GP Insights # 460, 16 January 2021
On 16 January, the incumbent president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, won a sixth term with 58.64 per cent of the votes. However, the main opposition candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, alleged that the elections were rigged. On the same day, security forces had surrounded Wine's house.
On 14 January, Uganda held its elections under heavy security presence as political tensions soared high between Museveni and Wine. Apart from complaints of technical issues and delay in the polling process, the election day remained largely peaceful.
On 12 January, Museveni announced a ban on social media. His announcement was in retaliation to Facebook's decision to suspend several official accounts the previous day. However, the ban on social media extended to an internet blackout subsequently.
On 11 January, Facebook suspended several accounts of government officials and members of the ruling party, alleging that the accounts engaged in "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" and "manipulating the public debate." In response, Museveni's senior press secretary accused Facebook of attempting to influence the elections.
What is the background?
First, the refusal by authoritarian leaders to step down. Museveni has been in power for 34 years; in 2021, he claimed that his governance expertise would make him the ideal candidate. Till date, Africa has witnessed several authoritarian regimes lasting for decades. For example, in 2020, Alassane Ouattara and Alpha Condé of Ivory Coast and Guinea respectively won their third terms by introducing constitutional amendments favouring them.
Second, Wine's popularity and volatile election campaigns. His campaign represented the ethnically and economically marginalized communities which made him a popular choice among the youth (under 30) which constitutes around 75 per cent of the population.
Third, stifling traditional and social media. During the election campaigns, journalists covering the Wine campaign were targeted by security forces. In December 2020, the government ordered all journalists to register with the Uganda Media Council; without accreditation from the Council, journalists were not allowed to cover political news. It also requested Google to take down 14 YouTube channels alleging that they fuelled the November violence. Authoritarian regimes in Africa feel threatened by mobilization of masses through social media.
Fourth, targeting the opposition. Since the campaigns kicked off in Uganda, hundreds of Wine supporters and his campaign officials were detained on several occasions. Similarly, other opposition candidates were also arrested. In the pretext of COVID-19, the government called for online campaigns, thereby putting those with lower funds at a disadvantage.
What does it mean?
First, Museveni's win places him along with the long-term rulers in the rest of Africa who came to power as reformists but retained presidency through various means, legal or illegal. However, the victory was not easy; Museveni's relentless crackdown on Wine's campaign was an indicator that he underestimated Wine's popularity, which stems from Uganda's changing demographics.
Second, Wine previously urged his supporters to reject the early results, which showed a clear lead for Museveni. How the opposition leaders decide to address this dispute — whether they will boycott the results or approach the court — will decide their political standing. In various instances, boycotting the results has only led to the winners staying in power. However, Wine is likely to remain a popular figure in Ugandan politics for the coming years.