So, we ask: is Museveni ready to give up power if defeated in a free and fair election? Will Robert Kyagulanyi’s massive, youthful support allow all the rigging that is for all intents and purposes already happening to stand and allow the Emperor to call it business as usual? Is the country headed for some million march and a Ugandan Spring?
Uganda, electoral history and frustrated hopes
Uganda’s electoral history has been murky in the strictest sense of the word. During colonial days, there had been a tactical and conscious ethnic separation of powers by the British. Divide and rule, as this complex, artificial division of the country into social identity groups along cultural-ethnic lines is known, was the seeds of horizontal inequalities. It would also mean that when Ugandans had to engage in electoral politics as part of the pre and post-independence political process, all activities including elections would be largely sectarian. The formation of the first political parties in the decade that preceded Uganda’s independence, for instance, as Mutiibwa (2008) notes, underlined these sectarian divisions. “The Uganda National Congress (UNC), the first political party to be formed in Uganda, was not only Buganda-based but was also predominantly Protestant in leadership, which made it unattractive to both the non Baganda and the Catholics, the latter being the majority among the Christians in Uganda.” Buganda, the tribe and the Baganda, the people, are the largest ethnic group in Uganda.
Baganda, the people.
“When, in 1954, the Democratic party was formed, it too was not only Buganda-based in its initial stages, but was also staunchly Catholic in leadership.” The two political parties that would dominate Uganda’s politics for decades to come, the UNC later evolving into the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), had all been formed in Buganda, and with Buganda leadership. Later, KabakaYekka (King Only), another party, or movement, as it was referred to then, would be formed by the Mengo establishment, the seat of the powerful Kabaka (King) of the Baganda. This too, was very sectarian and formed with the sole purpose of fighting the politicians in the other two parties.
1962 – 1980 and the Obote Era
The first direct pre-independence elections were organized by the Colonial Government in March 1961, and the two main political parties, namely, the Democratic Party (DP) and the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) contested. Buganda Kingdom boycotted the elections, and insisted on its demand to have its representatives elected by its own local legislative assembly, The Lukiiko. DP won the elections with 43 seats, while UPC got 37 seats; hence DP formed the first ever internal self-government, headed by the Chief Minister, Benedict Kiwanuka. The elections were, however, considered unrepresentative because of Buganda’s boycott. The Colonial Government thus organized fresh elections for April 1962. The Buganda Kingdom was granted its request to hold indirect elections and its local assembly nominated 21 representatives to the National Assembly, who represented the Kabaka Yekka (KY) Party. This time DP won 24 seats, while UPC won 37 seats. UPC made an alliance with KY Party who had 21 representatives, and formed a UPC-KY government, headed by UPC’s Milton Obote as the first Prime Minister of Independent Uganda. Obote, a master tactician from the Langi tribe in Northern Uganda, had entered an unlikely alliance with Buganda-leaning politicians. He would even later appoint the Baganda King, the Kabaka, Sir Edward Mutesa, as head of state in 1963, only to subjugate him and his kingdom later in 1966 in a move that was soon to tear Uganda apart, leading to what was termed the “Buganda Crisis.”
Milton Obote as the first Prime Minister of Independent Uganda
Some historians have given Obote the benefit of the doubt and interpreted his actions as a sincere, if rather ambitious attempt, to use an election and accommodate the disparate ethnic groups on which Uganda was built. That he wanted to heal the divisions between the Bantu groups to the south, especially the Baganda, and the Nilotic and Sudanic groups of the north, such as the Acholi and Langi, to which Obote belonged. His critics however say that he had intentionally used the Kabaka and Buganda for the temporary necessity of a peaceful transition to independence, and was now isolating and eclipsing them. That he was instrumentally exploiting the tribally divided state of the nation for his political ambitions, and to advance group interests.
Obote’s disastrous intervention in Uganda’s elections would be repeated in 1980, on the only occasion Ugandans had gone to the polls since the 1962 independence elections. Although the 1962 Constitution had provided for holding elections after every five years, this did not happen; post-independence elections scheduled for 1967 were not held because of the effects of the political crisis of 1966, which saw the abolition of kingdoms in Uganda and establishment of a Republic. The anticipated elections of 1971 were cancelled by Idi Amin when he took power through a military coup, and abolished the Constitution. From 1971 until 1979, Uganda was ruled by decree. In the 1980 elections, organized after the overthrow of Idi Amin’s military regime by the Uganda National Liberation Front (UNLF) earlier in 1979, Obote surprised many Ugandans when he came back from exile in Tanzania to contest on the UPC ticket.
Idi Amin Dada
Four political parties participated in this election held on 10th and 11th December, 1980, namely, the Conservative Party (CP), formally KY, the Democratic Party (DP), the Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM) led by now incumbent Yoweri K. Museveni, and the Uganda Peoples’ Congress (UPC). The election was almost certainly rigged, and Obote returned to power after nine years; for at the closure of polling, Mr. Muwanga Paulo, the Chairman of the ruling Military Council, took over control of Electoral Commission, and declared he was the only one to announce the final election results. UPC was eventually declared winner of the elections; however, DP and UPM disputed the results, and the country was plunged once again into an anarchic civil war as Obote was to spend most of his second term (1981-85) fighting his rival Yoweri Museveni and other guerrilla groups who had launched an armed opposition to what they saw as Obote’s fraudulent regime. Obote’s UPC government was overthrown in a military coup on 25th July 1985, just as preparations for General Elections were underway. And in January 1986, the National Resistance Army (NRA), led by Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, overthrew the military government and established the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government.
The Museveni Era
The 1986 revolution that brought the incumbent Yoweri Museveni and the National Resistance Movement to power had promised so much in terms of security, individual freedoms, equality and sustainable development across the ethnic and political divide. NRM came up with the famous Ten Point Program, that included among other things: restoration of democracy, transparency and accountability, an end to sectarianism, unity, and an integrated and self-sustaining economy. The initial NRM government’s five-tier Local Council (LC) system had been seen as a transparent, honest and participatory, decentralized system of government. In the long run, however, the focus moved away from the socio-political empowerment of the grassroots to the LCs as the primary vehicles for popular participation in the ruling National Resistance Movement’s politics.
Uganda’s first general election in 16 years was held in 1996, under a no-party constitutional framework that came into effect in 1995.These were also the first direct presidential elections in the country. All candidates were independents under the rubric of individual merit, as political parties were banned at the time. Voter turnout was 72.3%, and the incumbent Yoweri Museveni won 75.5% of the vote. To be clear, not many Ugandans wanted to entrust the country to anyone other than Museveni given the direction the country was going at the time.
Uganda’s electoral exercise entered its current and ever worsening phase of fraudulent malpractices, intimidation and violence during the 2001 elections when Dr. Kizza Besigye, a former guerrilla and NRM cadre gave Mr Museveni his first real challenger in 15 years in office. Besigye had quit government and the army in protest, accusing the government of widespread corruption and diversion from the original objectives of the NRM. He also called for an end to Museveni’s “Movement” system, which he said had served its purpose as an instrument in Uganda ‘s political transition to multiparty democracy. Museveni was awarded over 70% of the vote although Besigye’s camp said “the overall picture is that this election has been grossly rigged by the incumbent – helped by the incompetence of the electoral commission.” Despite protests against the results, the outcome was accepted by the Supreme Court of Uganda. Besigye would challenge Museveni three more times in 2006, 2011 and 2016, all along as the flag bearer of the main opposition party the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), which he formed following the Political Parties and Organizations Act of 2005 which provided, among others, for the registration, regulation and organization of political parties and organizations.
Dr. Kizza Besigye,
There have always been other multiple contenders, although only Besigye had a real shot at the presidency. Likewise, he, more than any other contender, “has incurred the wrath of the NRM regime with trials, teargas, constant arrests, torture and blockades on his home.” In the intervening years Yoweri Museveni has deviated more and more from his youthful philosophical grasp of what Africa’s real problem is: “not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power.” He has twice either instigated amendments in the constitution to allow him to stay in power, or stood by as the majority NRM MPs endorsed the ideas of removing both presidential term limits in 2005, and the 75-year age limit in 2017. It has also been widely alleged that ruling party MPs were bribed in both cases to endorse the amendments. The latter move ensured that Museveni, even at 76, could stand for a sixth elective term. Critics say this was ultimately the NRM’s way to allow Mr Museveni to become president for life. But it also gave rise to the star of Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka Bobi Wine, who represented the accumulated anger, frustration and desperation of all forces, that have been unsuccessfully battling Mr. Yoweri Museveni clinging to power.
The youthful MP, fresh in parliament as an independent, was one of the leading opponents of the move to amend the constitution to remove age limits. Parliament passed the bill on December 20, 2017, but Kyagulanyi has never looked back. He has continued to campaign against corruption, patronage and the lack of clear policies by government for the future of over 75% of Ugandans under the age of 30. Kyagulanyi has, as expected, drawn the ire of Museveni whom he repeatedly and openly brands a dictator. As the main challenger to the president in the January 14th 2021 elections, Kyagulanyi continues to face the wrath of multiple security agencies. The question is, where does he and the country go from here?
2021 Elections and what lies ahead
It is persuasively clear that even though there are other serious contenders for Uganda’s presidency during the 2021 elections, the tightly contested race will eventually be between Mr. Yoweri Museveni and Mr. Robert Ssentamu Kyagulanyi. From the anecdotal evidence on the ground and recent events of violence, the electoral ground is not level and most likely there will be massive rigging and voter intimidation. If we were to judge by history, Mr Yoweri Museveni is neither prepared nor willing to hand over power. This is a worrying situation given that the youthful Mr. Robert Kyagulanyi with his army of disgruntled youth is not likely to accept a fraudulent election. It is also likely that the other contenders like Mr Patrick Amuraiat of FDC, Major General Henry Tumukunde and Major General Mugisha Muntu, might add their discontent to the cry on rigged elections. This scenario might bring back the memories of the 1980 rigged elections that provoked an armed rebellion that Mr. Yoweri Museveni led.
The difference between now and then is that there does not seem to be appetite for an armed rebellion, but rather the politics of massive uprising akin to the Arab Spring. The possibility of a Ugandan Spring cannot be ruled out, whose trajectory is difficult to predict right now. Dr. Besigye tried some street protests some taking the form of walk to work, but they did not deliver much in terms of electoral justice. The difference between Mr. Robert Kyagulanyi and Dr. Besigye is that the former has a massive following youth who have nothing to lose except their poverty and unemployment. And most of these youth are strategically located across the entire country, and can easily pull off a Ugandan Spring with ease.
The regional and international stakes of these elections cannot be underestimated. Uganda is situated at the centre of the Great Lakes Region, known for intra and inter-state armed conflicts. It is not clear whether any of the regional neighbours of Uganda have some vested interests in the upcoming elections. But for sure the international community that has hitherto been supportive of Mr. Yoweri Museveni’s earlier reformist ideology, are now interested to see a smooth transition to a genuine democratic dispensation. At the regional and continental level, there are protocols that call for rule of law, good governance and democracy among member states. Will Uganda’s 2021 elections ensure a smooth transition from Mr. Yoweri Museveni’s 34 years rule? We will only know after 14th January 2021.
*Odomaro Mubangizi (PhD) is Dean of the Philosophy Department at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis Ababa, where he also teaches social and political philosophy.
*Vick Lukwago Ssali (PhD) is a lecturer at the Department of English Language and Cultures, Aichi Gakuin University, Japan.
*Both authors belonged to Thomas More Writer’s Association during their undergraduate studies at Katigondo Major Seminary in Uganda. Their joint articles are a tribute to this association and its members that shaped their literary interests and skills at an early age.
Mutiibwa, P., The Buganda Factor in Uganda Politics, 2008 (p. 24).
Meredith, M., The State of Africa.2011
Francis and James, 2003; Mwenda, 2007; Ottaway, 1999; Tripp, 2010.