Official results indicate that President Yoweri Museveni will extend his 35-year rule in Uganda. But the contested election, marred by fraud claims, illustrated many citizens’ frustration with his administration. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Murithi Mutiga explains why the path ahead will be rocky.
What do the results indicate?
Ugandan election authorities announced on 16 January that President Yoweri Museveni had secured a sixth term in office, claiming 58.64 per cent of the vote. His main challenger, Robert Kyagulanyi, best known by his stage name Bobi Wine, received 34.83 per cent of ballots, according to official tallies. Wine immediately rejected the results, denouncing the election as marred by widespread fraud. In a lengthy televised address after the tallies were released, Museveni thanked voters and claimed that the outcome reflected the will of the people.
The playing field going into the vote could scarcely have been more uneven. Even by the low standards of recent Ugandan elections, the 2021 election cycle stood out for the brazenness of official attempts to intimidate the opposition and the ferocity of the police response to protests. Hundreds of opposition supporters, human rights activists and journalists were detained during the campaign and a number kidnapped, according to local media reports and rights groups. Opposition leader Wine was arrested multiple times and one of his aides killed during the campaign, reportedly after an army truck ran over him.
The bloodiest episode came in the third week of November, when protests erupted in many parts of the capital Kampala following one of Wine’s arrests. Police responded with lethal force. At least 54 were killed in a 48-hour period, mostly by police bullets. Officials also barred many election observers from taking part, denied some foreign media outlets accreditation and shuttered the internet on the eve of the election. The opposition said the internet shutdown was designed to thwart their efforts to compile a parallel tally. They said they would soon table evidence of widespread electoral manipulation, including video evidence showing pre-marked ballots in some polling centres.
Why were these elections more hotly contested than past ones?
Bobi Wine, the 38-year-old musician-turned-politician, provided Museveni with a challenge unlike any he had confronted before. Wine assembled a cast of popular musicians to channel into song widespread frustration with Museveni’s rule, electrifying audiences among urban youth in particular that might otherwise have sat out the political process. He also turned the lopsided political environment on its head, countering repression with ever-more creative, low-cost methods that further endeared him to his supporters.
He was largely locked out of mainstream TV and radio. Instead, he set up a number of free online channels whose live broadcasts of his rallies drew tens of thousands of viewers. His snappy social media posts provided a stark contrast to Museveni’s hours-long evening addresses in mainstream media. Aggressive police action against him also boomeranged on the authorities. A day after officers shot at Wine’s vehicle on a campaign stop, the candidate began appearing in public dressed in a bulletproof vest, dramatically illustrating the risks he was taking and further entrenching his support.
His campaign brought dividends in the parliamentary vote. His National Unity Party (NUP) secured 61 seats, an impressive haul for an outfit formed only six months ago. It will now be the second biggest party in parliament (Museveni’s ruling party won 310 seats) and an NUP party nominee will take the post of official opposition leader. The party completed a near-sweep of parliamentary seats in Kampala and in much of central Uganda. It and the other major opposition outfit, the Forum for Democratic Change, which won 29 seats, also unseated more than a dozen ministers from Museveni’s incumbent government.
What’s likely to come next?
Opposition protests are likely in the days ahead. Kampala was mostly calm on 17 January, a day after results were released, and on 18 January when authorities restored internet access. The internet shutdown during balloting rendered it difficult for the opposition to mobilise and most people stayed home, amid a massive police and army presence.
A few sporadic protests reportedly took place in some districts of Kampala after tallies were announced but protesters were quickly dispersed. The next few days almost certainly will see more substantial protests. In a BBC radio interview, Wine said he and his supporters would pursue all options to overturn what he termed a stolen election, including peaceful protests.
Authorities are liable to respond to any demonstrations with force. Museveni has shuffled the leadership of his security forces in recent weeks, placing loyalists in key posts. Officers who fought in Somalia and took part in the 2010-2012 urban warfare that ousted Al-Shabaab from that country’s capital Mogadishu, where Ugandan soldiers are deployed as part of an African Union mission, now hold key posts at home, including that of deputy inspector general of police and commander of the security forces in Kampala. Museveni’s son Muhoozi Kainerugaba was in mid-December appointed head of the special forces, an elite force that guards the president.
The army and police have engaged in a show of force over the past few days. Snipers were placed on rooftops, helicopters buzzed overhead in Kampala most hours of the day and soldiers patrolled in armoured personnel carriers. Before the results were announced, police deployed to the homes of several opposition candidates, including Wine, and barred visitors. Wine reported that the police badly beat an opposition MP who tried to enter his home.
What are the implications for Uganda’s future?
The election, in which Museveni received his lowest percentage of the vote since multiparty elections were reintroduced in 1996, has once again highlighted deep frustration at the incumbent’s rule, primarily among the country’s youth. Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world with 78 per cent of the population below 30 and a median age of just sixteen. Many young people see Museveni as the face of an out-of-touch gerontocracy unable to meet the needs of the country’s masses of unemployed. These frustrations, tapped adroitly by Wine, who made pursuing solutions to unemployment the centrepiece of his campaign, are likely to reverberate throughout the last years of Museveni’s presidency.
The immediate priority will be to ensure that protests are not met by brute force. Uganda’s partners, including the incoming Biden administration in the U.S. and the European Union, should strongly urge Museveni to restrain the security forces from using live ammunition in response to protests. They should further call for the release of all opposition supporters detained merely for backing Wine and the safe return of those that have gone missing. In a welcome first step, Biden’s nominee for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, warned the authorities that the world was watching and that “Bobi Wine [and his] supporters should not be harmed”.
International actors should sustain that pressure. The opposition has thus far exercised considerable restraint and vowed to pursue only peaceful methods of protest. In a welcome move, Wine promised to go to court to press the NUP’s claims that the vote was tainted by widespread fraud. This step is wise. Even if Uganda’s courts rarely rule against the executive in matters of real import, the court challenge could offer Wine and his team the chance to demonstrate the election was unfair, which would win them a notable moral victory at home and beyond.
The more difficult issue is a longer-term one: succession management. At 76, Museveni is unlikely to be in a position to secure a seventh mandate in 2026. After coming to power in 1986, following a guerrilla campaign, Museveni was widely hailed for bringing stability, for presiding over a period of economic growth and for one of the continent’s most effective responses to the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Even today, older Ugandans who recall the turmoil of the 1970s back him. So, too, do farmers who appreciate efforts to improve infrastructure that have opened up markets for their produce in neighbouring countries such as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. Still, for many Ugandans, the overwhelming impulse is one of frustration. The longer he has stayed in power, the more Museveni has relied on patronage politics, breeding a bloated, ineffective government with one of the largest cabinets on the continent. State-driven spending has fuelled economic growth but failed to spur employment even as the security forces have grown ever-more undisciplined and predatory.
Ideally, Museveni would signal early on that his sixth term will be his last and, if he is to mollify the opposition, show he is willing to accept a succession process that is fairer than the election he just presided over. As Crisis Group reported in 2017, Uganda is stuck in a downward spiral of declining governance, poor economic management and local insecurity. These problems could grow worse in the years ahead, particularly as suspicion heightens that Museveni seeks to engineer a succession to his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the special forces commander. Instability in Uganda would have negative consequences for a region in which Kampala is a central security and political actor, influential in countries ranging from South Sudan to Somalia, Burundi and the DRC.
To prevent this outcome, Museveni should draw the right lessons from a campaign that has revealed in stark terms his growing unpopularity. His young challenger, or indeed a similar candidate in the future, is likely to continue to draw strong support from the street. If Museveni seeks another term, he could face an even stronger challenge next time around, and so could any successor he might anoint. Uganda’s Catholic bishops have already called for a broad-based national dialogue. Such a process might offer the president a venue in which to pledge not to seek a new mandate and discuss institutional reforms that will level the playing field for the time when the succession election comes around.