Uganda's Election Loser Now Has the World's Attention


Bobi Wine was being overly optimistic when he declared that the world was watching Uganda’s Jan. 14 general election. Even had it not been distracted by the drama of the U.S. election aftermath, the world still would have found it hard to watch the vote in Uganda, since it took place amid an internet blackout imposed by President Yoweri Museveni’s government.

But it was possible to guess what was happening based on the tense run-up to the election, which pitted Museveni against Wine, a reggae-star-turned-politician whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi.

Throughout the campaign, security forces openly intimidated the challenger and his supporters, frequently resorting to deadly violence. This suggested that Museveni, seeking to extend his grip on power into a fourth decade, was not sure he could win a fair contest. Not only was the country’s internet shut down, but procedural difficulties ensured European and American election monitors would not be present. There were observers from the African Union and the East African Community, organizations not distinguished for standing up to strongmen like Museveni.

By the time his government restored Internet service on Monday — four days after the vote — Museveni was already declared the winner of the presidential election, with 59% of votes to Wine’s 34%. For good measure, the challenger was besieged at home by security forces.

But if Museveni was able to conceal the conduct of the contest, he will struggle to control the consequences. International criticism of the election is mounting. The top American diplomat on Africa has declared the vote “fundamentally flawed.” Britain has called for an investigation into allegations of fraud. And President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has demanded that “those who perpetrate political violence must be held accountable.” (As of this writing, neither the AU nor the EAC had expressed an opinion.)

Sullivan’s statement echoed Wine’s remonstrance that “the world is watching.” This time, Museveni can count on it.

Much now will depend on what Wine does with the international attention. He has resolved to challenge the result in court, but that will be hard to pull off while he is, in effect, under house arrest. Museveni’s main rival in the 2016 election, Kizza Besigye, was similarly constrained. The third-placed candidate back then appealed to Uganda’s supreme court, where the judges acknowledged election malpractice but declined to nullify the result

Wine might consider bringing his supporters into the street for mass protests, especially if allegations of vote rigging strike a chord with Ugandans. That would serve as a barometer of the loyalty of the security forces: They cracked down on small opposition gatherings before the election, when Museveni was dismissing Wine as a fringe figure. Would they do the same now that the strength of his following has been demonstrated?

And then there’s parliament, where Museveni’s ruling party, the National Resistance Movement, lost considerable ground to Wine’s National Unity Platform. Although the NRM will likely stay in the majority, the momentum is clearly with the opposition, which swept most of the key contests, defeating a large number of cabinet ministers and senior Museveni allies. The NUP will be represented in parliamentary committees that oversee the functions of the government, giving Wine plenty of opportunity to attack and embarrass the president.

Museveni will also have to be more watchful than usual over his party. For the more astute members of the NRM, and especially the new generation of MPs, the defeat of his staunch loyalists is a lesson that presidential patronage is no longer a vote-spinner. They will also have noted Wine’s strong support among young Ugandans; to appeal to that constituency, they may have to distance themselves from a septuagenarian leader diminished by international opprobrium.

Finally, the strong showing by Wine and the NUP will have removed any lingering doubts that the musician is now a major player in Uganda’s political mainstream, worthy of consideration from donors as well as voters. For all Museveni’s claims of victory, it is Bobi Wine that the world will be watching. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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