Wine, Besigye didn’t generate much interest from the West and was not keen on propagating it. He insisted that although help was welcome, Uganda would be liberated from the jaws of Museveni by Ugandans. His attempts to assert what he termed his “victory” by being unofficially sworn in as the “people’s president” were met with decisive brutality.
Besigye, who insisted that he had incontrovertible evidence that the election had been stolen from him, was not allowed to petition the court for relief. Former prime minister Amama Mbabazi, who came in third in that race with 1.43% of the votes, was allowed to challenge the results in court, albeit unsuccessfully. Mbabazi has since cozied up to Museveni again and is expected to play a key role in shaping what remains of his presidency.
Besigye was also charged with treason, an offence punishable by death. To date, the trial is yet to commence. Like anti-apartheid-era politicians who used the courts to make political statements, Besigye had planned to use them to introduce evidence that would put Museveni’s victory on trial. But Museveni did not take the bait. This background is important to understand how the post-election fight is likely to play out. Already, the military has confined Wine to his home about an hour outside the capital of Kampala. What remains of his team has already reported the theft of some results declaration forms that are necessary to challenge the election’s outcome. In dealing with a new and unpredictable opponent, Museveni has – so far – relied on his old tricks used to fend off his most formidable challenger in two decades, who is not Bobi Wine but Besigye.