Museveni has defeated over 20 armed insurgencies, frustrated his electoral opponents to the point of resignation and adopted a militarist posture that sends the message that participating in demonstration against his rule may be a death sentence.
At the close of last year, the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) – in dramatic fashion – reclaimed the chair of Kayunga District, with its candidate being controversially declared winner of the by-election held on December 16, 2021.
Early returns had indicated that the National Unity Platform’s (NUP) Harriet Nakwedde was set to beat NRM’s Andrew Muwonge to the chair, but in the dead of the results tallying night, things turned on the head as the ruling party’s candidate started posting sweeping results. An attempt by the NUP’s electoral agent to contest some of the results led to him being thrown out of the tally centre by the police before Muwonge was eventually declared winner. The NUP claimed they had collected all the results declaration forms from polling stations and had evidence that their candidate had won.
In the lead up to the voting, President Museveni had laid a marker that what would obtain in that election would be something to write home about. On the final day of campaigns, he proceeded to the central Uganda district – which has seen a lot of land grabbing in recent decades – to campaign for his party’s candidate without any ambiguity as to who was boss. Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine, his stiffest challenger in last year’s election and leader of the NUP, had been locked up at his home by the security forces, ensuring that he would not be in the district on the same day to create an alternative center of attention.
Museveni moved with Judith Nabakooba, the minister of Lands, who in the presence of her boss was on hand to start the distribution of land titles to some residents of Kayunga who had been threatened by land grabbing. A few more promises were made and in a bid to reclaim a district which earlier that year had voted for an NUP chairperson (the late Muhammad Ffeffekka Sserubogo), Museveni took a stab at the disunity among the leaders of his party in Kayunga.
As the results were declared, Kayunga was teeming with soldiers and policemen, who before election day had arrested most of the NUP leaders who had come from outside the district to offer support to their party’s candidate while high profile NRM people, including Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja, had spent weeks scouring the district for votes. There was no room for protest after the declaration, and some disgruntled voters were reduced to muttering bytes to newsmen, charging that in their opinion the wrong person had been declared winner.
Crushing the spirit of protest
We underline the point that there were no protests over the results that were declared in Kayunga last month, because Bobi Wine had on so many occasions in the preceding year vowed that the Electoral Commission would have no option but to declare the candidates of his party winners whenever they won lest ‘people power’ would be unleashed on the country.
When Bobi Wine emerged on the political scene in 2017, protests and demonstrations had for a number of years been the tool of choice against Museveni’s rule. There had been debilitating protests before, most notably the 2009 Buganda protests – which coincidently happened because the government had blocked the Kabaka of Buganda from visiting Kayunga – but the idea of resorting to protests as a tool of challenging Museveni’s rule mostly took root from the walk-to-work protests in 2011, when a section of Ugandans on the urging of opposition forces ostensibly rose up against rising fuel and commodity prices. The 2011 protests happened on the back of another disputed election, and since Dr Kizza Besigye, who had been Museveni’s stiffest challenger in that election, was the face of the protests, it is safe to conclude that they were an extension of the murky electoral politics.
Buoyed by his star power, when Bobi Wine arrived on the scene he threatened to be a new rallying force and the fulcrum around whom future protests would be coordinated, in much the same way Besigye had been before him. But Museveni made it clear from the start that the artiste-cum-politician would be firmly handled.
During a parliamentary by-election in Arua Municipality in December 2018, Bobi Wine carried out a procession through the town with the arrogance only a new kid on the block could muster. After addressing the final rally in favour of eventual winner Kassiano Wadri, Bobi Wine was driving through the town when he chanced on a rally that Dr Besigye was addressing, organized by the Forum for Democratic Change’s (FDC) Bruce Musema. Standing atop his SUV with his music blaring, Bobi Wine called on the people Besigye was addressing to join his procession. Besigye coolly urged his audience to keep calm and let Bobi Wine’s procession continue on their way.
Later that evening, Bobi Wine’s procession is said to have come face to face with Museveni’s convoy, who was also in the district to campaign for his party’s candidate, Nusura Tiperu. Unlike in the case of Bobi Wine’s encounter with Besigye’s rally, which was captured on camera and footage released, there is no similar video record of what happened during Bobi Wine’s encounter with Museveni’s convoy. But by the time it all ended, Yasin Kawuma, who was Bobi Wine’s driver, had been shot dead by government soldiers inside one of Bobi Wine’s cars outside a hotel in Arua Town. Bobi Wine, several other MPs and other leaders were arrested and charged with multiple offenses. Scores bore marks of torture when they were eventually released.
Fast forward to November 18, 2020. Bobi Wine was arrested in faraway Luuka District in the middle of the election campaign and his fans in Kampala and some other towns rose up. The army and the police swiftly got into action and, according to official numbers, 54 Ugandans were killed, at least 52 by shooting by government soldiers and policemen. The government carried out its own investigation and concluded that at least 20 of those shot dead by its own armed personnel were not participating in the protests but were just caught up in the melee.
The government has until now not paid compensation or even apologised to their families. One would imagine it would have been easy for the government to empathise with the families of those it admits were just going about their business when they were caught up in the fracas and shot dead. And, of course, even those that the government says were shot dead while participating in protests – which it prefers to call riots – were not supposed to be shot dead extra-judicially.
The posture that Museveni’s government – in fact armed forces – has taken towards popular protests must be analysed. And the accurate conclusion is most probably that Museveni took the decision to be feared than loved.
That is why the security forces have most unkindly crushed protests in recent times, sending the signal to Ugandans who would entertain the thought that Museveni can be removed from power through protests to rethink their approach.
Towards the end of last year, Besigye and some other activists launched what they called the Red Card Front, urging Ugandans to rise up against Museveni, whose time they said was up. The initiative hasn’t got much traction. Even when fuel prices rose exponentially this month because of a policy misjudgment by the Ministry of Health regarding testing truck drivers for covid-19 before they are allowed into the country, no one rose up to protest. In the years gone by, such an occurrence would be fuel for protests.
As Museveni marks 36 years in power today, again, there will be no one rising up to show displeasure at his rule. This routinely happened in the recent past. There may be other factors to explain that, but the most important one is that Ugandans are more afraid to protest against Museveni’s rule today than they have ever been.
What happened to elections
Protests led to the overthrow of rulers in North Africa in what came to be called the Arab Spring, ushering in a decade of hope among Museveni’s challengers that what had happened in countries like Egypt, Tunisia or even Libya could happen in Uganda. This was after they realised that Museveni could not lose power through elections, just like some of the rulers of North Africa, like Hosni Mubarak, who were routinely declared winners of elections but were then swept away by popular protests. Museveni, of course, argues that the claims of vote rigging against him are unfounded, peddled by a frustrated opposition that has failed to rally the country to defeat him at the polls.
To understand what happens in Uganda’s elections, we deemed it fit to look at some perceptions Ugandans hold about the processes, as captured by researchers. Afrobarometer, a pan-African survey project that operates in dozens of countries and has kept its fingers on the pulse of public opinion since the turn of the century, conducted a survey in the lead up to the 2021 election to, among other things, ascertain what Ugandans thought about the conduct of elections.
The survey showed that 51% of Ugandans feared ‘becoming a victim of political intimidation or violence’ during the election campaigns, up from 49% in 2015 and 37% in 2011. Last year’s survey again showed that a much higher proportion of Ugandans (61%) felt that opposition parties or their supporters are often or always silenced by the government
Only 29% of the respondents felt that the treatment of all candidates by the police and other security agencies had been free or fair, and just 33% felt that the coverage of all candidates by government media had been balanced. Less than half (48%) of the respondents felt that the private media had offered balanced coverage of all candidates.
Just over one third of the respondents (34%) believed that all candidates had been free to hold rallies, while only 36% of the respondents felt that the electoral officials had afforded fair and equal treatment to all the candidates and parties.
Ominously, none of the key institutions charged with managing the election had at least half of the respondents trusting them to do the right thing. The Electoral Commission, the foremost body in this regard, had only 48% of the respondents saying that they trusted it.
The courts of law (49%), the police (47%), the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (49%), and the presidency (47%) all commanded trust by less than half of the respondents. The ruling NRM party (45%) and the opposition political parties (44%) were not trusted enough either.
On whether the respondents think the Electoral Commission favours particular people, parties or interests, 57% of the respondents agreed in the survey that done before the 2021 election.
According to Afrobarometer data, support for elections as the best method of choosing leaders is still high (78% in 2021) but dropping, since it stood at 88% in 2011. When Afrobarometer asked the respondents whether they thought the election would be free and fair, only 44% of answered in the affirmative.
One of the long running complaints about elections under Museveni concerns the tallying of results. Over the years, irregularities at most polling stations seem to have been minimised. Candidates’ agents and voters, except in isolated cases, routinely witness the opening of voting materials in the morning and ensure that the ballot box is empty before voting starts. The voting exercise then proceeds throughout the day, with agents and others present ensuring that each voter is handed one ballot paper to cast their vote for the candidate of their choice. The ballot box is then opened and ballots cast for each candidate counted in the open and the results declared there and then.
Most Ugandans, therefore, believe that the results that are declared at polling stations are accurate. In the lead up to the 2021 election, Afrobarometer asked the respondents whether they thought the vote counting at the polling stations would be accurate. Over three quarters of the respondents (76%) answered in the affirmative. But then the results were very different when the same respondents were asked whether the final vote tally at the national level would be accurate. Only 34% of the respondents had hope that the final tally would accurately reflect what had been declared at the polling stations.
There has been intense debate over the years on whether the results that are declared at the polling stations are accurately tallied to arrive at what is finally announced by the Electoral Commission. During the 2011 elections, Besigye contested the results that were declared, saying that the final tally had been fiddled with.
The Deepening Democracy Programme (DDP), which was funded by the European Union and was later expanded to become the Democratic Governance Facility (DGF), commissioned statisticians to sample the results that the Electoral Commission had declared per polling station to establish whether they had been altered. Nicolas de Torrente, who was the coordinator of the DDP programme at the time, told me that they found that the results from all the polling stations sampled matched with what had been declared at the polling stations.
Besigye, in response, claimed that the vote rigging machinery had become so advanced that they no longer needed to change results from the established polling stations, because it would be easy for voters to follow up and establish that the results from their respective polling stations had been changed. Instead, he said, the vote rigging machinery now engages in ‘vote manufacturing’, perhaps creating fictitious polling stations at which Museveni is allocated very high numbers of votes to make up for then difference that might have arisen from the real polling stations.
After the 2016 election, Besigye led a team of journalists and some of his party officials to a house in Naguru, Kampala, where he claimed a secret tally centre had been set up to do the fiddling with results before the results were forwarded to the Electoral Commission’s tally centre. I was among the journalists who went to the scene and on arrival at the heavily guarded facility with men dressed in police uniform in view, two police trucks arrived and despite Besigye telling the officer who commanded them that he suspected a vote rigging operation to be happening inside the property and asked for a search to be conducted, the policemen forced him into his car and got him driven to his home.
In the 2011 elections that led to serious scrutiny on the conduct of elections in Uganda, Museveni was declared winner with 68% of the vote, with Besigye coming a distant second with 26%. The election had happened against a backdrop of a failed push for electoral reforms, which the US government had been vocal about but had abandoned after deadly bombings in Kampala that were said to have been carried out by al-Shabaab militants. To win the election, Museveni had opened the vaults and poured money into the country, with the Bank of Uganda Governor Emmanuel Tumusiime-Mutebile, who died this week, complaining about it in an interview with a foreign newspaper.
The spirit of the opposition players seemed completely crushed after the heavy loss that had been declared, and Museveni appeared unassailable. But the enormous amounts of money that had been poured into the economy came back to bite Museveni, occasioning on the country a heavy dose of inflation. The opposition players led by Besigye seized the opportunity to call for protests – what came to be known as the walk-to-work protests – and dumped Museveni into unexpected panic. It took a good measure of use of force and soft power to infiltrate the walk-to-work camp and finally break it up. They were the longest running protests in the country’s history.
To further understand what happens in elections under Museveni, the DDP programme sponsored a project by local and international scholars interested in Uganda to research on the election and citizens’ views.
The book that resulted – Elections in a Hybrid Regime: Revisiting the 2011 Ugandan Polls – in general concluded that Ugandans generally had come to a conclusion that Museveni could not be removed from power through elections.
The mantra that Museveni could not be removed from power through elections had already been picked up by Besigye. Having unsuccessfully taken on his former boss in 2001, Besigye challenged the outcome in the Supreme Court and lost on a split decision, fleeing into exile on the back of intense persecution. He returned to the country and contested for the presidency again in 2006, with similar results including a recourse to the Supreme Court and losing in similar fashion.
After the Supreme Court decision of 2006, Besigye declared that he would never return to the courts to challenge a declared Museveni victory, and warned that the system had made it so difficult to challenge and defeat Museveni that those who may be aggrieved against Museveni in the future could end up adopting methods similar to what Museveni had employed in 1980 when he was party to an election that was said to be rigged. In making this statement, Besigye was, not for the first time, making reference to a possibility of the country experiencing another war to remove Museveni from power.
But as the years wore on and the 2011 elections neared, Besigye became a powerful campaigner against armed resistance against Museveni, saying that he had realised that there were no good guns and bad guns. Taking up arms to remove a bad government, he has consistently argued since then, destroys the civic strength of a society and tilts the balance of power in favour of the new gunmen who take over. And since power cannot democratise itself, he argues, the new gunmen become the masters and the citizens the servants, instead of the other way round. The best way to tackle Museveni, Besigye has argued since then, is to build the citizens’ civic competence and stand them in good stead to assert their will.
So, after Besigye was nominated to run for president for a fourth time in 2016, he told the Electoral Commission that he did not expect them to declare him winner after that process. He said the Electoral Commission, the police, army and other bodies of state work to ensure that Museveni keeps power, but that he was in that election to work with Ugandans to defeat Museveni and the state. Besigye consistently adds that the process of fighting Museveni does not end when the electoral period ends, for in his opinion what happens under Museveni are not elections in the true sense of the word, but opportunities to interact with Ugandans at close quarters since such chances are not routinely available to the opposition outside election campaigns.
Enter Bobi Wine
When Bobi Wine arrived at the scene in the lead up to the 2021 elections, Besigye had started to sound like a broken record in the estimation of those who want Museveni out. In the eyes of some of them, some of Besigye’s statements were even contradictory. The election was drawing closer but Besigye was telling Ugandans not to be excited by what he called Museveni’s time table, saying it would end the same way as those before it had. Instead, Besigye said, Ugandans just had to organise and push out Museveni through popular protest, the same way it happened in North Africa a decade earlier.
Bobi Wine, on the other hand, sent out an unambiguous message, inviting Ugandans, especially the youth, to register in preparation to vote out Museveni in 2021. His hashtag – #WeAreRemovingADictator – took Twitter by storm. If democracy indeed didn’t work in Uganda, Bobi Wine argued, Besigye wouldn’t have stood against Museveni for four times. It is the weaknesses that Besigye’s challenge to Museveni had had that Bobi Wine had come to rectify. That was the spirit as the 2021 approached. To Besigye and his allies, Bobi Wine’s charged troops had one refrain, ‘you have nothing to tell us’. In the eyes of Bobi Wine’s largely youthful faithful, they had all the tools to fell the giant.
It is the enthusiasm that Museveni handled with a firm hand as we have seen above, with the latest act in the process being what happened in Kayunga at the turn of last year. After the general election last January, Bobi Wine filed a petition in the Supreme Court, claiming that the election had been stolen. He, however, did not even wait for the substantive petition to be heard, withdrawing it after losing on a few preliminary questions. He made statements to the effect that he had reached the same conclusion Besigye had reached 15 years earlier, that the courts cannot annul a declared Museveni election victory.
As things stand now, the forces opposed to Museveni are scattered and none of them seems sure as to what they should do next. During the 36 years Museveni has ruled Uganda, he has defeated at least 20 armed insurgencies and made it very dangerous to ponder armed rebellion against his rule. He has prevailed over his election opponents – most notably Dr Paul Kawanga Ssemogerere, Besigye and Bobi Wine – and caused so much frustration about elections that some of his opponents are now the first to admit that it is impossible to be declared winner in an election where Museveni is a candidate. He has also made it very dangerous to hold demonstrations against his rule, with death being a very real possibility on the part of those who participate.
And with age and term limits removed from the constitution, there is no legal bar to how long he can keep in office. The only issue now is that he has gotten pretty aged – 77 years old now – and nature will at some point take its course. It’s impossible to know whether there is anyone within his government who can bring up the issue of succession for discussion with Museveni, just as one cannot be sure whether it is a question to which he puts a lot of thought.
Over the years, Museveni shunted aside his bush war colleagues who fancied their chances of taking over from him, with the last being Amama Mbabazi. Mbabazi, after a disastrous shot at the presidency in 2016, slid into quietness but every now and again shows up with Museveni. But it is hard to know whether he is one person Museveni would consider as a successor. Most probably not.
These days the person who has stepped to stake claim to being the successor-in-waiting is Museveni’s own son, Lt. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who is the only soldier that unencumbered by the rules of the military and does and tweets as he wishes, including commenting on foreign affairs. Recently, Muhoozi visited Rwandan President Paul Kagame in what is assumed to be an attempt to de-escalate tensions between the two countries.
I asked Dr Moses Khisa, a Ugandan academic based in the US, what he thinks of Museveni’s longevity as the president marks 36 years in power. Khisa said: “Museveni has been adept at adapting to changing circumstances and tailoring his tactics to suit the challenge at present. He has been a deceptive politician when the situation warrants it, and a ruthless militarist when the conditions demand. He has never stuck to one line of thinking or strategy. In a sense, he has been running a marathon, slowing down at complicated bends and picking up pace when the stretch is good, while most of his challengers have failed to see the struggle against him as long and drawn-out.”
As it were, it is all largely about Museveni. He captured power in a country that was in a state of anarchy, consolidated and used it to subordinate the country to his will. The country is now waiting for what he will do next. It is the end of politics.